Rio de Janeiro – Paulo Paulino Guajajara knew a violent death could soon come his way.
Three other "guardians of the forest" – a squad of armed indigenous sentinels – had already been killed by land grabbers trying to knock down and develop one of the last remaining shards of forest in Maranhão state. Paulino would talk about this fear frequently, then swallow it down and head out on another patrol.
On Friday, those fears were realized. According to state authorities, Paulino and another guardian from the Guajajara tribe were out fetching water when at least five armed men surrounded them and opened fire. Paulino was hit in his neck. He died in the forest.
As deforestation in the Amazon surges under pro-development Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, threatening thousands of indigenous who live there, Paulino’s death has resonated, eliciting a flurry of media reports and promises by officials to act.
The governor of Maranhão state has announced the creation of a task force to protect indigenous life, and Justice Minister Sérgio Moro has vowed "to bring those responsible for this serious crime to justice."
The contest for land along the Amazon frontier – which pits ranchers, land grabbers and the indigenous against each another – has always been bloody. But as deforestation rises under Bolsonaro, who campaigned on promises to open the forest up for business, and enforcement of environmental regulations slacken, there’s widespread fear that Paulino’s death could just be the beginning.
In the first eight months of Bolsonaro’s tenure, government authorities wrote the fewest number of citations in at least two decades, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Deforestation over the same time period was more than double last year. An expanse of forest larger than Delaware has been lost this year alone.
The retreat of the federal state and the encroachments of developers has placed even more pressure on nontraditional actors working to protect the forest, from small time farmers and cops to indigenous tribes, widely seen by many conservationists as integral to maintaining the forest’s structural integrity.
Their work, however, is increasingly subject to threats and violence. In the last decade, according to the nongovernmental Pastoral Land Commission, more than 300 people have been killed while trying to protect the land.
That figure, experts say, is likely an undercount. In a frontier as vast as the Amazon, where police have few resources and where many killings happen in remote areas, many deaths receive little investigation.
"Some of the investigations were so bad and didn’t do basic things like an autopsy," said César Muñoz, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who investigated dozens of killings in the Amazon suspected of having been tied to land disputes. "The challenge is that because the investigations are really bad, some of the killings that happened should have been counted but weren’t."
All of the themes that define the forest dynamic at large – lax law enforcement, violence and impunity – have been playing out in the microcosm of Maranhão state.
Muñoz visited the state last year, interested in learning more about the so-called guardians of the forest, a band of 180 men patrolling the Arariboia Indigenous Territory. He found the threat of violence was pervasive. Three guardians had already been killed and many more were being threatened.
"It was very common that indigenous leaders were being threatened by loggers," he said. "It happened everywhere we looked and we didn’t find a single case where the authorities had pressed charges for the threats."
Some of the people facing those threats was Paulino’s own family.
"I’ve had a personal relationship with the family since I was a kid," said Gil Rodrigues, an official with the Indian Mission Council, an organization affiliated with the Catholic Church. They considered themselves wardens of what they described as the coração da mata, the heart of the forest.
From a young age, Rodrigues said, Paulino had been inculcated with those principles – a "youngster worried about preserving everything for the future generations."
He joined the guardians – sliding on a black vest, long rifle and long knife – and started patrolling the forest.
"An island in a sea of deforestation," was how Sarah Shenker, a Brazil researcher for Survival International, an advocacy organization for indigenous peoples, described their patch. Over the last three years, as she returned to Maranhão several times, she came to know Paulino well.
The last time she saw him was in April of this year, as the dry season was beginning – and as Amnesty International was warning "blood will be shed" if the government didn’t step in to protect the indigenous.
"I wouldn’t say that he was fearless," she said. "He, like all humans, had his fears, and one of his biggest fears was being killed. He said he could be killed at any minute, and used to say that all of the time."
During that April trip, Shenker traveled with the guardians deep into the forest to root out illegal logging. They found a logging camp, recently abandoned. The guardians set the camp ablaze, and Shenker remembered Paulino looking into the flames.
"It made him so angry, that here was this illegal logging camp, and there was trash everywhere, and they were going to profit from this while his people were going to suffer," she said.
He talked about his fears.
"I’m doing this and I’m putting my life at risk," he said. "But I see no other way."
Then he got back to his patrol.
The Washington Post