Click for sound
Click for sound
Deforestation, 1997-2018
Amazon region in Brazil
Click for sound
Click for sound

Defenders of
the Rainforest

The Fight to
Protect Brazil’s Amazon

By César Muñoz
Photographs by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

A sinewy man in his forties makes his way down a trail in the eastern fringe of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. It’s a midmorning in June, the beginning of the dry season, but the air is heavy with humidity and infused with the tang of rotting leaves and fresh growth, like an aerial tea. He stops and looks around, makes a bird chirp. Behind, other chirps respond.

Soon other men come, wearing faded t-shirts with a motley assortment of advertising. They walk lightly over the blanket of dead leaves, some wearing rubber boots, others with snake gaiters.

They don’t talk. They are alert.

The men are looking out for tell-tale signs of the greatest predator in their forest: the tire tracks, the log bridges, the swaths of land leveled to give way to trucks, and the piercing, voracious sound of the chainsaw.

We are in the remotest area of the Araribóia Indigenous Territory, the home of 12,000 Tenetehara Indigenous people, as well as about 80 Awá people who live in isolation, in the Brazilian state of Maranhão.

The men call themselves Wazayzar, which means “keeper of the culture.” What they “keep” is the forest. But to them, it’s the same thing.

The Ka’apor and Pycop Catiji of Maranhão state and the Tenetehara who live in Caru Indigenous territory have established similar patrols of “forest guardians.”

They patrol the land to detect illegal logging and report it to the authorities.

They are engaged in an unequal fight in defending the largest rainforest on earth from criminal networks that co-opt, intimidate, threaten, and, in some instances, kill those who get between their tractors and iron chains, and the timber.

The forest guardians are well aware that patrolling puts them at risk, but they see no choice. “It’s the duty of the government, but since they are not protecting it now, we are the ones doing it,” Iracadju Ka’apor, a Ka’apor village chief, told me.

The stakes of their fight are momentous for Brazil and for the planet. The Amazon absorbs and stores huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the main gas that causes the earth to heat up. The destruction of the forest releases it, fueling an already dangerous warming of the Earth.

Torching the Rainforest

The fires that are ravaging the rainforest today are the result of deforestation.

Gabriel Zacharias, who directs forest firefighting at IBAMA, Brazil’s main environmental agency, explained to me how that happens: loggers remove the most valuable trees leaving small clearings throughout the forest. “It’s like termites,” said Maranhão federal prosecutor Alexandre Soares.

Then they cut down the rest of the vegetation and let it dry on the ground. After the dry season arrives in June, they set the area on fire.

They either keep the land, most often to raise cattle, and in some areas for crops, or sell it using fabricated ownership deeds.

The area deforested in the Amazon almost doubled from January through August 2019, compared to the same period the previous year, according to preliminary official data. In August, there were 30,000 locations with active fires, the largest number since 2010.

Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president on January 1, 2019, vowing to expand agro-business and mining in the Amazon. His administration cut the budget for fighting forest fires by more than 30 percent. When satellite images showing red stains spreading through the Amazon made headlines around the world, he blamed non-governmental organizations for setting the fires to embarrass him. Only after Brazilian exporters complained that the government’s response to the fires was damaging the country’s image did president Bolsonaro deploy the armed forces to put them out.

But he has done very little to dismantle the criminal networks behind those fires and behind the violence against forest defenders.

Tales of Courage

Over almost two years, I have collected scores of stories of bravery and tragedy in Brazil’s Amazon.

Jaciane Guajajara (left) and Graça Guajajara remember their father Tomé Guajajara, who was killed in 2007 by loggers who invaded their village to recover a logging truck apprehended by Indigenous people inside the Araribóia Indigenous territory. Twelve years on, there has been no trial.

More than 300 people have died in conflicts over the use of land and resources in Amazonian states during the last decade, according to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese), a Catholic Church-affiliated NGO with offices in every Brazilian state. The commission is the only organization in Brazil that collects such data. Neither federal nor state authorities even keep a tally. Many of the victims were killed by people involved in illegal deforestation, the CPT believes.

