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A Murder in the Amazon Reveals What the Fight Over the Rainforest Is All About

8 minute read
Downie has reported from Brazil and the Amazon for over 20 years

In the south of the Amazon, just where two dirt roads cross, is a small bar, set back a bit from the highway. There’s no name over the door because it’s part of a house, really, but everyone calls it Guiga’s bar, after its owner. Like many of the bars dotted across the region, Guiga’s is ramshackle and no-frills. There’s a pool table along one side and a few tables and chairs out front, but that’s it. People go to get some shade, grab a beer, and swap local gossip, not for the décor or ambience.

The last known whereabouts of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau was in Guiga’s bar, sometime before midnight on April 18, 2020. Ari was a member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous people, and he’d spent that evening drinking in a series of bars scattered along the unpaved roads near the group’s reservation. The next morning his body was found at the side of a road around half an hour away. His head was caked with blood that had dried quickly in the searing heat. His phone was nestled in the grass a few feet away. On the sides of the road were walls of grass, and behind that were fields where the mighty Amazon rain forest had once stood.

The story of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, and the investigation into his murder, is in one way the story of Brazilian Indigenous peoples: their genocide, their daily struggles in a hostile world, and their fight for justice. But it’s also a contemporary tale, of climate change, Brazil, and the influence of Jair Bolsonaro, the recently defeated Brazilian President whose disregard for the Amazon and its inhabitants has led the whole planet to the edge of environmental Armageddon.

Indigenous people have been under siege since Bolsonaro took power four years ago, and the Amazon has borne the brunt of his neglect. Deforestation, land grabs, and violence are up; equality, credibility, and empathy are down.

People like the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have good reason to lament the former army captain’s reign. It was in the 1970s, as the military forged a path into the untouched part of the jungle, that the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau first came into recorded contact with a Brazil they 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 spot, a vast frontier coveted by bigger geopolitical powers and vulnerable to outside invasions. It was also an El Dorado, a treasure trove of metals, jewels, plants, animals, and raw materials ripe for the picking. So the military sent diggers to cut roads into the forest and encouraged people to go down them and plant a flag for the fatherland. In the slogan of the time, they offered “a land without men for men without land,” and millions took them up on it.

It spelled 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 reservation in Rondônia, one of nine Brazilian states that make up the Amazon. The territory is being squeezed on all sides by loggers and ranchers. And it’s that pressure, say the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, that led to the death of Ari, a schoolteacher and leader, taken at the age of just 35.

Killing Indigenous people got easier in Brazil these past few years. Before taking office, Bolsonaro vowed not to give them “one more centimeter of land,” and he was true to his word. Bolsonaro hollowed out the state agency charged with protecting Indigenous groups, known as FUNAI, and he let environmental agencies rot, starving them of funds and staff, and deliberately creating conditions for loggers, miners, ranchers, and hunters to invade with impunity.

Deforestation has gone up every year since he took power, this year hitting a 15-year high. An astonishing 99% of all deforestation in 2021 contained indications of illegality, according to a study by MapBiomas. Violence has soared, and Indigenous people feel under siege. Even though reservations are fenced off—to keep the invaders out, not to keep the native people in—invasions by hunters and prospectors after land, gold, timber, and fish went 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 parcel of land to make a home and plant a few bananas, to international crime syndicates taking advantage of the vacuum.

“Drug-trafficking organizations, arms-trafficking organizations, illegal fishing and hunting organizations, they are all operating in the Amazon now,” says Suely Araújo, a former head of Ibama, the conservation and sustainable-development arm of the Ministry of the Environment.

And yet being in the Amazon is magical. On a river, in absolute silence bar the hum of the motor and the water lapping the sides of the boat; in the undergrowth, surrounded by shafts of yellow light and the pungent smell of wet soil; at night, below skies with so many stars, they seem to light up the ground beneath them.

Protecting these wonders became so much harder under Bolsonaro. The whole point of FUNAI, whose forerunner was set up in 1910, is to secure land for the most endangered Indigenous groups and then monitor the reservations to ensure invaders are kept out. Its mission statement is to “protect and promote the rights of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples.”

But when Bolsonaro starved it of funds, the opportunists poured in, often telling anyone who challenged them the President had their backs. It was a shock to people like Ari and Bitaté, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s 22-year-old leader, and they instinctively knew they had to react. Now, when they get word of illegal deforestation on their land, they don’t just inform FUNAI. They pack their bags, power up their drones, and set out to resolve the problem.

They do so as members of the guardians of the forest, a cross between a patrol and a pressure group. Indigenous people across Brazil have formed similar troupes over the past 10 years as a way to combat encroachment and destruction. Using modern technology to delineate their land, and traditional tools to protect themselves, it is one of the few ways they can actively defend the place they call home.

When news of incursions came in, Ari gathered at dawn with other Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau guardians, and together they would hike into the forest, backpacks over one shoulder, bows and arrows over the other. They knew the invaders were dangerous—“We are always being threatened,” says Bitaté—but drones helped them see what they were dealing with from afar. If the invaders were alone, or unarmed, they could scare them off or even, in rare cases, hand them over to police. Sometimes they settled for destroying the shacks the invaders holed up in; other times they would make off with their food or stove or, if they were really lucky, with their chain saws. Often they needed just to make their presence felt for the invaders to retreat.

“Ari used to say, ‘We are survivors. This is our land. This is where we are from,’” Bitaté says. “He wanted to protect it not just for himself but for his children and his grandchildren. When he died, we lost someone who was always on the front lines, someone who said, ‘We must not bow our heads.’”

There are, finally, reasons for optimism. On Oct. 30, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected President, defeating Bolsonaro. The Amazon and climate were two of the recurring themes of the campaign, and Lula has promised to repeat the success from a decade ago when his government reduced deforestation by more than 80%.

Most notably for the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Lula has vowed to give Indigenous people more control over their own affairs. “Get ready, Brazil’s Indigenous people, because I am going to create a Ministry for Native Peoples,” he said in August. “Get ready, because FUNAI will no longer be run by a white man with green eyes. It will be run by an Indigenous man or woman.”

Downie has been reporting about Brazil and the Amazon for more than 20 years. A TIME Studios documentary about Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, The Territory, premiered on the National Geographic Channel on Dec. 1 and will stream on Disney+

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