Death stalks the Amazon as tribes and their defenders come under attack

Rights advocates anticipate calamity as Brazil moves to weaken the agency that has long worked to protect indigenous communities and their homelands.

Photograph by Nicolas Reynard, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Members of a 2002 expedition by the Brazilian agency FUNAI paddle down the Jutaí River in Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, in Amazonas state. The team, led by Sydney Possuelo, was on a three-month mission to gather information about an isolated tribe known as the Flecheiros, or Arrow People, without making contact with the group.

Photograph by Nicolas Reynard, Nat Geo Image Collection

Two members of the Forest Guardians, a group of 120 volunteers from the Guajajara tribe, were ambushed on November 1 by five gunmen while on a hunting trip inside their protected reserve. One of the men was killed instantly by a shotgun blast at close range. The other, wounded in the arm and back, fled for miles through forest and underbrush and is now in hiding.

Amazon

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Indigenous

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PERU

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America

LAUREN E. JAMES AND JOHN KAPPLER, NG STAFF.

SOURCE: INSTITUTO SOCIOAMBIENTAL (ISA)

The Forest Guardians—three of whom were killed in a single month in 2016—have been locked in an intensifying battle with illegal loggers invading their homeland, Arariboia Indigenous Territory, in the eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão. While the other deaths occurred outside the bounds of the territory, this month’s assault marked the first time Guardians have been ambushed inside the reserve. Besides the Guajajara, Arariboia harbors several dozen uncontacted Awá nomads, whom the Guardians have vowed to defend, together with the forests they depend on for survival.

The dead man, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, 26, and his fellow volunteers had been warning authorities for months that they were receiving a steady stream of death threats. Those issuing the threats cloaked themselves in anonymity. But the Guardians had little doubt who stood behind them: the same criminals who have been stealing their timber and endangering the lives of the Awá, a tribe living apart from the modern world that is especially vulnerable to contagious diseases and violence.

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Guajajara Forest Guardians Laercio Souza Silva, left, and Paulo Paulino, right, seen here in 2017 in Arariboia Indigenous Territory, in the eastern state of Maranhão, were ambushed inside the reserve by illegal loggers on November 1, 2019. Paulino was killed in the attack and Souza Silva was wounded.

The wounded Guardian, Tainaky Tehetehar, also known by his Portuguese name, Laércio Souza Silva Guajajara, received medical treatment and was later moved to an undisclosed location for his safety.

I was in Maranhão two years ago to report on the Guardians and the fate of the Awá for National Geographic. At the time, Paulino said he was using a pseudonym, Lobo Mau, or “Bad Wolf,” so “they won’t know my real name.” But loggers did know what he looked like—they had a photo of him on their cell phones. He said they’d been going around the city of Amarante, just outside the reserve, showing his image to Guajajara on the street, asking if anyone knew of his whereabouts. A friend’s tip-off had allowed him to evade an ambush and return safely to the reserve.

Paulino left behind a four-year-old son and his wife, who had worried about the dangers and privations imposed by her husband’s work with the Forest Guardians. “My wife goes hungry while I’m away,” Paulino told me. “I tell her I’m defending our land for our children and our future grandchildren.”

An increasingly perilous mission

Defending the land for future generations is becoming ever more perilous for Brazil’s indigenous people—and for the officials assigned to monitor the contentious frontier regions where the country’s uncontacted and isolated tribes continue to roam. (Experts use the terms “uncontacted” and “isolated” interchangeably to refer to indigenous communities that have chosen to live apart from the outside world in near-total independence from the world’s industrial economy.)

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Members of Sydney Possuelo's 2002 expedition, which included 20 indigenous scouts, smoke meat beneath palm fronds deep in Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory.

On October 31, and again on November 3, a key outpost controlling access to the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, nearly 1,600 miles west of the Guajajara’s territory, in the state of Amazonas, came under armed assault from wildlife poachers. Illegal loggers or poachers have attacked the control post eight times during the past 12 months.

