ISouth of the Amazon, just at the crossroads of two dirt roads, is a small bar a little set back from the highway. There’s no name above the door because it’s part of a house, actually, but everyone calls it Guiga’s bar, after its owner. Like many bars dotted around the area, Guiga’s is run down and no-frills. There’s a pool table along one side and a few tables and chairs out front, but that’s about it. People go for shade, grab a beer, and trade local gossip, not for the decor or ambiance.
The last known whereabouts of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau was in the Guiga bar, some time before midnight on April 18, 2020. Ari was a member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau indigenous people, and he had spent that evening drink in a series of bars scattered along the unpaved roads near the group’s reserve. The next morning, his body was found by the side of a road about half an hour away. His head was covered in blood that had dried quickly in the scorching heat. His phone was nestled in the grass a few feet away. Along the sides of the road were walls of grass, and behind that were fields where the mighty Amazon rainforest once stood.
The story of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, and the investigation into his murder, is in a way the story of the Brazilian indigenous peoples: their genocide, their daily struggles in a hostile world and their fight for Justice. But it’s also a contemporary story, of climate change, of Brazil and the influence of Jair Bolsonaro, the recently defeated Brazilian president whose contempt for the Amazon and its people has brought the entire planet to the brink of Armageddon. environmental.
Indigenous peoples have been under siege since Bolsonaro took power four years ago, and the Amazon has borne the brunt of his neglect. Deforestation, land grabbing and violence are on the rise; equality, credibility and empathy are down.
People like the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have good reason to lament the reign of the former army captain. It was in the 1970s, as the army forced its way into the untouched part of the jungle, that the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau first came into recorded contact with a Brazil they did not had never hoped to meet. The Amazon was (and still is) Brazil’s Wild West, and the military dictators of the time saw it as a weak point, a vast frontier coveted by larger geopolitical powers and vulnerable to outside invasion. It was also an El Dorado, a treasure trove of metals, jewelry, plants, animals, and raw materials ripe for gathering. So the military sent diggers to dig roads in the forest and encouraged people to go down them and plant a flag for the motherland. In the slogan of the time, they offered “a land without men for men without land”, and millions adopted them.
It was a disaster for the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and hundreds of other indigenous groups. Today, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau number only around 200, most of whom live in six communities scattered around a 1.8 million hectare reserve in Rondônia, one of Brazil’s nine states. that make up the Amazon. The territory is pressed on all sides by loggers and breeders. And it was this pressure, say the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, that led to the death of Ari, a teacher and leader, kidnapped at the age of just 35.
Killing natives has become easier in Brazil in recent years. Before taking office, Bolsonaro vowed not to give them “one more centimeter of ground”, and he kept his word. Bolsonaro gutted the state agency responsible for protecting indigenous groups, known as FUNAI, and he left environmental agencies to rot, depriving them of funds and personnel, and deliberately creating the conditions for loggers, miners, ranchers and hunters invade with impunity.
Deforestation has increased every year since he took power, reaching a 15-year high this year. An astonishing 99% of all deforestation in 2021 contained hints of illegality, according to a study by MapBiomas. Violence has skyrocketed and Indigenous peoples feel beleaguered. Even though reservations are fenced – to keep invaders out, not to keep natives inside – invasions by hunters and prospectors after land, gold, timber and fish have dropped from 109 in 2018 to 305 last year, according to Cimi, an Indigenous Rights Group. The Amazon is now home to all kinds of opportunists, from small farmers grabbing a piece of land to settle and plant a few bananas, to international criminal syndicates profiting from the vacuum.
“Drug trafficking organizations, arms trafficking organizations, illegal fishing and hunting organizations, they are all operating in the Amazon now,” says Suely Araújo, former head of Ibama, the conservation and development arm. sustainability from the Ministry of the Environment. .
And yet, being in the Amazon is magical. On a river, in absolute silence bar the hum of the engine and the water lapping on the sides of the boat; in the undergrowth, surrounded by shafts of yellow light and the pungent smell of wet earth; at night, under skies full of stars, they seem to light up the ground beneath them.
Protecting these wonders has become so much more difficult under Bolsonaro. The interest of FUNAI, the forerunner of which was created in 1910, is to secure the lands of the most threatened indigenous groups, and then to monitor the reserves to ensure that invaders are kept at bay. Its mission statement is to “protect and promote the rights of the indigenous peoples of Brazil”.
But when Bolsonaro starved him of funds, opportunists flocked in, often telling anyone who challenged them that the president had their backs. It was a shock for people like Ari and Bitaté, the 22-year-old leader of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, and they instinctively knew they had to react. Now, when they hear about illegal deforestation on their land, they don’t just inform FUNAI. They pack their bags, fire up their drones, and set about solving the problem.
They do this as members of the Guardians of the Forest, a cross between a patrol and a pressure group. Indigenous peoples in Brazil have formed similar troops over the past 10 years to fight encroachment and destruction. Using modern technology to mark out their land and traditional tools to protect themselves is one of the few ways they can actively defend where they call home.
When news of the incursions arrived, Ari gathered at dawn with other Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau guardians, and together they walked through the forest, backpacks on one shoulder, bows and arrows on the other. They knew the invaders were dangerous – “We are always under threat,” says Bitaté – but the drones helped them see what they were dealing with from afar. If the invaders were alone or unarmed, they could scare them away or even, in rare cases, hand them over to the police. Sometimes they contented themselves with destroying the huts in which the invaders had holed up; other times they fled with their food or stove or, if they were really lucky, with their chainsaws. Often, all they had to do was make their presence felt for the invaders to retreat.
“Ari used to say, ‘We are survivors. It is our land. That’s where we come from,” says Bitaté. “He wanted to protect it not just for himself but for his children and grandchildren. When he died, we lost someone who was always on the front lines, someone who said, ‘We must not let our heads down.’ »
Finally, there are reasons for optimism. On October 30, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president, defeating Bolsonaro. The Amazon and the climate were two of the campaign’s recurring themes, and Lula vowed to repeat the success of a decade ago when his government reduced deforestation by more than 80%.
Specifically for the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Lula pledged to give indigenous peoples more control over their own affairs. “Get ready, indigenous peoples of Brazil, because I will create a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples,” he said in August. “Get ready, because FUNAI will no longer be led by a white man with green eyes. It will be led by an Aboriginal man or woman.
Downie has been reporting from Brazil and the Amazon for over 20 years. A TIME Studios documentary on Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, The territory, airs on National Geographic Channel on December 1 and streams on Disney+
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