Emboldened by Bolsonaro, Illegal Loggers in Amazon Kill Indigenous Leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara

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An indigenous forest protector named Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in the Amazon by illegal loggers on Saturday. It is the latest incident in a wave of violence targeting indigenous land protectors since the election of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro last year. Guajajara was killed when he and another forest protector were ambushed by a group of illegal loggers inside the Araribóia reservation in the northeastern state of Maranhão. We speak with João Coimbra Sousa, a field coordinator and legal adviser for Amazon Watch, in São Luís in the northeastern state of Maranhão. And in San Francisco, we speak with Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where an indigenous forest protector named Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in the Amazon by illegal loggers on Saturday. It’s the latest attack in a wave of violence targeting indigenous land protectors since the election of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro last year. Guajajara was killed when he and another forest protector were ambushed by a group of illegal loggers inside the Araribóia reservation in the northeastern state of Maranhão. He was part of a group called Guardians of the Forest. Guajajara spoke to Reuters in September about his efforts to save the Amazon.

PAULO PAULINO GUAJAJARA: [translated] We are protecting our land and the life on it — the animals, the birds, even the tribe who are here, too. There is so much destruction of nature happening, including trees with wood as hard as steel being cut down and taken away. … I’m scared sometimes, but we have to lift up our heads and act. We are here fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: Attacks against indigenous people in the Amazon have spiked since Bolsonaro came to office. His administration has worked to open the Amazon even further to logging, mining and agribusiness companies while violating the land rights of indigenous peoples. Earlier this year, eight former environment ministers warned Bolsonaro’s administration was systematically destroying Brazil’s environmental policies, with one former minister saying Brazil is becoming an “exterminator of the future.”

To find out more about the situation in the Amazon and the murder, we speak to two guests. João Coimbra Sousa is a field coordinator and legal adviser for Amazon Watch. He’s joining us from São Luís in the northeastern state of Maranhão, the state where Paulo Paulino Guajajara was murdered. And in San Francisco, Christian Poirier is program director at Amazon Watch.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to Brazil to speak with our first guest, João Coimbra. Can you explain what took place in the Amazon, what you understand happened to this guardian of the Amazon?

JOÃO COIMBRA SOUSA: First of all, good morning. Thank you, Amy, for having me.

So, the situation that the Guardians of the Forest face today is the struggle for survival and the protections of their way of living. The indigenous people of the Amazon, they have little protection from the state government — from the federal government. And, as you said, Amy, the rhetoric from Bolsonaro’s speeches further entitles landowners and logging and illegal miners to invade furthermore indigenous lands. So, the struggle that — the plight that indigenous people have is to protect the forest, to protect their way of living and their whole life.

So, what happened to Paulo Paulino is that he went hunting with his cousin, when they were ambushed by five gunmen. And Laercio, luckily enough, he was shot in the arm, so he could hide. Unfortunately, Paulo Paulino was fatally shot in the head and died right away. Laercio then, the other Guardian of the Forest, as you said, Laercio Guajajara, he ran 10 kilometers, while wounded, to a close-by aldeia, which is how indigenous villages are called here in Brazil. Then he was helped by his fellow Guajajara and took to a hospital. And this is why we know all of this in such great detail.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip right now of the Guardians of the Forest that was produced by Survival International. Paulo Paulino appears in the clip as the Guardians coordinator Olimpio Guajajara warns of the risks to their lives.

OLIMPIO GUAJAJARA: [translated] We’re here in the Araribóia indigenous territory. We are the Guardians of the Forest. Loggers are paying gunmen to kill some of the Guardians of Araribóia. We’re all worried about these threats. Gunshots have been fired at some of the Guardians’ houses. We don’t want war, we want to resist. Here in Araribóia there are two indigenous peoples, the Guajajara and the Awá, who are the most vulnerable people in the world. We want the Brazilian authorities to help protect the lives of the Guardians whose lives are threatened.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I’d like to bring in Christian Poirier, as well, into this conversation, program director at Amazon Watch. If you could talk about the community you have worked with, as well, the Guajajara, one of the largest indigenous groups in Brazil, and talk about who the Guardians are and how what they’re fighting fits into the whole fight for sustainability on the planet and to save the lungs of the planet, the Amazon rainforest?

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: Yes. Thank you, Amy.

The Guajajara, like other indigenous groups in Brazil, have been abandoned by the state to defend their territories with volunteer groups basically policing massive territories. Araribóia territory is 1,600 square miles. That’s larger than Rhode Island. And they’re doing this without any federal support. And what they’re doing to defend these territories — these are some of the last forests left in the state of Maranhão, which is the state that straddles both the Amazon and the Cerrado biomes, incredibly important forests that are left in this area — they’re doing this on behalf of all of humanity, because they are protecting the critically important Amazon forests that sustain our climate, protect our climate, power or, I should say, fuel the rainfall all over Brazil, but also here in this country. In the state of California, rainfall is slackening due to the fact the Amazon is being decimated today. And the Guardians of the Forest are doing this work, therefore, on behalf of all of us, but without the support that they deserve. Their rights are enshrined in Brazil’s Constitution — their rights to territory and to their way of life. Yet they have been systematically deprived of these rights. And what we witnessed today — or, two days ago, with the murder of Paulino, was an example of that, a manifestation of the violence that’s growing in these communities.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another leader of the Guardians of the Forest. Democracy Now! spoke to Sônia Guajajara during the Climate Strike march here in New York in September. She’s a leader of the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples’ Articulation.