The post is operated by the Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians. The department is a specialized unit in the indigenous affairs agency FUNAI, with the unique mission of protecting Brazil’s isolated and uncontacted indigenous people from forced contact by outsiders. Over the years through arduous, on-the-ground expeditions and aerial reconnaissance, the department’s field agents have confirmed the existence of 28 isolated tribes in Brazil and are investigating the presence of up to one hundred others.

Ten of those 28 tribes live within Javari Indigenous Territory, making it home to the world’s largest concentration of isolated indigenous communities in the world.

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Sydney Possuelo, then head of FUNAI's Department of Isolated Indians, gathers his thoughts while leading the 2002 fact-finding expedition through the land of an uncontacted tribe in Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory.

During the past three decades, the department has succeeded in winning legal protection for nearly 50,000 square miles of pristine forest along 11 Ethno-Environmental Protection Fronts, where it operates frontline bases scattered throughout the Brazilian Amazon. The policy has brought benefits far beyond protecting the tribes, according to Elias dos Santos Bigio, a 37-year FUNAI veteran of fact-finding missions to delineate the boundaries where tribal nomads roam in the depths of the Amazon.

“The territories of the isolados are highly preserved,” said Bigio, who retired from FUNAI in January and led the isolated Indians department for five years during the mid-2000s. “They’re important for the environment, biodiversity, the climate, for preserving sources of clean water. Those lands are crucial for the isolated groups, but they’re also important for all of us.”

Decades of painstaking work in jeopardy

For months, agents from the department have been clamoring for increased protection of the Javari reserve. On November 7, they got some relief when a federal court ordered the government of President Jair Bolsonaro to provide armed security to the main base and the four other outposts that guard the reserve.

Even so, current and former members of the department—all veterans of exacting campaigns in the deepest reaches of the Amazon rainforest—fear that the rhetoric and policies of the current government threaten to unravel decades painstaking work. According to field personnel, budget cuts during the past three years have greatly reduced the isolated Indians department’s operating capacity, forcing base closures and the withdrawal of personnel from key flashpoints. The proposed budget for the division of FUNAI that includes the isolated Indians department envisions even deeper cuts—a 40 percent reduction for the coming year.

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Members of the Specialized Inspection Group, an elite airborne unit within IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, search for illegal mining operations in Roosevelt Indigenous Territory, in Rondônia.

Veteran agents were unnerved in early October when FUNAI’s Bolsonaro-appointed president, Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva, replaced 15 coordinators within the agency’s hierarchy without warning. They took particular issue with the removal of Bruno da Cunha Araújo Pereira from the helm of the Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians. Pereira is a veteran of years of work in the Javari Valley. In the days before his removal, he helped oversee a coordinated strike with heliborne federal police and army units that destroyed dozens of gold dredges operating illegally along the Javari’s eastern flank.

“Bruno was carrying out his duties very well, with all the limitations he had to deal with,” says Antenor Vaz, 25-year veteran who retired from FUNAI in 2013 and now consults on issues involving isolated tribes. “We don’t understand why they removed Bruno from his post.”

Vaz was among a group of 15 indigenous leaders and former FUNAI officials who signed an open letter on October 5th protesting Pereira’s removal. The letter warned of a “genocide in progress” resulting from budget cuts and Bolsonaro’s pledges to open up indigenous territories, including the homelands of some uncontacted tribes, to mining and logging.

As early as April 2015, Bolsonaro was speaking his mind: "There is no indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin, and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians.” Then, while campaigning for the presidency in August 2018, he declared, “If I’m elected, I’ll serve a blow to FUNAI, a blow to the neck. There’s no other way. It’s not useful anymore.”

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A river snakes through Roosevelt Indigenous Territory. The reserve is home to 1,200 members of the Cinta Larga tribe and holds some of the largest diamond reserves in the world. The government of President Jair Bolsonaro wants to legalize mineral exploitation in indigenous territories throughout the Brazilian Amazon. Critics warn that mining will despoil the forest and pollute rivers, including those isolated tribes depend on for survival.

The open letter was followed a month later by a declaration by 33 current field agents from the isolated Indians department protesting Pereira’s removal and a possible “cascade effect” that could imperil the delicate work of the department’s 11 field coordinators who oversee the fronts that defend indigenous territories where isolated tribes are present. The signatories warned of the risk of a “paralysis of activities” at the frontline bases that could result in the abrogation of the government’s constitutional duties and international commitments to insure the integrity of indigenous lands and the security of the tribes.