I interviewed more than 170 people to learn the stories behind these numbers. Scores of them—relatives of the victims, witnesses, activists, and public officials—are themselves under threat from criminals who benefit from deforestation.

One of them is Osvalinda Pereira, a 50-year-old small farmer who breaks into a smile as she describes the pineapples, avocados, and bananas she and her husband, Daniel Pereira, 47, used to grow in their plot in the Areia land-reform settlement in Pará. The smile fades quickly when she recalls how they had to flee.

Osvalinda did not set out to be a forest defender. In 2010, she founded a women’s association and secured support from the Amazonian Environmental Research Institute (IPAM, in Portuguese), a Brazilian NGO, to help her and her neighbors develop sustainable organic agricultural practices. But the loggers who used the dirt roads in the settlement to access protected forests perceived even that as a threat.

Those loggers had been progressively taking over plots reserved for poor families in Areia, according to a 2013 internal report by INCRA, the federal agency in charge of the settlement. And yet, INCRA has done nothing to retake the land. The Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian environmental NGO, estimates that loggers operating in Areia illegally extracted 23,000 cubic meters of timber, worth 208 million reais (US$63 million at the time), from the Riozinho do Anfrísio Reserve just in 2017.

The criminal network operating in Areia is an example of what environmental enforcement officials call “ipê mafias,” referring to the ipê tree, whose wood is among the most valuable. Those networks coordinate large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber, illegal land grabbing and, in some cases, illegal mining.

The Areia criminal network deploys armed men to protect their activities and intimidate and kill those who obstruct them, residents told me. “They have organized armed groups. It’s a militia inside [the settlement],” Daniel Pereira said.

Since that first project with IPAM, loggers started threatening the couple and, eventually, the Pereiras sought help from the authorities and denounced the illegal logging. “I told the loggers that if I was killed, everyone would know it was them, because I had reported their names,” Osvalinda told me. The couple believes speaking out publicly offers them some protection and that’s why they want their real names used.

But the publicity has not stopped the threats.

In 2018, someone dug simulated graves, with mounds of soil and crosses on top, in their yard. “I felt Daniel and I were already buried there,” said Osvalinda Pereira. And so they fled their home and the state. They now long to go back to their avocados and pineapples.

In Maranhão, where the Amazon transitions into a savannah, three quarters of the original rainforest is already gone. Most of what remains lies within Indigenous territories, a federal reserve, and other protected areas.

Logging towns encircle them.

In Governador Indigenous territory, for example, a barbed-wire fence marks the border between cattle ranches, mostly devoid of trees, and the forest that is home to the Pyhcop Catiji people.

About five kilometers outside Governador Indigenous territory, on the outskirts of the town of Amarante do Maranhão, I found two sawmills, hooked up to electric power from the town’s grid. One of them was in the open, unobscured by any fences or trees, a few hundred meters from a main road.

I brought photographs of the sawmills to the civil police station—the force tasked with investigating crimes in Brazil. A civil police officer confirmed the sawmills were both illegal, but neither noted their location nor asked for copies of the photographs. “Show them to the military police,” he said, and turned to his pile of papers. I sent the GPS location and images to federal police and prosecutors twice and told a federal police officer on the phone, but I never received an answer.

“We feel cornered,” said Eýy Cy, the 31-year-old chief of Governador, the village of brick houses and wooden thatched homes that gives the name to the territory.

In a span of a few kilometers along a dirt road that leads from the ranches into Governador, I saw five dirt roads that loggers had torn open with tractors to access trees within the Indigenous territory. One dirt road led to an area where loggers had cut down several ipês.

“I feel pain in my heart (when I see it) because we, the Pycop Catiji people, believe there is life after death, that our spirits transform themselves into trees, into animals,” Eýy Cy said. “We are part of the forest.”

Indigenous people in Maranhão depend on the forest for fruits; fish; and animals; building materials, natural medicine, and materials for handicrafts.

