Conservation news

‘Guardian of the Forest’ ambushed and murdered in Brazilian Amazon

Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in his head in an ambush by loggers in the Amazon. He was one of the "Guardians of the Forest,” a group of Guajajara indigenous people that risks their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia indigenous reserve. He posed for this photo with a bullet found in an illegal logging camp in Araribóia on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

  • Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a 26-years-old indigenous Guajajara leader was killed on Friday in an Amazon rainforest ambush allegedly by loggers in the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve, one of the country’s most threatened indigenous territories, which is located in Brazil’s Maranhão state.
  • Paulo was a member of “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of 120 indigenous Guajajara who risk their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia reserve. The Guardians also protect the uncontacted Awá Guajá hunter-gatherers — one of the most at risk indigenous groups on the planet.
  • Indigenous leader Laércio Guajajara, also a Guardian, was hit by gunfire too, but was able to escape and was later taken to a hospital, said indigenous chief Olímpio Iwyramu Guajajara, the Guardians’ leader. All three Guardians have reportedly been threatened by loggers recently.
  • Federal Police and Maranhão state police are investigating the attack, which also reportedly resulted in a logger being killed; Paulo’s body was buried on Sunday. The killing is the most recent in a rising tide of violence against indigenous activists since Jair Bolsonaro took power in January.

A young indigenous Guajajara leader was murdered reportedly by loggers Friday in the Brazilian Amazon, raising concerns about escalating violence against forest protectors under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Paulo Paulino Guajajara, 26-years-old, was shot in the head and killed in an ambush in the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve, in the Northeast state of Maranhão, indigenous chief Olímpio Iwyramu Guajajara confirmed to Mongabay. The murder was also confirmed on Friday night by Mídia Índia, a collective of indigenous communicators of various ethnicities.

Paulo was a member of “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of 120 indigenous Guajajara that risk their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia reserve, one of the country’s most threatened indigenous territories. The Guardians also act to protect the Awá Guajá people, an uncontacted group of hunter-gatherers described by NGO Survival International as the most threatened indigenous group on the planet.

Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in an ambush by loggers in the Amazon. He was one of the “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of Guajajara indigenous people that risks their lives fighting illegal logging in the Araribóia indigenous reserve. He posed for this picture on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

“It is very sad news. We lost one warrior who protected life and the forest… He was cowardly murdered because of his work to defend life… The Brazilian justice [system] has to punish the responsible,” Olímpio, the Guardians’ leader, told Mongabay.

Indigenous leader Laércio Guajajara, also a “Guardian,” was hit by two grazing shots in his back and his arm during the ambush, but was able to escape the scene and was later taken to a hospital, the chief said. According to Olímpio, all three have been threatened by loggers over the past several months.

“Guardians of the Forest” Paulo Paulino Guajajara (left) and Laércio Guajajara (right) pose for a photo before going on patrol in the Araribóia indigenous reserve, in Maranhão state, on Jan 30, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

The Federal Police and the Maranhão state police are investigating the case, which also reportedly resulted in a logger being killed; Paulo’s body was buried on Sunday.

FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency, issued a statement announcing the assignment of a special technical advisor and retired Federal Police officer to closely investigate the case. In a post on Twitter, Minister of Justice Sergio Moro said that no effort will be spared “to bring those responsible for this serious crime to justice.”

Indigenous Guajajara leader Laércio Guajajara, also a Guardian, was hit by two grazing shots by loggers in the Amazon. In this photo, he sets fire to an illegal logging camp on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

Rising violence under Temer and now Bolsonaro

Violence against indigenous peoples has escalated in Brazil over recent years, making it one of the most dangerous nations on earth for indigenous and environmental activists: 135 indigenous people were murdered in 2018, an increase of almost 23 percent from 2017, according to a report released last month by Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI).

The report also included preliminary data for 2019, noting 160 cases of land invasion, illegal exploitation of natural resources, and damage to property in 153 indigenous territories during the first nine months of the Bolsonaro administration. These figures mark a significant increase from 2018, when 111 incidents of these types were reported in just 76 indigenous territories over the entire year, according to CIMI.

The Guardians group was established late in 2012 and has since destroyed some 200 illegal logging camps within the indigenous reserve, according to Olímpio. He said the situation in Araribóia has worsened under the new government. The Guardians are currently setting up an NGO and a website in order to receive donations aimed at protecting the Araribóia territory.

“Guardians of the Forest” pose for a photo in the Araribóia indigenous reserve, in Maranhão state, on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

Since Bolsonaro took office in January, the president has announced controversial policies, including plans to open up indigenous reserves for large-scale mining and agribusiness, as well as measures to weaken environmental regulations and agencies. Although most of these policies have yet to be implemented, some critics say that Bolsonaro’s election and incendiary language have encouraged illegal loggers and land grabbers to encroach on indigenous lands in the Amazon and elsewhere, for which there is some hard evidence.

A response of outrage

The assassination of Guardian Paulo Paulino Guajajara immediately prompted  reactions from indigenous groups and international NGOs.

“To our regret, this is a finding of authorized genocide resulting from an alliance [of the Bolsonaro government] with agribusiness and businessmen… The ‘Guardians’ are doing their monitoring work but the [President’s] speech all the time of opening the Amazon for agribusiness and mining promotes this violence,” Sônia Guajajara, the leader of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, the National Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), told Mongabay.

APIB also released a note of regret following Paulo’s assassination, as did CIMI and the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), as well as NGOs Survival International, Greenpeace and Amazon Watch.

Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara (left) and Olímpio Iwyramu Guajajara (right), the leader of the “Guardians of the Forest,” show a tree targeted by loggers in the Araribóia indigenous reserve, in Maranhão state, on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

After leaving the hospital, the wounded Laércio was taken to a “safe-hiding place,” and he is out of danger for now, according to indigenous leader Sílvio Santana Guajajara. Sílvio told Mongabay by phone that Laércio is still in shock and has refused so far to give testimony to police.

However, the wounded Guardian immediately agreed to say a few words after Sílvio mentioned that a Mongabay reporter was on the line: “I will not stop. I will fight until the end,” Laércio told this reporter.

Olímpio reinforced Laércio’s statement: “While we exist we’ll be the defenders of the forest and life.”

When this reporter followed the Guardians on patrol for a documentary film in January, Paulo proudly showed us a video in which he ate the still pulsing heart of a land turtle — an ancestral ritual meant to protect him and make him stronger.

“Our culture is our life. It’s in our blood, and nature is always part of our life,” Paulo said in the documentary film released by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in May.

Today, the Thomson Reuters Foundation released a video of an interview with Paulo for the documentary film where he reports the threats faced by him to carry out his work as a Guardian. In the video, he also shows an ambush made by loggers to shoot the Guardians; he also complains about the lack of support from the authorities.

“[Our work is] very dangerous. One of the Guardians has already died. His name is Afonso. The logger killed him and nothing happened. The justice didn’t do anything, ”says Paulo in the video.

“Close to our village there is a white man who promised to kill me… because I defend the forest… They don’t arrest loggers, but they want to arrest the Guardians… We feel very alone here. With no help. We do need a lot of help and support in this land.”

Banner image: Indigenous Guajajara leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was killed in an ambush by loggers in the Brazilian Amazon. He posed for this photo with an empty shell found in an illegal logging camp within the Araribóia Reserve on Jan 31, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

Update (November 4, 2019): This article was updated to include the information that Paulo was buried on November 3 and to include a video with his statements in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in January.

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