Environment

Murder in the Amazon heightens fears for isolated tribes

Alarm spreads among indigenous rights activists and forest defenders as intruders breach the boundaries of protected lands in Brazil.Sunday, 29 September 2019

By Scott Wallace
A lone officer from IBAMA keeps vigil at a sawmill in Boa Vista do Pacarana, Rondônia. In July 2019, agents from the environmental protection agency discovered widespread irregularities in the inventories of sawmills. They said much of the timber was taken illegally from three nearby indigenous reserves.

The recent murder of a rights activist assigned to protect isolated tribes in far western Brazil has raised fears for the security of the Amazon’s indigenous populations and those who defend them.

The worker, Maxciel Pareira dos Santos, was shot and killed on September 6 by an unidentified hit man riding on the back of a motorbike along the main street of Tabatinga, a frontier city near sprawling Javari Valley Indigenous Territory. The protected area harbours the largest concentration of uncontacted and isolated tribes in the world.

Santos had worked for 12 years for Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, manning a strategic outpost where two rivers lead into the depths of the 33,000-square-mile reserve, with its estimated 5,000 indigenous inhabitants. The post and its handful of personnel are all that stand between Javari’s rich biodiversity and a potential flood of newly emboldened timber and wildlife poachers.

The checkpoint has come under armed attack by would-be intruders five times since the beginning of the year, most recently on September 21. Days after the penultimate attack, by unidentified gunmen in mid-July, FUNAI agents and an escort of army soldiers caught poachers red-handed inside the reserve with 300 threatened Amazonian turtles and a cache of 40,000 turtle eggs.

Across the Brazilian Amazon, outlaws of every description—wildlife poachers, wildcat gold prospectors, land-hungry settlers, drug traffickers—are breaching the boundaries of indigenous lands. Efforts to protect these areas—seen by experts as a critical bulwark against deforestation—are faltering. By the end of August, the country’s National Space Research Institute estimated that some 3,500 fires were raging within the boundaries of nearly 150 indigenous territories. The presence of isolated tribes has been reported in at least 13. 

A group of Forest Guardians from the Guajajara tribe on patrol inside Arariboia Indigenous Territory, in the eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão. With minimal assistance from the Brazilian government, they're fighting to protect their land and a group of uncontacted Awá nomads from an ongoing invasion of criminal loggers.

“All this puts the isolated tribes at heightened risk, forcing them into a constant flight from the talons of these groups,” said Roque Paloschi, archbishop of Porto Velho, Rondônia and president of the Catholic rights group Indigenist Missionary Council. The group reported this week that invasions have increased from 111 in 76 indigenous lands in all of 2018 to 160 in 153 indigenous territories in the first eight months of this year.

“What will be their fate?” Antenor Vaz, a lifelong FUNAI field agent who now consults on issues relating to isolated tribes, wrote last month in an online post. “How many groups living in isolation have already been stricken?”

Critics point to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s strident anti-environmental posture and his blatant disdain for indigenous people as helping fuel a sense of impunity among the outlaws and a readiness to use violence against those who stand in their way. “He doesn’t authorise the violence,” said indigenous activist Beto Marubo, national liaison for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, “but the way he speaks is the same thing as authorising it.”

Fire damage within the core of Arariboia Indigenous Territory, which harbours an estimated 60 to 80 Awá nomads threatened by illegal loggers who covet the region's precious hardwoods.

Santos, affectionately called Maxi by Javari’s indigenous people, was a highly regarded friend with an exemplary work ethic who persevered in the face of danger, according to Marubo. Co-workers and indigenous leaders are calling his killing an “assassination” connected to his dedication to protecting the territory and its native inhabitants.

The incident has stirred deep unease. “It has created an atmosphere of trepidation,” said Marubo, “that if you work for indigenous rights or the environment or human rights the same thing could happen to you.”

A surge in illicit logging and mining

“The situation is critical,” said Carlos Travassos, a former director of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians who advises the Guajajara Forest Guardians, a group of native volunteers fighting a tide of illegal loggers in their eastern Amazonian homelands. Inside Arariboia Indigenous Territory, which the Guajajara share with an estimated 60 to 80 uncontacted Awá nomads, illicit logging operations have surged in recent months. (Follow the forces trying to stop illegal logging in the Amazon.)

Exceptionally this year, the tree thieves even continued felling timber in Arariboia during the rainy months from November till June, rather than awaiting the dry season to resume operations. Through it all, Travassos said, the Forest Guardians have been left on their own to fend off loggers, death threats, and most recently, brush fires. No support has been forthcoming from the federal agencies responsible for enforcing the law. “There’s a complete absence of control in the territory that could discourage the exploitation of timber,” he said.

Takapen is an Awá who was first contacted in the 1990s but prefers to roam the forests of Maranhão as an unassimilated nomad. Although most Awá have been contacted and now live in settled communities, as many as 100 uncontacted members of the tribe wander the forests in three separate reserves in Maranhão.
An Awá woman poses with her pet black-bearded saki monkey. Even the contacted Awá maintain a close bond with animals that inhabit their forests, which are under assault from loggers, gold miners, and settlers.

