As It Happens

Brazilian 'forest guardian' who protected the Amazon from illegal loggers has been killed

An Indigenous land defender who protected the Amazon in Brazil has been killed by suspected illegal loggers. His death comes during a year marked by violence and devastation in the Amazon rainforest.

Paulo Paulino Guajajara's death is the latest act of violence against Brazil's Indigenous people: activist

Paulo Paulino Guajajara, an Indigenous land protector in Brazil, was killed after being ambushed by illegal loggers in the Amazon. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Read Story Transcript

An Indigenous land defender who protected the Amazon in Brazil has been killed by suspected illegal loggers. 

Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot in the head on Friday, according to the Guajajara tribe in northern Brazil. He was a member the Guardians of the Forest, which was started by the Indigenous tribe in 2012 to ward off illegal loggers and miners.

The tribe said loggers ambushed a group of forest guardians, killing Guajajara and wounding another. A logger also died in the shootout, the tribe and state authorities said.

Brazil's federal police are investigating.

The attack comes amid an increased number of invasions on Indigenous reservations since President Jair Bolsonaro took office and promised to open the land up to economic development. 

João Coimbra Sousa is a field co-ordinator and legal adviser for Amazon Watch, which works to protect the rainforest and the rights of Indigenous people in the Amazon. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What do you know about the day in which this man was killed?

Paulo Paulino and ... Laércio, his cousin, they went hog hunting. And after all day in the deep forest, they heard the engines of a logging truck, and they started to be cautious about it.

But it was when they went for water that they were attacked by five gunmen. 

Laércio was shot in the arm and he could hide, but when he called for [Guajajara], his brother was fatally wounded in the face.

And that's Paulo Paulino Guajajara? 

That was Paulo Paulino Guajajara.

So after that, Laércio just ran ... 10 kilometres into the deep woods to go to the next Indigenous village to ask for help.

The loggers and the Guardians of the Forest have some history.

The Guardians of the Forest only exist because of the logging trucks and the loggers. So what the Guardians of the Forest do is they monitor all the movements, the roads that open into the forest, and they try their best to close those roads or to sabotage the way.

And they even go to lengths to take away those logging trucks. And sometimes they even put fire on those trucks.

Guajajara holds a gun during the search for illegal loggers on Arariboia Indigenous land near the city of Amarante on Sept. 11. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

And this is illegal logging we're talking about here? 

We're talking about illegal logging. Especially because we're talking about Indigenous reservations. So any presence that is not Indigenous is illegal.

So on that day, he was hog hunting, but he was also alert to any possible incursions like the logging truck. Is that right?

They're always alert, but they never take actions without planning and people to do the work that they do. So when they heard the truck, they knew that they couldn't do much then, just keep their heads low.

They didn't know ... that they were being hunted. 

[Laércio] recognized two of the five attackers, and he knew that those two guys were already looking for them.

Why were they looking for them?

They say ... they looked for them because of their high profile in the Guardians of the Forest ranks.

It's obviously dangerous to confront these illegal activities ... when the Guardians of the Forest do that. Have they seen this kind of violence before?

Yes, definitely. Paulo Paulino was the fifth Guardian that was killed since the Guardians of the Forest were installed.

And, historically, the Indigenous people in Brazil have been one of the greatest victims of expansion and this model of economic growth.

A member of the Guardians of the Forest burns a truck used by loggers. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Has it become more difficult to protect the forest from this illegal activity since [Jair] Bolsonaro became president?

Definitely there is a correlation between Bolsonaro's rhetoric and the ...  raise of Indigenous lands invasions.

There is a report from the Indigenous Missionary Council. It's an NGO very prominent in the protection of the forest.

In 2019, since September, 153 Indigenous territories were invaded, whereas in 2018, before Bolsonaro's speeches, it was only 76 for the whole year.

When Mr. Bolsonaro was running to be president he said, "When I am president, those people won't have that much land." Is that the rhetoric you're referring to? 


A member of the Guardians of the forest draws water from a well at a loggers camp. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Do you think that you're going to see … more violence of this kind? 

The main thing about the model for the Guardians of the Forest is that it's not sustainable. When the Guardians of the Forest are efficient — and they are very efficient — and the illegal logging and the illegal market on wood from the region's lands takes heavy losses, the investors, the landowners, the logging market, puts more money into illegal logging, which translates to more violence. 

So as long as there's a market for the timber ... and for other products from the rainforest, this is going to continue.

Definitely. As long as there is people buying wood from the Indigenous lands, there's going to be a market for illegal logging.

And more violence.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.