The Amazon Rainforest is under threat from illegal logging and mining as the descendants of prehistoric tribes patrol the huge area that is their home, trying to stop the destruction. But the task is huge. The guardians of the area known as the world’s lungs because it produces 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen are armed with spears, bows and arrows. The intruders carry automatic weapons and shotguns, so the job of safeguarding the ancient homeland where some tribes have lived for thousands of years is a dangerous one.
In late October, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, known as ‘Wolf’, was shot and killed by illegal loggers in the northern part of the rainforest in Brazil. He was the forefront of the establishment in 2012 of the Guardians of the Forest, an organization created by the Guajajara tribe. A month before, a Brazilian official whose duty was to protect the indigenous rainforest dwellers from farmers and loggers was shot twice in the head in front of his family in the city of Tabatinga. The situation has grown so desperate that some of the tribes have called for outside help.
The indigenous tribes are also threatened by fires – about 80,000 were recorded from January to August and most were started by outside human activity – and illegal loggers and farmers. Their own President Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to allow economic development in the rainforest lands that previously were protected for indigenous tribes. “The Bolsonaro government has indigenous blood on its hands,” said the organization Indigenous People Articulation, a body that speaks for many of the 900,000 indigenous peoples who live in the rainforest.
In the face of international criticism over not doing enough to fight the rampant fires and not protecting tribes and land from illegal acts, the Brazilian president remains defiant. In an address to the UN in September, Bolsonaro said the rainforest belongs to Brazil. He called the labelling of the rainforest as the lungs of the world a “misconception” and that to say the Amazon is a human heritage is a “fallacy.” Bolsonaro also pointed to international media as sensationalizing the fires and so-called attacks on indigenous guardians.
Some have said because it is essential to global health, the rainforest has been described as belonging to the world, not just Brazil. That draws Bolsonaro’s ire.
“They even called into question that which we hold as a most sacred value, our sovereignty,” he told the UN members. Bolsonaro has also been accused of cutting environmental and indigenous agencies, so that the tribes have to fend for themselves in defence of their traditional territories. While many of the tribes shun contact with outsiders, the situation has spiralled downward to the point that they cannot fight off the intruders alone.
“We are in great danger,” said Viseni Waiapi, following an attack in July by illegal gold miners toting automatic weapons. The invaders killed chief Emyra Waipai and assaulted women as they went from village to village. Reports say there are as many as 10,000 miners in territories that belong to the tribes. Incursions began to rise – up 150 per cent – after Bolsonaro took office Jan.1, 2019.
“Bolsonaro represents the biggest attack on the Amazon in the last 30 years,” said Christian Poirier, director of the Amazon Watch Program.
Even as the Waiapi waited for the federal police to come to their aid during an attack, Bolsonaro was at a graduation ceremony for new armed forces touting his policy to allow logging, mining and farming in the rainforest. The rainforest and watch organizations were given a taste of Bolsonaro’s disdain for the indigenous peoples and the rainforest when he equated indigenous peoples with animals in zoos.
Nearly four times the size of Alaska, the rainforest is essential in the fight against climate change. If the commercial development of the area continues, it could change the ecosystem, speed up climate change and kill various species that live there, and end a way of life for ancient tribes.
“The Amazon forest holds something like 90 billion tons of carbon, and if that ends up in the atmosphere, it is not a good thing,” said Thomas Lovejoy, senior fellow at the UN and professor of environmental science at George Mason University.
All of this makes a good case for other countries to form a coalition and to step in and assume joint control over the rainforest, while compensating Brazil with enough funds to grow its economy. In some circumstances, the United States and its allies have acted when mutual interests are threatened.
It may be time to follow that script to save the rainforest.