According to data from the Brazilian government’s Indigenous Health Service, in 2019, at least 113 indigenous people were killed in Brazil, the vast majority of whom were committed to the protection of territorial borders and who fought against logging and mining.
Currently, in the Amazon, 1 indigenous activist is killed every 2 days.
Brazil is home to roughly 900,000 indigenous people who have contributed to the very fabric of the forest by domesticating plants as far as 10,000 years ago. Studies show that lands managed by indigenous peoples still hold much of the world’s biodiversity and deforestation in indigenous territories is half of that in comparable areas.
The current political climate, marked by a rise in illegal forest activity under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, has emboldened land grabbers and environmental corruption, intensifying threats to indigenous communities and driving deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to its highest annual level in a decade.
According to INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, in the first half of 2021, nearly 900,000 acres of Brazil’s rainforest were wiped out.
The weakened state of the nation’s environmental agencies under the Bolsonaro administration has only amplified the important role indigenous communities play in rainforest conservation. The Guajajara Guardians of the Forest, who have patrolled the Araribóia reserve since 2013, and other indigenous defenders of the forest protect the Amazon against illegal land grabbers, poachers, loggers, and miners.
Araribóia lies in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão and is one of the nearly 400 indigenous reserves identified under the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, which granted land rights to indigenous peoples. Many of these territories are located in the Amazon. Araribóia, furthermore, contains nearly half of the remaining rainforest in Maranhão.
The Guajajara Guardians protect nearly 1,500 square miles of rainforest, composed of roughly 130 tribe members, and report their findings to both the Federal Police and the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.
Furthemore, the Guajajara “women warriors,” with 500 years of experience in safeguarding the natural landscape, protect the nearby Caru Indigenous reserve. In recent years, they have augmented their conservation strategy with satellite technology, drones, and cameras—causing deforestation rates to fall.
These indigenous activists, however, are risking their lives to protect the land and ecosystems they have sustainably depended on for centuries. Between 2000 and 2018, 42 members of the Guajajara tribe alone were killed. Furthermore, besides the risk to their lives, criminalization demonizes Earth Defenders, often alienating them from their communities and support networks due to the accompanying stigma and shame.
The federal government must take a more active role in protecting the land and defenders of the Amazon by funding, rather than limiting, agencies and institutions dedicated to environmental law enforcement. It must, furthermore, guarantee equal and effective legal recourse to indigenous communities affected by exploitative practices. Lastly, the government must abandon the passive approach it has recently adopted towards enforcing environmental protection and disincentivize those who perpetrate environmental crimes by taking proper legal action.
Meanwhile, the government must recognize the right of indigenous people to pursue their age-old ways of life on their own traditional lands, meaning that isolated communities must have the right to self-determination—the choice to remain apart from modern society. In other words, the government must embrace the principle of “save without contact,” acknowledging that indigenous communities require intact forests, abundant wildlife, and unpolluted water sources to survive. Ultimately, if the property rights of indigenous populations over their territories are recognized and fully protected by civil authorities, they have the capacity to become the most effective Amazon forest guardians in Brazil.
Clara Rabbani is a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago, majoring in Anthropology with a minor in Urban and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about poetry and is the editor of “The World is Waking Up: Poetry of Resistance from Youth Around The World”. With a Brazilian and Iranian background, she is also fascinated with the diversity of human cultures and their intersection with environmentally sustainable practices. She will be collaborating as the Environmental Writer for Brazil.