Brazil has long struggled to contain an epidemic of illegal logging, which accounts for the majority of the country’s timber production. Now the contagion appears to have reached new heights, with loggers accused of deliberately torching huge swathes of forest to conceal their theft of timber from protected indigenous reserves.
Since September, thousands of wildfires have consumed hundreds of square miles of forest located in indigenous territories in the drought-stricken state of Maranhão. The fires have endangered the survival of at least two groups of uncontacted nomads from the Awá tribe, while forcing settled indigenous communities to join together with government firefighting brigades to contain the destruction and save their villages.
Maranhão, on the eastern edge of the Amazon Basin, has long suffered from drought and grinding poverty. Ecologists call the state’s seasonally dry woodlands a critical transition zone between the parched savannas of northeastern Brazil and the Amazon’s lush rain forests just to the west.
Only 20 percent of Maranhão’s original forest cover remains, nearly all of it concentrated in a series of indigenous territories and protected nature reserves. Though legally off-limits to commercial exploitation, the lands are under near-constant siege by loggers and other desperados.
Rains have brought the fires under control in recent days. But along with dried-up rivers and scorched wildlife, Brazilian authorities say the blazes have exposed a more intractable problem: the threat posed by criminal logging syndicates to indigenous communities and the rule of law in Maranhão. What’s more, officials are accusing the loggers of resorting to arson to distract field agents and native militia from patrols aimed at deterring timber poachers.
“The fires are not natural,” said Luciano de Meneses Evaristo, director of environmental protection for Brazil’s environmental protection agency, Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA). “They’ve been started by loggers who are stealing timber from the indigenous reserves.”
Indigenous “Forest Guardians”
Evaristo said lumberjacks were using fire as a diversionary tactic to counter indigenous “forest guardian” patrols that have sprung up in recent months to detain illegal loggers and destroy their equipment.
Guajajara and Ka’apor tribal communities began organizing the militias in 2014, Indian rights advocates say, after repeated calls to government agencies for help went unheeded.
“The groups are mobilizing to defend their own lands, because the government has failed in its obligation to protect the indigenous territories,” said Rosana Diniz, state coordinator for the Indigenist Missionary Council, who has worked among native communities in Maranhão for 15 years. “The world should know that indigenous people are being left to their own fate here in Brazil.”
Like other Indian rights activists in the region, Diniz said she has received death threats for her work defending native communities from the loggers.
Speaking to Wildlife Watch from his office in Brasilia late last month, Evaristo promised a more robust response to the timber business in Maranhão, which he called “completely illegal.” He said that multiple agencies are planning a joint operation to crush the loggers, whom he likened to a “rural guerrilla” movement, for the large-caliber weapons at their disposal and their uncanny ability to evade law enforcement.
Evaristo praised the work of the indigenous patrols and said his agency was forming partnerships with the militias to train and equip them to “enforce environment regulations within the reserves.”
The reserves are the last strongholds of forested areas in the region. As a result, said Louis Forline, a University of Nevada anthropologist who has worked with tribal communities in Maranhão since1990, “they’re sought after by loggers, cattle ranchers, and land grabbers. People move their farms and ranches right up to the boundary of the reserves, and then you have a leap-frog effect, with poachers and squatters invading the forest.”
Increasingly Violent Clashes
The struggle has become especially acute along a corridor of reserves astride the state’s western border. Evaristo said encounters between his agents and loggers in Maranhão routinely result in an “exchange of gunfire.”
An IBAMA firefighter was wounded in an ambush, which he said was set by loggers in mid-October. Clashes between indigenous patrols and lumberjacks are also turning increasingly violent. In mid-December, two Ka’apor militiamen were wounded when loggers opened fire on them after their patrol seized and destroyed a timber-laden truck inside the 2,000-square-mile (5,200 square kilometers) Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Territory.
Farther south, nearly half the 1,600-square-mile Arariboia Indigenous Territory was ravaged by the recent fires, threatening the villages and crops of 12,000 Guajarara Indians, as well as the survival of some 80 uncontacted hunter-gatherers of the Awá tribe. The fate of that group, along with two other communities of isolated Awá nomads in neighboring reserves, remains unknown.
The indigenous rights organization Survival calls the Awá “Earth’s most threatened tribe” and has waged an international campaign to pressure Brazilian authorities to protect them.
Two years ago, Brazil deployed hundreds of police and soldiers to evict loggers and ranchers from the 300-square-mile Awá Indigenous Territory. Security forces seized thousands of cubic meters of ill-gotten timber and shuttered several clandestine sawmills in nearby frontier towns, where resentment toward the Indians and federal agents runs high. Illegal logging has diminished significantly since the operation in the Awá reserve, only to spring up elsewhere.
“It’s very dangerous,” Evarito said. “It’s a terrible war, and our strategy is going to change.”
Scott Wallace, a regular contributor to National Geographic, is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes. Follow him on his website and on Twitter.