- Zezico Rodrigues Guajarara, a teacher from the Arariboia indigenous reserve in northeastern Maranhão state, was found shot dead on March 31. The motive for the killing remains unknown.
- He is the fifth Guajajara indigenous leader to be slain since November in the lawless frontier region dominated by powerful landowners and logging mafias.
- Indigenous leader Olímpio Iwyramu Guajajara, who is himself under state protection following an earlier killing of a prominent community member, told Mongabay he felt “particularly vulnerable in our territory.”
- Zezico had long reportedly received death threats from both indigenous and non-indigenous people involved with illegal logging. The federal police have been called in to investigate the murder.
Indigenous leaders and activists in Brazil are demanding justice after the latest murder of a Guajajara indigenous leader in Maranhão state on the eastern edge of the Amazon.
Zezico Rodrigues Guajarara, a teacher from the Arariboia indigenous reserve, was found shot dead at lunchtime on March 31, his body riddled with shotgun wounds, on a dirt road near the village of Zutiwa where he lived with 1,000 Guajajara members, local media reported.
He is the fifth Guajajara leader to be killed since November in the lawless frontier region that is dominated by powerful landowners and logging mafias.
“What’s happening is very sad. It could have happened to me too,” indigenous leader Olímpio Iwyramu Guajajara told Mongabay. “I particularly feel very vulnerable in our territory.”
The murder comes as many of Brazil’s indigenous communities across the country close access to villages to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The first case of COVID-19 among indigenous people was confirmed this week, raising concerns about the spread of the pandemic and its effects on native people.
Zezico was an outspoken supporter of “Guardians of the Forest,” a group of about 120 Guajajara formed in 2013 and led by Olímpio to combat logging gangs.
In November last year, prominent member Paulo Paulino Guajajara was murdered. Like Zezico, he had long received death threats.
“We all have received threats since we’ve started our activities [against the loggers]. But in the past they were just threats; now they are killing us,” said Olímpio, who has been under state human rights protection since Paulino’s murder.
The vast Arariboia reserve where Zezico lived with around 5,300 of his fellow Guajajara people, as well an unknown number of Awá Guajá isolated indigenous people, contains much of what remains of Maranhão state’s valuable Amazonian hardwoods and is flanked by cattle farms and plantations.
The Guajajara are one of Brazil’s biggest indigenous groups with nearly 27,000 members, according to the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA); the Awá Guajá are hunter-gatherers described by the NGO Survival International as the most threatened tribe on the planet.
The exact motive behind Zezico’s killing remains unknown. The federal police have been called to investigate the murder, Brazil’s National Indigenous Agency (FUNAI) confirmed to Mongabay in a statement.
Zezico had long reportedly received death threats. In 2017, he told the American writer and journalism professor Scott Wallace that he was “the most wanted of the leaders by the invaders and pistoleiros (gunslingers).”
Rubens Valente, author of Rifles and Arrows — A history of indigenous blood and dictatorship resistance, reported in his UOL news column that Zezico had written a letter to FUNAI in January saying that he was being threatened by other indigenous people.
Olímpio confirmed to Mongabay that Zezico had received death threats from both non-indigenous and indigenous people involved with illegal logging.
“We know that there are some indigenous leaders involved with corruption and illegal loggers,” he said.
A growing number of indigenous people in the region have become influenced by President Jair Bolsonaro’s talk of opening up indigenous lands to commercial farming, enticed by local landowners, said Gilderlan Rodrigues, the Maranhão regional coordinator for Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a monitoring group that is part of the Catholic Church.
“This discourse has entered the villages and contaminated some of the leaders,” he told Mongabay. “Zezico would have never accepted that this model arrived in the village.”
According to Rodrigues, at least two meetings on the subject were held last year, one in the town of Grajaú, near the Arariboia reserve, and a public audience in Imperatriz, Maranhão’s second-largest city.
He said the meetings cited the example of the Paresí indigenous community in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso, who rent their land to farmers who provide financial backing for, then profit from, an 18,000-hectare (44,500-acre) grain plantation.
Last month, in a televised interview, FUNAI president and former federal police chief Marcelo Xavier touted the Paresí model as “ethno development” that provides “jobs to [indigenous people] to stay in the villages, supported by a sustainable activity.”
“It’s a false idea of prosperity, saying they’ve improved their lives,” Rodrigues said. “They’ve destroyed the territory, delivered it into the hands of farmers.”
Additional reporting by Karla Mendes.
Banner image: Zezico Rodrigues Guajarara, a teacher from the Arariboia indigenous reserve in Maranhão state, was found shot dead on March 31. He is the fifth Guajajara leader to be killed since November 2019. Image reproduced from Zezico’s Facebook profile.
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