Brazil's 'Amazon Defenders'

Photographs and Text by Brent Stirton

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With Little Support, Indigenous Amazonians Defend Themselves From Illegal Loggers

This story was produced in partnership with Human Rights Watch

TI Governador is the ancestral territory of the Gavião people; it encompasses 42,000 hectares of Amazon forest. Governador has been noticeably affected by deforestation, with whole areas razed of trees, dry riverbeds and frequent forest fires. People of this region say that the old days were better, their forests held more animals for hunting, more fruit and there were no problems with loggers illegally cutting their timber.

To combat illegal logging, villagers here had run a regular forest guardian patrol until funding for indigenous NGOs dried up. Currently, there are no patrols due to that lack of funding. Three years ago this village confiscated logging vehicles by force which led to a confrontation with the loggers. The village was abandoned by the military police, who were supposed to protect them from the illegal loggers. The military police only returned a week later during which time the village had to defend themselves. Environmental defenders in Governador have been subjected to threats, death threats, intimidation, assault and armed attacks. Defenders reported receiving threatening anonymous calls usually after seizing a truck during one of the patrols; sometimes the callers would also issue death threats towards the defender or towards their whole village. Loggers residing in the neighboring town have intimidated and physically assaulted at least 2 indigenous leaders when they traveled to town. In one instance loggers intimidated shop owners in town so they wouldn’t sell gas to indigenous people for two weeks. To date, there seem to have been no killings of Gavião environmental defenders in retaliation for their activism.

Gavião people are ambivalent about the role of the State. Several environmental defenders have worked or continue to work with Funai, the specialised governmental agency for indigenous issues. They know well the limitations of the agency but also doubt its dedication to uphold their rights. Regarding the role of police and prosecutors, Gavião community leaders feel their grievances are rarely heard or tended to, however the slightest misstep of one of their own will be immediately criminalized. Many community leaders described feeling victimized and neglected by the authorities.

Studies conducted by Human Rights Watch point to the following facts:  Indigenous people in Maranhão are under great pressure from loggers and others who want to exploit timber and ultimately destroy the forest to grow crops or raise cattle. 

Despite some police operations against sawmills in the last couple of years, federal authorities are unable to protect indigenous lands from illegal loggers and other illegal activities. The Federal government has cut the budget of some agencies that are supposed to carry out such protection (Funai, Ibama, and ICMBio.)

Given the lack of sufficient action by the state, the Ka´apor, Gavião and Guajajara peoples have organized themselves to protect the forest through patrols. In addition, the Ka´apor have adopted an internal code of conduct to prevent that members of their own community work with loggers -- and to punish them if they do. Patrolling activities have made indigenous people targets of illegal loggers. Loggers threaten members of the patrols, and have attacked some of them.

The state is not properly investigating cases of violence against indigenous people, or taking effective measures to protect them. The state is not providing any support to indigenous peoples to help them protect their land from environmental crime. Recent studies show indigenous communities that have ownership rights to the land are good protectors of the forest.  Our on-the-ground research shows indigenous people have a key role in fighting deforestation, but they cannot be left alone to face the loggers. They need state support, which would mean a modest investment but could have positive environmental and social impacts.

Images from this series can be licensed via the Getty Images website.