On the Ama­zon’s law­less fron­tier, mur­der mys­tery di­vides the lo­cals and log­gers

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Environment -

SAIRÁ Ka’apor pa­trolled one of the most mur­der­ous fron­tiers in the world, a re­mote and largely law­less re­gion of the Brazil­ian Ama­zon where his indige­nous com­mu­nity has fought for gen­er­a­tions to pro­tect their for­est land.

Armed with clubs, bows and ar­rows, GPS track­ers and crude guns, he and fel­low mem­bers of Ka’apor For­est Guard drove off – and some­times at­tacked – log­gers who in­truded into their ter­ri­tory, the 530,000-hectare Alto Turi­açu Indige­nous Land, which is roughly three times the area of Greater Lon­don and con­tains about half of the Ama­zon for­est left in Brazil’s north­ern Maran­hão state. That vig­i­lante role came to an end last April when Sairá was stabbed to death in Be­tel, a log­ging town close to Ka’apor ter­ri­tory.

This was a mur­der that took place in a frag­ile, dan­ger­ous world, bal­anced pre­car­i­ously be­tween val­ues of con­ser­va­tion and con­sump­tion, tra­di­tion and moder­nity. The death has gone un­in­ves­ti­gated by po­lice and un­re­ported by the Brazil­ian me­dia, but it high­lights the vi­o­lent pres­sures driv­ing for­est clear­ance.

For decades, log­gers have cut dirt tracks into the for­est that al­low them to se­lec­tively fell valu­able tim­ber such as ipê (Brazil­ian wal­nut), which can fetch al­most £1,000 per cu­bic me­tre af­ter pro­cess­ing and ex­port. This is fol­lowed by fires – of­ten set de­lib­er­ately – that de­stroy the re­main­ing trees so land can be used for cat­tle ranch­ing or soy farm­ing.

Last year 6,624 sq km – more than four times the area of Lon­don – was de­for­ested in Brazil. This was the first time in three years that the rate did not rise, and the coun­try re­mains off track to reach its Paris cli­mate tar­gets. Numer­ous stud­ies have shown that pro­tec­tion of indige­nous land is the most ef­fec­tive way to cut de­for­esta­tion, but the Ka’apor – like many other tribes – feel the po­lice of­ten work against them. Bat­tling to save the for­est is a risky busi­ness. Ac­cord­ing to Global Wit­ness, Brazil is the dead­li­est coun­try in the world for en­vi­ron­men­tal and land de­fend­ers with 44 killings recorded in 2017. Maran­hão – the na­tion’s poor­est state – is among the worst af­fected. There were more death threats and at­tacks on indige­nous groups here than any­where else in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Pas­toral Land Com­mis­sion. Sairá knew the dan­gers. “He was ut­terly fear­less,” re­calls a se­nior mem­ber of the Ka’apor coun­cil, Itahu, who de­scribed how his fel­low de­fender was in the van­guard of a suc­cess­ful op­er­a­tion in 2014 to in­ter­cept and burn three log­ging trucks.

The vil­lage of Xim­borenda is home to the 2,200-strong Ka’apor com­mu­nity where Sairá lived. At night, fire­flies glow while frogs and in­sects pro­vide an un­du­lat­ing cho­rus of noise. Taran­tu­las crawl along bed­room walls. The bio­di­ver­sity is tes­ti­mony to the qual­ity of the for­est in a place that de­fi­antly holds out against ex­trac­tive in­dus­tries and global mar­kets. But the pres­sure on this nat­u­ral wealth is re­lent­less. The Ka’apor coun­cil has at­tempted to hold the line but many in­di­vid­u­als suc­cumb to temp­ta­tions.

Noth­ing is black and white. The log­gers were also neigh­bours. Many were poor. There was in­ter­mar­riage. Peo­ple would fight the log­gers one year, be­friend them the next then go back to fight­ing. Even Sairá once sold trees on his land in ex­change for cachaça and cash, but later gave up al­co­hol and led the cam­paign to stop oth­ers in his vil­lage from drink­ing and trad­ing wood.

