The Amazon rainforest’s most dogged defenders are in peril

By Salomé Gómez-Upegui

Someone has been killing the Guajajara Guardians of the Forest and other Indigenous defenders of the Amazon who protect against illegal land grabbers, loggers, and miners.

Many Guajajara members, along with those from hundreds of other Native groups in Brazil, live in constant danger. According to data from the Brazilian government’s Indigenous health service, in 2019 at least 113 Indigenous people were killed in the country, a majority of whom were “committed to the protection of the borders of their territories and fought against logging and mining.”

The Guajajara Guardians patrol their reserve, Araribóia, on foot, and occasionally on boats and motorcycles, constantly monitoring for signs of illegal activity — from deserted machinery to other indications of active logging — a guardian and chief from one of the Araribóia villages explained to Vox. Some of them are armed, though the chief stressed that the group uses nonviolence in their work. (Guardians who spoke to Vox for this story spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.)

Araribóia lies in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão and is one of the nearly 400 Indigenous reserves carved out under the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, which granted land rights to Indigenous groups. Many of these territories sit inside Earth’s largest rainforest: the Amazon.

The Guardians of the Forest were formed by the Guajajara tribe to protect its portion of the Amazon from illegal loggers, miners, and land grabbers.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Amazon spans nine South American countries and holds a staggering amount of life, including a third of all tropical trees; it also stores 123 billion tons of carbon. Some 60 percent of the Amazon is located within Brazil, which is home to more than 900,000 Indigenous people today. Studies have shown that lands managed by Indigenous peoples hold much of the world’s biodiversity, and a 2016 World Resources Institute report found that deforestation on Brazilian lands stewarded by Native groups was, on average, more than 50 percent lower than that of comparable areas.

Like Indigenous land protectors the world over, the Guajajara Guardians have taken it upon themselves to safeguard their tract of an ecosystem which Native peoples have lived in and helped shape for centuries. Groups like the Guardians could, in turn, alter the course of a rapidly approaching global ecological catastrophe. But despite their efforts, the last line of defense in the Amazon is being devastated.

Illegal forest activity in Brazil has escalated under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019. In the first half of 2021, nearly 900,000 acres of Brazil’s rainforest were wiped out, according to INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. New deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is at its highest annual level in a decade.

At the current rate, deforestation could transform swaths of the Amazon into savannas. This would release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, gravely affecting Earth’s climate system, and accelerating biodiversity loss toward a point of no return.

Now a suite of bills before Brazil’s Congress stand to further imperil the country’s Indigenous groups, who rely on the rainforest for their food, culture, health, and livelihoods. One of the bills, PL 490, would roll back Indigenous land rights and “open up Indigenous territories to wholesale destruction,” Christian Poirier, the program director at Amazon Watch, told Vox.

In this crucial moment for not only the rainforest but also biodiversity and the climate, Poirier and others involved in Amazon conservation believe empowering Indigenous land protectors, especially in Brazil, is key to averting the crisis. “If we lose the Amazon,” Poirier said, “it’s game over.”

A truck transporting illegally harvested Amazon rainforest logs, near the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve in 2012.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

How things got so dire for Brazil’s Indigenous land defenders

Brazil’s current political climate emboldens land grabbers and environmental corruption, which is intensifying the assaults on Indigenous communities.

Although illegal forest activity in the Brazilian Amazon’s Indigenous-managed reserves has a long history, Bolsonaro has made the situation more dire. Upon taking office in 2019, the populist president sparked outrage by declaring he would not give “one more centimeter” of protected land to Indigenous people. “Bolsonaro’s tenure has been likened to pouring gasoline on a fire,” Poirier said.

Amazon deforestation in the first seven months of Bolsonaro’s administration, for example, increased by 92 percent (compared with the same period in 2018). And the number of fines associated with deforestation dropped by 38 percent — one of the lowest levels over the past two decades. Through devastating viral imagery, the world now regularly witnesses raging fires associated with illegal logging, which currently accounts for 90 percent of all Amazon deforestation.

Satellite data shows that the 2021 Amazon fire season could be worse than 2020’s, which was worse than the infamous 2019 season. In June, under increasing pressure from world leaders to decrease forest loss in Brazil, Bolsonaro banned fires in the Amazon and redeployed troops to the region in hopes of stamping out illegal logging and other illicit land clearing. But experts, who aren’t convinced such efforts have worked in years past, are skeptical of the president’s commitment to stemming deforestation.

Satellite data shows this year’s Amazon fire season could be worse than 2020’s.
Christina Animashaun/Vox; Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project

Things have gotten so bad because Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and pro-agriculture policies have undermined environmental agencies and law enforcement, according to organizations like the World Resources Institute. Ricardo Salles, the country’s former environmental minister, resigned in June after becoming the focus of investigations into alleged illegal timber activities. (Salles has denied the allegations.)

