In the first week of April, two of the four assailants of Forest Guardians Paulo Paulino Guajajara and Laércio Guajajara were indicted by the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor’s Office. Paulino, who fought to protect Arariboia Indigenous land in Brazil’s Maranhão state, was ambushed and murdered by illegal loggers in November of last year. The presumed killers, Antônio Wesley Nascimento Coelho and Raimundo Nonato Ferreira de Sousa, have been charged with the first-degree murder of Paulino and attempted murder against Laércio, and they will possibly face additional manslaughter charges for killing one of their own accomplices.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time to celebrate this important news. In the span of just one month, violence took our allies Zezico Guajajara and Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, both active members in the protection of their Indigenous territories. While the indictment of Paulino’s murderers represents a welcome and rare instance of potential justice in the Brazilian Amazon, it does little to stem the rising tide of brutal violence against Indigenous forest guardians.
Impunity cannot be brought to an end solely by increasing indictments and convictions against low-level henchmen. Instead, those who benefit and profit from these acts of violence must also face consequences, including the companies that benefit from illegal land grabbing and Amazon deforestation, like mining, agribusiness and logging.
In Paulo Paulino Guajajara’s case, for example, the Federal Police – later backed up by the Prosecutor’s Office – argued the crime should not be considered a premeditated attack. They claimed that the assault was a gruesome attempt by the gunman to take back their confiscated motorcycles. For Laércio’s legal defender assigned to the case, this incorrect interpretation of events makes it difficult to secure justice for Laércio.
Yuri Costa, Federal Public Attorney, affirmed in an interview to G1 that the Federal Police’s conclusion does not match the conclusions of the investigation. According to Costa, “The deputy on the case thinks that there is no relation between the murders and the collective Indigenous interest. He downplayed the murders as a private feud, specifically about motorcycles. It is the Defensoria’s opinion that such thinking decontextualizes everything that relates to that region’s historical conflict among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
Under Bolsonaro’s regime, we are witnessing an escalation in assassinations of land rights activists, and Indigenous and political leaders in Brazil. Most recently an Indigenous teacher, Zezico Guajajara, became the fifth Guajajara killed in five months. Data shows that the first year of Bolsonaro’s administration registered the highest number of murdered Indigenous leaders in the last 11 years, with wildcat mining as the main problem worsening the tensions on Indigenous territories. According to a report about land conflicts in Brazil from the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) land invasions, illegal extraction of wood and mineral resources and even allotments, also contribute to this escalation of violence. The report reminds us that Indigenous people and their territories still face colonization through persistent violence and exploitation of their lands.
On April 18th, another Indigenous activist was murdered, this time in Rondonia State. Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, who vigilantly defended his people’s territory much like the Guajajara Forest Guardians, was attacked and struck with a blunt object on the back of his head. His brother and sister-in-law are leaders of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people and survived an assassination attempt last year.
The investigation into Ari’s death initially stated that it was a “fatal road accident,” ignoring the fact that his motorcycle remained intact. “I’m tired of seeing Indigenous people dying then hearing it was just an accident,” said Ivaneide Bandeira, coordinator of the Kanindé Ethno-Environmental Defense Association, the organization of which Ari was an active member. Ultimately, the police shifted its position, concluding that the Indigenous activist was murdered.
Paulino, Zezico, Ari… These attacks against Indigenous lives do not happen in a vacuum. Brazil’s bloody history from colonialism to the present has consistently vilified and marginalized indigeous people and their communal societies. This powerful legacy is a principal reason that it is still so difficult to bring to justice those responsible for so much violence.