“The log­gers use al­co­hol to weaken us. It’s a more pow­er­ful weapon than guns,” said Itahu. He be­lieves Saira was mur­dered as part of a long-run­ning in­tim­i­da­tion cam­paign. Many coun­cil­lors have ex­pe­ri­enced threats. Sarapo Ka’apor de­scribed how he was cap­tured by a gang of log­gers in 2013. “They held my arms be­hind my back and fired their guns re­peat­edly so close to my ears that I went tem­po­rar­ily deaf. One bul­let grazed my scalp. I was drenched in blood.”

On the road to Be­tel the next day, it was clear where the real power lies. More than any state in Brazil, Maran­hão is in thrall to the “coro­nels” (ma­jor landown­ers who carry a semi-feu­dal au­thor­ity). One fam­ily – the Sar­neys – have dom­i­nated pol­i­tics here for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber. The pa­tri­arch (an 87-year-old sen­a­tor who ruled Brazil from 1985 to 1990) has a road­side school named af­ter him – the Es­cola Unidade da Pres­i­dent José Sar­ney. The sys­tem of pa­tron­age and con­trol is repli­cated at a mu­nic­i­pal level. The power­bro­ker near the Ka’apor’s land is Josi­mar Ro­drigues, a state assem­bly­man who has been ac­cused by po­lice of run­ning an il­le­gal op­er­a­tion to re­move tim­ber from the indige­nous ter­ri­tory. De­spite the al­le­ga­tions, he and his fam­ily re­main hugely in­flu­en­tial. His wife, sis­ter and for­mer driver are all may­ors in mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that over­lap Ka’apor ter­ri­tory.

Be­tel is a poor log­ging vil­lage of a few hun­dred homes, a church and a bar. It is in the lat­ter that the fight al­legedly started that led to Saira’s death. Lo­cals say a group of four or five Ka’apor had been drink­ing for sev­eral hours un­til Sairá turned up, scolded them and or­dered them to re­turn to their vil­lage.

No­body saw the mur­der. The bar owner’s wife – who gave only the name Donna Raimundo – as­sumed there had been a fight on the way back. She said Sairá’s sis­ter-in-law came back to the bar, say­ing he had been stabbed by a rel­a­tive called Pracidio. But Ka’apor coun­cil­lors refuse to ac­cept one of their com­mu­nity would kill another. The last time that hap­pened was more than 20 years ago, and the tra­di­tional pun­ish­ment is be­ing buried alive. And Saira and Pracidio had been close friends from child­hood. “They went hunt­ing to­gether. I can’t be­lieve he killed him,” said Ira­tui Ka’apor, who taught them both.

Most peo­ple’s sus­pi­cions are di­rected at the log­gers in Be­tel. Sairá had been get­ting death threats. A month ear­lier he had re­quested help against a lo­cal busi­ness­man who had re­port­edly been ply­ing the Ka’apor with al­co­hol so they would agree to sell wood.

In fear of his life, Pracidio had gone into hid­ing. The Ob­server tracked him, first by mo­tor­bike along the muddy dirt track to Tauaxi Renda – a Ka’apor out­post near the Rio da Sangue (River of Blood) and the no­to­ri­ously mur­der­ous re­gion around Nova Con­quista – and then, half a day later, to a neigh­bour­ing town, where he was wait­ing for a bus. A short, wiry man, Pracidio was re­luc­tant to make eye con­tact. “It wasn’t me who killed Sairá,” he said slowly. “I didn’t even have a knife. It must have been a branco [white per­son] who killed him.”

He says four il­le­gal log­gers and fish­er­men had pre­vi­ously threat­ened him with knives and told him to de­liver Sairá to them, which he re­fused. “I didn’t even see him that night. There was no fight at the bar when I was there. I re­turned to my vil­lage on a mule with my son around 9pm. My fa­ther saw me.”

Al­most cer­tainly, Sairá’s killing will go un­solved. The near­est po­lice sta­tion, in Ze Doca, has yet to open a case. Out­side the indige­nous com­mu­nity, no­body cares. With no clam­our for jus­tice, the trail will go cold and all that will have been proved is the ba­nal­ity of mur­der on the front­line of for­est pro­tec­tion.

Ph­toto: The Guardian

Ka’apor for­est guardians pa­trol the bor­ders of their ter­ri­tory, in Maran­hão state, Brazil.

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