“We are going through a very tough moment in Brazilian history,” Sen. Eliziane Gama, who represents the state of Maranhão, said at a public hearing in August. “There’s a lot of denialism, and many attempts to weaken our environmental policy.”

Reducing deforestation is not impossible. In fact, Brazil has done it before, by creating protected areas for Indigenous communities. But Bolsonaro’s policies have since normalized environmental crime in Indigenous-held regions.

These spaces are frequently invaded by ranchers, loggers, and land grabbers — known as grileiros — who work for the sophisticated unlawful groups that extract resources such as timber and gold and violently defend their interests. Around half of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is rooted in such illegal land grabbing. What’s more, data released in June by the MapBiomas Project (a group of nonprofits, universities, and technology firms that tracks land use) shows that nearly 99 percent of deforestation in Brazil had “indications of illegality.”

In Brazil, deforestation in Indigenous territories since Bolsonaro took office has been the highest in over a decade. And roughly 17 percent of total Amazon tree loss between 2000 and 2015 took place on nationally protected lands or Indigenous-assigned areas.

A federal police officer stands near a hardwood tree cut and stolen by loggers inside the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve in 2015.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

According to the Guardians of the Forest, the administration supports loggers and facilitates their access to Indigenous lands. “I think our worst enemy at the moment is Bolsonaro’s government,” a Guajajara school counselor and forest guardian said. The Araribóia village chief said that since Bolsonaro took office, their lives have gotten harder: “When he won, non-Indigenous people in the surrounding lands celebrated because they thought they would be able to subdivide our lands.”

So Guajajara tribal members have taken matters into their own hands.

The rise of the forest guardians

The role Indigenous communities play in rainforest conservation has become more and more essential in Brazil, given the increasingly weakened state of the nation’s environmental agencies. That some remote territories can be difficult for authorities to access makes the land defenders’ work even more important.

“Indigenous people have been extremely judicious in their use of land, leading to high-quality, natural landscapes,” reads a report by Amazon Frontlines, an advocacy organization for Indigenous land rights. “Because of this, indigenous lands will be instrumental in the quest for preserving the last intact forests on earth and, thus, tackling the climate crisis.”

Yet guardians said they are routinely left to fend for themselves in defending Araribóia, which contains almost half the remaining rainforest in the state of Maranhão.

They are an independent, volunteer-run group that’s been in the reserve since 2013, the village chief told Vox. There’s no official record of their existence and they receive no government financing or support, he added.

The Guajajara Guardians protect around 1,500 square miles of rainforest. The group is composed of roughly 130 tribal members, most of whom are men, and reports its findings to the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources and the Federal Police. But the guardians say they often don’t receive help, and when they do it’s too late.

“We have to do this job with our own hands and at a high cost,” the counselor and guardian said. “We pay it with our own lives.”

Indigenous people of Brazil carry a coffin and a flag reading “Bolsonaro Out” during a demonstration in support of tribal land rights outside the Supreme Court building in Brasília on August 26, 2021.
Eraldo Peres/AP
Indigenous protesters set a coffin on fire outside the presidential palace in Brasília, Brazil, on August 27, 2021.
Eraldo Peres/AP
Activists march near the Brazilian Embassy in London on August 25, 2021, in solidarity with the Indigenous people of Brazil.
Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Guardians face threats the moment they leave their homes. “Sometimes we don’t know if somebody, even from our own family, will tell them where we are,” the counselor said. Some guardians now avoid leaving their village and going into the city altogether. Others rely on their wives to run errands, and even then, their wives are threatened too.

Threats usually increase after completing a patrol, when “everybody panics, including women and children,” the counselor said. “We have to sleep in the forest with fear, and our families start resenting the fact that we went on the mission.”

Forty-two members of the Guajajara tribe alone were killed between 2000 and 2018. In November 2019, the tribe — one of the largest in Brazil — made international headlines when loggers killed forest guardian Paulo Paulino Guajajara; in March 2020, leader and teacher Zezico Guajajara, who also defended the rainforest, was shot dead returning to his village.

Many guardians are enrolled in a federal Human Rights Defenders Protection Program that promises to protect their safety and arrange monthly financial assistance for rent, food, travel, clothing, and medicine. Guardians who spoke to Vox questioned the program’s effectiveness — one referenced the high-profile killing of his uncle, Zezico Guajajara, who he claimed was enrolled. “I can assure you that nothing has been done,” he said. “His murderers were arrested, but they haven’t been through a trial yet.” As he sees it, the protection program is a formal requisite that the government uses to collect data, but doesn’t provide actual security or prevention.

Environmental and human rights defenders in the Amazon are extremely vulnerable, Amazon Watch’s Poirier said. More than 300 people have been killed due to conflict over land use and resources in the Amazon between 2009 and 2019, according to data provided to Human Rights Watch by the Pastoral Land Commission. Only 14 of those cases have gone to trial. “The perpetrators of crimes against them are so rarely brought to justice, that it sends a signal these crimes will be tolerated,” Poirier said.