From ‘contact to save’ to ‘save without contact’

Dating back to the start of the 20th century, FUNAI and its predecessor, the Indian Protection Service, was charged with contacting the Amazon’s indigenous peoples in advance of the expanding frontier. “Contact teams” were dispatched to woo the tribes from the jungle, seducing them with trade goods, such as machetes and axes, clothing and mirrors. It could take months, even years to bring a tribe in from the bush.

But despite their best efforts to safeguard their indigenous charges, field agents—called sertanistas—found that such “first contacts” almost invariably led to decimating epidemics. Tribes lacked immunological defenses to Western-borne diseases such as measles and influenza, and mortality rates among the newly contacted sometimes ran as high as 90 percent. The survivors were reduced to listlessness, much of their ancestral knowledge and spiritual beliefs crushed by grief and an abrupt end to their hunting-gathering way of life.

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Awá children play at a swimming hole in Carú reserve, in Maranhão.

Veteran sertanista Sydney Possuelo, overcome with disgust after supervising a series of contact campaigns during the early 1980s, led a movement within FUNAI to chart a new direction. The result amounted to a seismic paradigm shift.

FUNAI would no longer force contact on tribes still living in isolation in the Amazonian forests. Rather, agents would identify the lands where the tribes wandered and seek formal recognition for those territories. They would staff control posts to block intrusions of illegal hunters, loggers, miners. They would refrain from making contact. In a heartbeat, the sertanistas’ mission shifted from “contact to save” to “save without contact.”

The approach staked out a groundbreaking position later emulated by five other countries of South America that harbor uncontacted Amazonian tribes. It recognized the right of indigenous people to pursue their age-old ways of life on their own traditional lands—even for isolated communities to choose to remain apart from modern society. It embraced the notion that such groups require intact forests, abundant wildlife, and unpolluted rivers and streams to survive as vibrant cultures. It was a position that stood at the confluence of environmental protection and the defense of the right to self-determination.

The Department of Isolated Indians, later renamed to include protections for recently contacted groups, was created in 1987 to carry out the new mandate. Sydney Possuelo assumed command of the unit.

“The policy that I introduced is based in respect for those who are different from us,” Possuelo wrote in an email to National Geographic. At the same time, he said, it’s based in a commitment to “preserve their human rights and their immemorial territories.” (Read “Into the Amazon,” the story in the August 2003 issue of National Geographic about an expedition Possuelo led to gather information about a group of mysterious archers without making contact with them.)

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A group of Guajajara Forest Guardians patrols the forests in Arariboia Indigenous Territory. The Guardians are a homegrown force of indigenous volunteers who seek and confront illegal loggers and wildlife poachers in their lands.

‘A very dangerous mix’

All that effort is now threatening to unravel. The government of President Jair Bolsonaro is pushing to open up indigenous lands, including the homelands of some uncontacted tribes, to mining and logging. Invasions of native territories are on the upswing. Intruders, says former agent Bigio, are taking heart from Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental, anti-indigenous rhetoric and the disarray in FUNAI created by budget cuts and unexplained reshuffling of personnel.

In an official statement after the shake-up, FUNAI’s leadership said it was “natural with a new administration” to make such changes, which were “necessary for the implementation of new management goals.”

Field agents complain of gag orders imposed by the upper echelons of FUNAI and the environmental protection agency, IBAMA. But Pereira, who is still a FUNAI official and plans to return to his work defending isolated tribes on the Amazonian frontier, speaks out.

“The greatest concern that I have is the advance of outsiders—be they for projects authorized by the government or illegal players like loggers, miners, and land-grabbers—into the territories of the isolados,” Pereira told National Geographic by phone from his home in Brasilia. “At the same time, you have the crippling of FUNAI and the department to protect the isolated tribes. It’s a very dangerous mix.”

Scott Wallace is a professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and a frequent contributor to National Geographic. He is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @wallacescott and Instagram @sbwallace.