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] I’m here today to participate in the climate march, bringing the voices of the indigenous peoples of Brazil to denounce all the destruction of the environment, the destruction of the Amazon, and the legalization of a genocide against indigenous people.

For 519 years, indigenous people in Brazil have been resisting. And we’ve been resisting by fighting against the political and economic powers that, under the name of development and in the name of progress, are authorizing more and more exploitation of our natural resources, exploiting mines, exploiting the rivers, and it’s directly affecting our way of life.

The Amazon is burning at this exact moment. Lots of territories are on fire. We attribute the increase in the fires to the rhetoric of the government of Jair Bolsonaro, that incites attacks, that incites invasions and incites deforestation. The practices of the Bolsonaro government are consolidating this government as the biggest enemy of indigenous people and the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the summer, as the fires raged in the Amazon, Sônia Guajajara said in a statement, “We’re putting our bodies and our lives on the line to try to save our territories. … We’ve been warning for decades about the violations we have suffered across Brazil. The predatory behavior of loggers, miners and ranchers … has been getting much worse under the anti-indigenous government of Jair Bolsonaro, who normalizes, incites and empowers violence against the environment and against us,” she said. As we begin to wrap up, João Coimbra, as we speak to you in Brazil right now, how are people protecting themselves, particularly indigenous community? And who are these loggers? Who is believed killed Paulo Paulino?

JOÃO COIMBRA SOUSA: So, Maranhão historically is a place of a lot of land conflicts. And more of those — mostly of those conflicts began with the colonization of Brazil. So, we have large landowners. They are going forward with the expansion of their territories. When you see how well protected the indigenous lands are, you understand economically why they want to invade such territories. So, the killing of Paulo Paulino Guajajara and the attack that also suffered Laercio Guajajara, it’s directly linked to that idea, that idea of eternal expansion of the agribusiness, which is something that we understand that it’s impossible. However, the presence of the Guardians of the Forest, it represents heavy losses on the illegal business of logging and the selling of woods. And when you see that all those landowners and their economic power, it always translates to political power, as well, for the oligarchies presented — that take part, that is part of the conjunctural context here in Maranhão. So, everything is connected in that sense of the political rhetoric of Bolsonaro’s and the invasion of those lands and the overgrowing power of the large landowners in Maranhão.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Christian Poirier, in your last comment, you’re here in the United States with Amazon Watch. President Trump is close to Jair Bolsonaro. In fact, Bolsonaro is called “the Trump of the Amazon.” What are you calling for here?

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: We are calling for a rigorous and independent investigation into the murder of Paulino Guajajara, which is part of a growing trend of violence against indigenous peoples in Brazil. A hundred and thirty-five indigenous peoples were murdered in 2018, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council in Brazil, and that was a 23% increase over the previous year. This year we’re expecting to see an enormous spike in this kind of violence and the impunity that comes with it. So we need to see rigorous governance installed in these territories, that are falling victim, and their communities falling victim, to violence, to impunity, to destruction, to the reckless expansion of the agribusiness sector of logging mafias.

And we need to see the state step in, where it has been so brutally absent, to address this crisis, which is a human rights crisis. It’s a crisis for humanity because of the implications of the destruction of the Amazon and its peoples that are fighting to defend it. The Guajajara are one of the great hopes of the Amazon, as are indigenous peoples in general. We need to support them. We cannot have regimes like the Jair Bolsonaro regime, which is true and a mirror image, in some ways, to the Trump regime here in this country. We absolutely need to fight these despots on many levels, including on the international level.

There are markets that are sustaining these actors, these logging mafias, the worst actors in Brazil’s agribusiness sector, that are exporting commodities to the North. We are buying these products; we are complicit in what’s happening today. And our financial institutions, institutions like JPMorgan Chase and BlackRock, BNP Paribas, Santander in Spain, are fueling this crisis with their money to the worst actors in the soy, in the beef and in the timber industries, for example, that are decimating the Amazon and its peoples today. We have a responsibility in the North.

In fact, APIB, the indigenous organization from Brazil that Sônia Guajajara represents, is currently traveling in Europe, across 12 countries in Europe, to denounce this mounting crisis to the rights of indigenous peoples, to the future of the forest and to our collective future. They are touring Europe to bring a message to the world: indigenous blood, not another drop. And what we witnessed today — or, two days ago, was the spilling of this blood. We can no longer tolerate what’s taking place today. We must all act to end this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Poirier, I want to thank you for being with us in San Francisco, and João Coimbra Sousa in São Luís in the northeastern state of Maranhão in Brazil, both with Amazon Watch.

When we come back, we go to San Francisco to speak with the unhoused, as we deal with the growing crisis of homelessness. Stay with us.

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