In August, Indigenous groups in Brazil asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro for genocide and ecocide, arguing that he has advanced “an explicit, systematic and intentional anti-Indigenous policy.”

The Bolsonaro administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Indigenous communities need international help — and drones

In Brazil, what’s on paper and what’s in practice are two different things. And guardians say that even what’s on paper isn’t enough, making it difficult for Indigenous defenders of the Brazilian Amazon to trust in any follow-through from their own country.

As a party to both the Paris climate agreement and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — the single most important treaty to protect nature — Brazil has committed to eliminating illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. The country renewed this commitment in April 2021 at the Leaders Summit on Climate organized by US President Joe Biden, where Bolsonaro pledged to double Brazil’s environmental enforcement budget. The very next day, he approved a 24 percent cut to the country’s 2021 environmental budget — and still wants other nations to chip in funds to help solve Brazil’s deforestation problem.

Meanwhile, the avenue for designating Indigenous-held territories in Brazil continues to be constrained under Bolsonaro. The suite of legislation currently before Brazil’s Congress would block pathways for Indigenous people to reclaim areas that were seized from them before the 1988 constitution. The legislation would also validate the claims of squatters who currently occupy Indigenous lands illegally and permit mining in Indigenous areas without the consent of those living there, as Yale Environment 360’s Jill Langlois reported.

“It’s difficult to get Indigenous land demarcated, recognized, and ratified now,” an attorney and Guajajara tribal member told Langlois. “It will be impossible,” they said, should PL 490 pass and scrap the process that’s used to establish Indigenous lands.

There is no clear timeline for the legislation, though an international coalition of experts and financial institutions, along with the Climate Observatory and the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, is mobilizing against the bills. In late August, thousands of Indigenous people from across the country amassed outside Brazil’s Supreme Court to protest the expected landmark ruling.

The Guajajara Guardians of the Forest are locked in a bloody conflict with illegal loggers and animal poachers who are invading the Araribóia territory.
Scott Wallace/Getty Images
The guardians hope to gain material support from foreign governments and international organizations like the UN, should the Brazilian government fail to support them.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Who should be supporting guardians, then?

If the Brazilian federal government were intent on complying with its constitutional duties and its obligations under both the CBD and the Paris agreement — as well as the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, to which Brazil is also a signatory — it would commit to supporting and safeguarding Indigenous communities, experts and Native land protectors say. Like the guardians who spoke to Vox, Poirier believes the efforts of forest defenders wouldn’t be needed if the government simply made good on its responsibilities. “These lands need to be protected by the federal state,” Poirier said. This means funding agencies and institutions dedicated to environmental law enforcement, guaranteeing effective legal recourse to Indigenous communities, and disincentivizing those who perpetrate environmental crimes.

Guardians say they aren’t holding out for help from the Brazilian government. Instead, they’re hoping to garner more material support from foreign governments and international organizations like the UN, multilateral organizations, and nongovernmental organizations. Despite the fundamental part Indigenous communities play in preserving rainforests and other species- and carbon-rich habitats worldwide, they do not currently receive enough monetary support to safely and effectively fulfill this role.

More protective equipment like anti-bullet vests, as well as trucks or motorcycles to better patrol their territory, would be a start, the Araribóia village chief said. Access to surveillance drones would also decrease the danger of run-ins with loggers, he added.

A group of 32 Guajajara “women warriors” have found success protecting the nearby Caru Indigenous reserve, serving as a model for this kind of remote surveillance, as Rosamaria Loures and Sarah Sax have reported for Mongabay. (“Not all women do surveillance work because we know it is dangerous work,” Maísa Guajajara, one of the original women warriors, said. “But there are always some who do.”) The Caru guardians, who have 500 years of experience safeguarding intact forest in their territory, augment their strategy with satellite technology, drones, and cameras — and deforestation has dropped as a result.

This tracks with a recent pilot program that equipped Indigenous communities in the Amazon with satellite and GPS tech via an early alert” smartphone app, used to supplement their traditional land management practices. Criminals use a range of tactics, such as small-scale illegal logging, to avoid being spotted by satellites. With an upgraded toolkit, the study suggests, Indigenous communities in the Amazon — and in other parts of the world, from China to Costa Rica to Uganda — would be better able to fight deforestation.

Still, the guardians are taking on a titanic task.

Poirier said that North American and European countries, as some of the planet’s biggest carbon-emitting nations, have an obligation to provide resources to forest countries in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and Indonesia “to help strengthen the institutions, projects, and people that keep the forest standing.” By renouncing conflict commodities like illegal timber and illegally raised beef, he added, consumers and financial backers of Brazil’s worst actors need to use their power to reform the system away from a “business-as-usual scenario.”

Until then, the guardians’ task will be as big as the planet, “because the whole world needs fresh air and nature,” the Guajajara school counselor and guardian said. “This is our job, not only to save this territory but to help preserve nature in general.”