Eýy Cy, 31, holds his son in the main square of Governador village, where he is chief, in Governador Indigenous Territory in Maranhão State in June 2018. The Pyhcop Catiji people who live there have set up a group of “Forest Guardians,” who patrol the forest to detect illegal logging.

© 2018 Brent Stirton/Getty Images for Human Rights Watch

Three-quarters of the original rainforest in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão is gone, replaced mostly by cattle ranches. One of the few remaining pristine patches lies within the Araribóia indigenous territory, an area larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island that is the home to more than 10,000 Tenetehara and about 80 isolated Awá indigenous people.

But for years, loggers have been encroaching into Araribóia, bringing with them destruction and violence.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s repeated verbal attacks on environmental defenders have been music to the ears of the criminal networks that are largely driving the destruction of the Amazon. Those networks use tractors to open dirt tracks into public lands or indigenous territories to extract the most valuable timber. If not stopped, they eventually remove all vegetation, let it dry out, and then set it on fire to raise cattle or grow crops. To protect their business, they have repeatedly threatened, attacked, and even killed those who try to stop them, including indigenous people, small farmers, and enforcement agents.

On Nov. 1, five armed men whom the Tenetehara believe were engaged in illegal logging ambushed two Tenetehara men, Kwahu and Tainaky, near Lagoa Comprida. The armed men killed Kwahu and shot Tainaky in the back and the arm, but he survived. Tainaky is the Tenetehara name of Laércio Souza Silva. Kwahu’s nonindigenous name is Paulo Paulino Guajajara, also known as “Lobo Mau” (bad wolf).

There were plenty of warning signs that a tragedy like this one would occur. Last year, federal prosecutors sued federal and state authorities to force them to come up with a plan to fight illegal logging and protect indigenous people in Araribóia. But the authorities failed to come up with any plan in response.

I visited Araribóia in 2017 and 2018, and I documented dozens of cases of intimidation and threats by loggers, as my colleagues at Human Rights Watch and I detailed in a September report. The loggers were enraged that the Tenetehara had formed patrols that they call Wazayzar (“keepers of the culture”), also known as “forest guardians.” The guardians are community members who patrol the land in groups of as many as 15, some equipped with GPS devices so they can identify sites of illegal deforestation. The two Tenetehara attacked on Nov. 1 were forest guardians.

Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them, and the government is failing to protect both the defenders and the rainforest itself.

Leaders in Araribóia told me that they created the patrols because of the failure of the authorities to protect the forest. Agents of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, known as Ibama, told me themselves that the government’s efforts were insufficient. Ibama employed 1,600 inspectors in 2009, but a decade later it fields only 780 throughout the entire country. In Maranhão, a state the size of Italy, Ibama had just nine field inspectors in 2018 to monitor environmental crimes of all kinds, not just illegal deforestation.

In the last few years, finding themselves without protection from the state, other indigenous peoples in Maranhão followed the lead of Araribóia’s Tenetehara—who are also called Guajajara in Brazil—and created forest guardians.

 “We shouldn’t be doing it,” Iracadju Kaapor, a leader of the Kaapor indigenous people, told me. “It’s the duty of the federal and state governments, but since they are not protecting [the rainforest] now, we are the ones doing it.”

Since January, when Bolsonaro took office, the situation has only worsened, forest guardians say. “Loggers are not afraid now,” Tainaky told me in April. “The government encourages them to enter the indigenous territory.”

Bolsonaro has undermined Ibama, which he criticized as having created an “industry of fines,” even further. His administration has slashed its budget and created procedures that will delay payment of fines by people found responsible for illegal deforestation. On Nov. 1, the president suggested that Ibama agents “who block progress” be sent to a military base notorious during Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 as a place where security forces summarily executed political prisoners.

Attacks on the Amazon’s defenders have contributed to a spiraling crisis. Annual deforestation was already on the rise from 2012, reaching nearly 3,000 square miles in 2018. Preliminary data show that deforestation almost doubled from this September compared with the same period last year. Scientists worry that unchecked deforestation and rising temperatures may push the Amazon to a point beyond which it will be unable to produce enough rain to sustain itself and will start degrading, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and exacerbating global warming. Forest defenders play a crucial role in preventing the collapse of the ecosystem by providing on-the-ground information about illegal logging activities to authorities. But doing so puts them at risk.

More than 300 people have been killed during the last decade in conflicts over the use of Amazon land and resources, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Catholic Church that keeps a detailed registry of cases. Many of them were killed by loggers, the Pastoral Land Commission believes. Brazilian authorities do not even maintain a tally of the dead. Of the 300 killings, only 14 went to trial.

Nobody has been charged in the killing of 16 indigenous people since 2015 in the four communities I visited in Maranhão, including Araribóia. Indigenous leaders believe that at least half the killings were reprisals for their environmental protection work by loggers.

The Brazilian government needs to break this record of impunity and take urgent measures to dismantle the criminal networks that endanger the rainforest and the people who defend it. As long as the violence continues unchecked, so too will the destruction of the Amazon—the preservation of which is crucial to the world’s effort to mitigate climate change.