ARARIBOIA TERRITORY, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Following traditional rituals, indigenous chief Olimpio Santos Guajajara paints his face with red dye from urucum seeds as he prepares to go on patrol to protect Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
He is the leader of about 120 Guajajara Indians who call themselves “guardians of the forest” and fight illegal logging in the Amazon where rainforest destruction hit the highest level in a decade in 2018, according to government data.
On a rarely permitted visit, the Thomson Reuters Foundation followed 12 “guardians” on a three-day patrol in the northeast state of Maranhao where they set fire to an illegal logging camp and to piles of timber ready to be sold.
“Today our land is under threat ... Logging, fishing and hunting are all forbidden on indigenous lands by law,” said Santos, wearing string necklaces with tattoos lining both arms.
“It’s destroying our lives. It’s destroying our culture.”
But he said the government had failed to clamp down on illegal logging and concerns about land are escalating with no sign of an end to the encroachments which was fuelling violence.
“We take action ... and are defending the law,” he said, explaining that the face paint was an appeal to “Mother Forest” to protect the guardians.
“It is a very big war that we are facing still today.”
Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of the population and live on reservations that account for 13 percent of the country. They are increasingly concerned about illegal logging and agriculture encroaching on the jungle.
Brazil led the world in rainforest destruction in 2018, according to independent monitoring group Global Forest Watch..
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that more than a quarter of the Amazon rainforest will be without trees by 2030 if the current rate of deforestation continues.
The Arariboia territory where the Guajajara live is also home to the Awa Indians, hunter-gatherers whom indigenous rights group Survival International has described as the most threatened tribe in the world.
Bruno Pereira, coordinator for uncontacted tribes at FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, said this tension has led to the emergence of forest vigilante groups, or guardians, across the Amazon, with fears conflicts will escalate.
But he said it was a complicated situation as loggers paid some of the locals to co-opt them into their activities which was also pitting indigenous tribes against each other.
“Whole towns have been built on the proceeds from illegal logging inside the indigenous lands. It is an extremely violent region,” Pereira said.
“There are even conflicts among themselves as they are trying to survive within their land ... I don’t think they (the guardians) are acting in the best way but I do understand that they are so desperate that they have to act like this.”
Santos said at least three Guajajara Indians had been killed in conflicts with illegal loggers since the group started in 2012. Some estimates put the number of land activists murdered across the Amazon as high as 80.
Human rights groups have voiced fears that the situation could get worse under Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who put indigenous land decisions under the Ministry of Agriculture, sparking concerns that more land would be opened to farming.
But on May 9, a congressional committee voted to reverse President Bolsonaro’s decree giving the Agriculture Ministry power to define tribal lands and removing the country’s indigenous affairs agency from the Justice Ministry.
The decision must still be ratified by the full lower house of Congress and then the Senate.
But Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias said the administration’s push to repeal a ban on commercial farming on indigenous land was in response to requests from indigenous people themselves.
“Since I was a congresswoman (in 2015-2018) I received more than 150 indigenous people saying: ‘we would like to be able to lease a plot of land in our area’,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her office in Brasilia, the capital.
This would be on land that has already been cleared rather than deforesting new areas, she added.
“So they (indigenous people) would like the law to be changed ... so that they can lease and produce on the land. The ideal is they produce in their own areas,” she said.
Not everyone agrees, however.
Joenia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman to be elected to Brazil’s Congress, said indigenous people have the right to receive full government support to farm their land “but this does not justify opening indigenous land up for leasing”.
The guardians’ work against illegal logging is widely recognized by government bodies in charge of protecting indigenous rights and the environment.
But although citizens’ arrests are legal under certain circumstances, authorities have warned against the danger of indigenous people going head-to-head with loggers and taking justice into their own hands.
“The guardians inform us and make reports for us (on logging),” said Cassandra Parazi, federal police chief in Maranhao’s capital Sao Luis in an interview in her office.
“But it’s important that they remain vigilant, this kind of initiative to attack and try to defend (the land) with their own hands is dangerous, it is reckless.”
Parazi said the federal police and environmental protection agency Ibama have conducted about a dozen operations in Maranhao state since 2015, destroying sawmills and logging camps, but this was not enough to halt illegal logging in the region.
Corruption was also hampering efforts to protect the land.
“The area is so big, it needs more investment ... There are few roads and a lot of rivers. So (illegal logging) is easy to cover up,” she said. “It is very easy to hide in the woods.”
The guardians patrol entrances to the forest used by trucks and cars where they approach and identify any illegal logging activity and expel those involved from the land, Santos said.
During a night patrol followed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a balaclava-clad guardian interrogated a Guajajara Indian whom he suspected of working with illegal loggers.
“You think this is a joke? It’s not,” he said, as the man denied any involvement with logging.
“If we find out you’re deceiving us, that you’re lying, it will be much more complicated for you,” another guardian said.
Roberto Cabral Borges, coordinator of operations and enforcement at Ibama, said he worried that escalating violence with illegal loggers could make the area even more dangerous.
“Something that started as an environmental crime could be placed aside and become a generalized conflict in the area,” Borges said.
Since the guardians were set up in late 2012, they have destroyed some 200 logging camps, Santos said, adding that the group was setting up a charity and a website for donations.
“I ask the world to look at our struggle and recognize our activities as legal ... because we are fighting for our lives and also for the lungs of the world,” he said, gazing at a pile of burning wood.
Laercio Souza Silva Guajajara, another guardian, said the group was “not a militia”.
“We are defending life, we are not killing anyone. It’s our fight for the children, for the old, for the whole world,” he said, his face and body painted with black dye from jenipapo fruit and wearing a camouflage hat.
“If we wait for the government nothing will happen ... We’ll fight until the end, until the last breath.”
Reporting by Karla Mendes, Editing by Zoe Tabary and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org