Illegal loggers are operating uncontrollably in the Brazilian Amazon as the coronavirus rages, despite the government promising to act after an indigenous land activist was killed to protect the rainforest exactly a year ago, his cousin said.
Paulo Paulino Guajajara or Lobo – “wolf” in Portuguese – was hunting on November 1, 2019 in the Arariboia reservation in Maranhao state when he was attacked and shot in the head. His cousin Laercio Guajajara was wounded but managed to escape.
The 27-year-old Lobo and Laercio were part of a group of 120 volunteers from the Guajajara Indians, brigades known as “guardians of the forest” who patrol protected areas of the world’s largest rainforest and burn the camps and wood of illegal loggers.
“The government said it would protect our country, but nothing has changed. The logging will continue, ”Laercio told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, demanding that his location not be disclosed for security reasons. “A year after Lobo’s death, no one has been jailed.”
Deforestation in the Amazon reached an 11-year high in 2019 when environmentalists and scientists accused right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies of taking back environmental protection and calling for forest development.
Deforestation was down 5% in the first eight months of 2020 compared to the same period last year, but environmentalists, scientists and international investors remain concerned that the destruction is staying out of control.
Scientists say the rainforest is an important defense against global warming because it absorbs greenhouse gases.
Laercio said the government set up a task force to protect the Guajajara group of guards after Lobo’s death, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from confronting loggers.
“The government says they can’t come to our area because of the pandemic, so the loggers are coming instead,” said Laercio, who the Thomson Reuters Foundation met with Lobo while making a documentary last year.
“This is also very dangerous for the Awa,” he added.
The Arariboia territory, where the Guajajara live, is also home to the Awa Guaja, hunters and gatherers whom the indigenous rights group Survival International has identified as the most threatened tribe in the world.
Human rights groups and health organizations like the World Health Organization have warned that indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus for reasons ranging from lack of access to health care to land invasions by loggers.
According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, Brazil has the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world, with around 160,000 deaths. 5.5 million cases have reportedly been reported.
Laercio said several of his relatives died from the virus and many in the community are now covering themselves with tree bark for protection.
At the beginning of the outbreak in Brazil, FUNAI, the government’s agency for indigenous affairs, suspended all permits for outsiders to enter indigenous areas.
A spokesman for the agency was not available to comment.
Laercio said the guards changed the way they worked after Lobo’s death and started reporting logging cases to the government instead of confronting loggers themselves.
But he vowed to continue the fight against illegal logging.
“We want all legal invaders to be driven out and to live in peace without destruction,” said Laercio. “This is my dream, I want our forest to be free.”