Even more alarming, the loggers are penetrating into the core of the reserve to steal the precious hardwoods that sustain the sensitive ecology the Awá depend on for survival. “They’re targeting timber exactly in the same area where the isolated Awá-Guajá live,” said Travassos, referring to the tribe by the compound name often used by anthropologists.

Meanwhile, responding to international outcry over his indifference to this year’s dramatic increase in Amazonian fires, President Bolsonaro ordered army troops and federal police forces into the field in late August in a belated attempt to curb the destruction. The deployments have provided a measure of security for environmental enforcement inspectors as they attempt to stem criminal logging, land clearing, and mineral prospecting in protected areas.

Yet agents from Brazil’s environmental protection service, IBAMA, and their federal police escorts were ambushed on August 30 near the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous Territory, in the state of Pará, as they sought to dismantle an illegal mining operation. The reserve is believed to harbour an isolated tribe. There were no casualties in the skirmish.

Pro-Bolsonaro politicians seized the moment to rail against IBAMA for destroying heavy machinery found on the site. They urged Bolsonaro to make good on promises to disallow the destruction of equipment by federal agents and to legalise mining operations on indigenous lands.

Illegal mining equipment in Rondonia.

“It’s lamentable. It’s sad. What country do we live in?” said an indignant Hilton Aguiar, a congressman from the state of Pará who advocates rolling back environment protections in favour of mining and logging interests. “I don’t understand the discourse of the president of the republic. One moment he is going to suspend [the destruction of equipment]. The next, he orders the furtherance of the persecution and mistreatment of the people of our state, of our region.”

In all of Brazil, the reserve most thoroughly infiltrated by outsiders may be Yanomami Indigenous Territory, along the northern border with Venezuela. The Yanomami Hutukara Association says 20,000 gold prospectors are operating there illegally. FUNAI’s estimates are lower—at 7,000. When army troops descended on one mining camp earlier this month, they encountered a small town of 600 squatters, with houses, shops, even a prostitution ring. Some 25,000 Yanomami live in scattered communities throughout the reserve. With only sporadic contact with the outside world, they’re powerless to stop the invasion.

Alarming levels of mercury—a highly toxic metal used to separate gold from the Amazon’s sandy sediments—have been found among Yanomami living near the operations, according to a 2016 study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a scientific research institution working to promote public health. FUNAI officials reported three years ago that one of the dozens of illegal gold strikes in the territory is no more than a few days’ walk from an uncontacted Yanomami community, raising fears that the villagers could be wiped out by disease or a spasm of violence. Severely constricted budgets and a lack of personnel have hampered FUNAI’s ability to respond to the gold rush.

An illegal gold strike in 2016 scars Yanomami Indigenous Territory, in the northern Amazonian state of Roraima. Using pressurised hoses and highly toxic mercury to separate gold from the sandy soils, illegal miners, known as garimpeiros, spread destruction throughout the Amazon. Thousands of miners are now operating illegally within the territory, and dangerously high levels of mercury have been found in Yanomami living near and downriver from gold strikes.

In the western Amazonian state of Rondônia, members of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe say their territory is being overrun by outsiders. For decades, they maintained amicable relations with their nonindigenous neighbors. Not anymore. “They tell us, ‘your land is so big, you don’t need it,’” said Awapy Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, one of the tribe’s young leaders, recalling recent exchanges with nearby townsfolk that echo Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. “They used to be our friends. Now they’re enemies.” (Watch: FUNAI released video clips of isolated indigenous peoples. Here's why it was controversial.)

Indigenous rights activists fear that Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve, which contains three uncontacted indigenous groups, could be swallowed by a wave of land prospectors and settlers within a few years if the government fails to intervene. The isolated nomads now wandering the depths of the reserve could perish without the outside world even knowing it, said Fiona Watson of the rights group Survival International in a phone interview from her home in London. One member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau recounted to Watson that settlers told him they’d spotted uncontacted tribesmen in the forest. “Next time we see them, we’re going to kill them,” one of the settlers reportedly boasted.

A lone officer from IBAMA keeps vigil at a sawmill in Boa Vista do Pacarana, Rondônia. In July 2019, agents from the environmental protection agency discovered widespread irregularities in the inventories of sawmills. They said much of the timber was taken illegally from three nearby indigenous reserves.

The picture isn’t uniformly bleak. FUNAI plans to reopen a post to control the flow of supplies into the illegal gold strikes in Yanomami territory sometime later this year. And in mid-September, a combined force from FUNAI, IBAMA, and the federal police destroyed nearly 60 gold dredges operating illegally on the Jutai River, on the eastern flank of Javari reserve. One source said the dredges were exploring an area dangerously close to a tribe known as the Flecheiros, or Arrow People, who are living in extreme isolation.

According to Watson, it’s not enough for authorities to launch occasional raids to break up the mining and logging rings. “They’ve got to go after the big fish,” she said. “They’ve got to start taking people to court and handing out sentences.”

The murder of Maxciel Pareira dos Santos in Tabatinga has heightened the sense of paranoia among FUNAI personnel who have been petitioning the agency’s leadership since March to provide security for field agents exposed to the mounting level of threats. So far, the pleas have gone unheeded.

A new poll released on September 24 by the indigenous rights group Instituto Socio-Ambiental shows that an overwhelming majority of Brazilians favor protecting the forests that hold the country's uncontacted and isolated tribes.

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