Brazil's tribes face growing threat of illegal logging

Arara indigenous chief Tatji Arara patrolling the Arara indigenous land in Para state, Brazil, last month. He says illegal logging on these lands - an area equivalent to 264,000 football fields - has intensified since President Jair Bolsonaro came to
Arara indigenous chief Tatji Arara patrolling the Arara indigenous land in Para state, Brazil, last month. He says illegal logging on these lands - an area equivalent to 264,000 football fields - has intensified since President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January. The Arara lands are home to about 110,000 people.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ALTAMIRA (Brazil) • With a rifle resting on his shoulder, Mr Tatji Arara looks despondent as he steps over the trunks of huge trees felled by timber traffickers in the heart of Brazil's Amazon rainforest, now the scene of numerous land conflicts.

"Every day, we find new trees cut down. I've never seen anything like this," laments the 41-year-old, a leader of the Arara indigenous people in the northern state of Para.

He says illegal logging on Arara lands - an area equivalent to 264,000 football fields - has intensified since President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January.

Mr Bolsonaro, a far-right champion of agribusiness, vowed during last year's election campaign that he would not give up "one centimetre more" of land to indigenous communities in Brazil, home to around 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest.

According to Para-based conservation group Imazon, deforestation in the Amazon increased 54 per cent in January - the first month Mr Bolsonaro was in office - as compared with a year earlier.

Some 37 per cent of the devastated areas are in Para.

The Arara territory, where around 300 indigenous live, has been under government protection since 1991.

But there are fears that could change under Mr Bolsonaro, a climate change sceptic.

"Bolsonaro is poisoning the spirit of the people. Lots of people think he will take our land, but we won't let him," says Mr Tatji Arara.

"If the illegal extraction of wood continues, our warriors will take up their bows and arrows. There could be deaths," he warns.

In a letter to the local federal prosecutor's office in February, the Arara said tribal elders were considering "getting justice for themselves", including evoking an ancestral ritual of making a traditional flute "with the skulls of the invaders".

Hundreds of representatives of indigenous groups are convening in the nation's capital Brasilia for three days starting yesterday for their annual lobbying mission to defend their land rights.

The Arara lands are technically part of the municipality of Altamira, the largest in Brazil in terms of surface area - bigger than Portugal - and home to about 110,000 people.

Mr Tatji Arara points out the burnt wreckage of a truck used to carry timber that was set on fire in February by indigenous people.

Just off the red-dirt Trans-Amazonian Highway, loggers have bored their way into the rainforest using heavy machinery.

Local prosecutor Adriano Augusto Lanna de Oliveira fears a bloodbath is looming.

"We are witnessing an escalation of tensions, and indigenous people are often forced to fulfil the role of federal law enforcement, who are far and few between," he says.

"It's very disturbing to see the Indians playing the role of the police because they are often crushed in this kind of conflict," adds Mr Paulo Henrique Cardoso, another prosecutor in Altamira.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2019, with the headline 'Brazil's tribes face growing threat of illegal logging'. Print Edition | Subscribe