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Guardian of the Forest Killed by Illegal Loggers in the Amazon

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This piece was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation's Place initiative.

Paulo Paulino Guajajara, also known as Lobo or "wolf," was killed in an attack on Nov. 1, the latest fatality in an escalating battle between illegal loggers and indigenous tribes in Brazil's Amazon rainforest.

Lobo was part of a group called "Guardians of the Forest" that the Thomson Reuters Foundation met on a reporting and filming trip to the Araribóia reservation in northeastern Maranhão state in January 2019, joining them on a patrol.

Araribóia is an island of forest that has become separated from the ever-shrinking mass that is the Amazon rainforest.

This constitutionally protected indigenous land is home to the Awá Guajá, known as Brazil's most vulnerable uncontacted tribe, whose voluntary isolation is defended by the Guajajara, especially the Guajajara brigade of "Guardians of the Forest."

Lobo and about 120 others make up the group that was set up in 2012 and works alongside other indigenous groups of "Guardians" that have emerged over the past decade in Brazil in response to ever increasing incursions by illegal loggers.

For months we had been looking for an opportunity to join the guardians on patrol in what has become a deadly clash.

Brazil's Indigenous Missionary Council found 135 indigenous people were murdered in 2018, up almost 23% from 2017, with clashes increasing since President Jair Bolsonaro vowed this year to open up indigenous lands to economic development.

Finally, in January this year we set out, joining Lobo and his brigade of guardians in a village used as a base from which to launch patrols inside the Araribóia reserve.

Under Cover of Darkness

We spent a day filming in the village and interviewing guardians and some of their families before setting out on patrol. This included Lobo, aged about 27, with one son.

Then the time came. Their motorbike-riding scout returned with news of illegal loggers setting up a new camp and preparations started, with the guardians painting their faces with jenipapo for camoflauge and protection from mother nature.

That night we travelled on dirt tracks and waited at the entrance to the Araribóia protected area to see if we could intercept any loggers moving their illegal hauls under cover of darkness.

Along the way we had two tense encounters with Indigenous Guajarara whom the Guardians accused of selling out their area of Araribóia to illegal loggers.

It became evident that while most of the struggles are between the Indigenous people and outsiders, there is also a significant conflict developing within Indigenous groups themselves, divided over what should happen to the rainforest.

It took two more days for us to arrive at a small logging camp deep where the group set fire to the sawn timber lying around the camp being prepared to be hauled out of the reserve.

They burned down the camp before we continued patrolling along the loggers' trail through the already thinned-out forest on the edge of the reserve but there was no sign of the loggers.

A guardian of Brazil's Amazon Rainforest watches as a fire burns the remains of lumber poachers. | Still from "Earth Focus"
A guardian of Brazil's Amazon Rainforest watches as a fire burns the remains of lumber poachers. | Still from "Earth Focus"

Since the group started in 2012 at least three Guajajara guardians have been killed in conflicts with illegal loggers. Over that time the guardians have burned down about 200 illegal logging camps, according to Olimpio Guajajara, the leader of this brigade.

It was clear throughout the operation that the guardians felt they had no choice but to protect their land, feeling abandoned by the authorities while well aware of the risks.

Lobo spoke of the death threats that he already had from a man he described as a loggers' "hired gun."

He also spoke of a Guardian named Alfonso who had been killed in a conflict with loggers and complained that the police often sided with the illegal loggers, not the indigenous "Guardians of the Forest", when conflicts arose.

(From left to right) Paulo Guajajara, Laercio Guajajara, Max Baring of Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Olimpio Guajajara, posed for a photo in Brazil on Jan 30, 2019. | Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karla Mendes
(From left to right) Paulo Guajajara, Laercio Guajajara, Max Baring of Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Olimpio Guajajara, posed for a photo in Brazil on Jan 30, 2019. | Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karla Mendes

In one of the last scenes to be cut during the editing of the documentary "Guarding the Forest", Lobo comes across a slight, wooden structure in the bush next to the trail.

He explains to camera that this was an ambush structure where loggers lie in wait for the guardians to launch surprise attacks at close quarters.

"This is a trap for the guardians who pass here. He'll stay seated there waiting for the guardians to pass so he can shoot," Lobo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

On Nov. 1 came the news of Lobo's death. Media India, a Brazilian indigenous media network, reported that he was shot in the face at close range while collecting water from a lake, in an attack near the area of Araribóia where we filmed him in February.

Indigenous leader Laercio Guajajara, also in our film, was seriously injured in the attack and was now recovering in hiding. He has pledged to continue fighting against illegal logging.

One of the loggers was also reportedly killed in the incident now being investigated by federal and state police.

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