The forest also provides them with pigments for body paints; and raw material for musical instruments that they use in their rituals.

More than a source of materials, the forest is the essence of their very culture; songs, dances, and ceremonies are about nature and their place in it, now and in the afterlife.

As deforestation has picked up in the Amazon since 2012, Brazil has reduced the budget and staff of its federal environmental agencies. In 2018, IBAMA had only nine field inspectors to monitor environmental crime of all kinds—not only deforestation—for the entire Maranhão, a state larger than Italy, the regional director told me.

The weakening of environmental law enforcement has spurred Indigenous peoples to step up their forest protection activities, but has also put them—and anyone who reports illegal logging—at greater risk. That danger is compounded by a long record of impunity.

Of the more than 300 killings in Amazonian states documented by the Pastoral Land Commission during the last decade, only 14 resulted in trial. Violence continues “because nobody is punished,” said Deborah Duprat, director of the human rights unit at the Attorney General’s Office.

I asked police and prosecutors across the region why killers are so rarely held accountable. They often answered that the crimes occur in remote locations. However, I found serious flaws in the investigations of killings that occurred in urban centers. Eusebio Ka’apor, an Indigenous leader who contributed to the creation of the Ka’apor forest guardians, died in a hospital in a town with a police station after being shot in 2015, and yet, no autopsy was performed. And Davi Mulato Gavião was killed in a town plaza less than a kilometer from the police station in 2018, and yet, it took investigators more than 30 hours to visit the crime scene, police themselves told me.

I also found that when the killing attracts national media attention, police are much more likely to conduct investigations that lead to criminal charges, even in remote locations. That shows that it can be done.

Bolsonaro’s Anti-Environmental Policies

Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president on a platform of “law and order.” Yet his vision of “law and order” appears not to apply to the criminal networks that are responsible for much of the destruction of the Amazon and the threats and violence against forest defenders. Instead, Bolsonaro has called on environmental agents to stop destroying loggers’ equipment, a legal power than is key to effectively fight illegal logging and preserve the agents’ safety.

He has lambasted environmental agencies –which he calls “industries of fines”—, civil society organizations that defend environmental and Indigenous rights, and European countries, which he accuses of promoting preservation of the Amazon to exploit its riches for themselves in the future. “Brazil is like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for,” Bolsonaro said.

Loggers seem to have heard his message loud and clear. In July 2019, arsonists burned two bridges and a fuel truck delivering gas for anti-logging operations in two states. Federal and state prosecutors told me they have received increasing reports of threats against forest defenders. Loggers “believe that they will be able to do whatever they want” with Bolsonaro in power, a high-level IBAMA official who requested anonymity told me. “They believe that IBAMA won’t be able to impose fines on them or destroy their equipment.”

In fact, the number of deforestation-related fines issued by IBAMA in Amazonian states fell by 42 percent during President Bolsonaro’s first eight months in office, compared to the same period in 2018.

When INPE, the federal space research agency that publishes Brazil’s official deforestation data, warned in July of the exploding destruction of the Amazon region, President Bolsonaro accused it of lying and fired its director.

A Collective Fight

As its contribution to curbing climate change, Brazil committed to eliminating illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. If it does not rein in the criminal networks that are largely driving it, Brazil won’t be able to fulfill that pledge.

The deployment of the armed forces to put out the fires does not address the underlying problem. What is needed is a plan of action from the government to dismantle the criminal networks that now operate with near total impunity in the Amazon, threatening and attacking the forest defenders who attempt to stop them.

Brazil’s democratic institutions—including its judicial system, Congress, prosecutors, public defenders, and governors—, civil society, and the international community should press the government to uphold the law—both environmental and criminal—in the Amazon. And they should support the Indigenous people, small farmers, and environmental law enforcement agents who risk their lives to save the country’s natural treasures.

Footage by Human Rights Watch, additional footage by Getty Images.

Read the report »

More on Human Rights Watch’s work on Brazil »