Protected forests in Brazil and Peru hold some of the world’s last remote indigenous groups, increasingly threatened by resource-hungry outsiders.
The tread marks in the blood-red earth are deep—and fresh. Tainaky Tenetehar climbs off his dirt bike for a closer look.
“From this morning,” he says, with the conviction of a veteran tracker attuned to any sign of human movement in these lawless borderlands.
Through binoculars, he scans the rolling hills of fire-scorched savanna that lead out to a tree-crowned ridge in the distance. Here, on one of Brazil’s most hotly contested frontiers—where denuded scrubland pushes up against old-growth forest and private homesteads breach the boundaries of Indian land—the tire tracks bear a singular, ominous meaning.
“Loggers,” Tainaky says. The enemy.
Tainaky, who also goes by his Portuguese name, Laércio Souza Silva Guajajara, turns to his companions, four other Guajajara tribesmen, as they dismount road-beaten motorbikes. The patrol forms a motley crew: patched jeans and camouflage and aviator shades and bandannas to shield their faces from the ubiquitous dry-season dust. Bearing an equally modest array of weapons—a single-shot hunting rifle, a homemade pistol, a few machetes dangling from cinched waistbands—they call to mind a strange, cross-genre film. Think Mad Max meets The Last of the Mohicans.
“Shall we go after them?” Tainaky asks.
Going after illegal loggers here has become the hallmark of patrols like this. They’ve set logging trucks ablaze, seized weapons and chain saws, and sent irate loggers packing. Patrol leaders, the 33-year-old Tainaky among them, have received multiple death threats. Some patrolmen use fake names to mask their identities. Three were murdered in one month’s time in 2016.
They belong to a hundred-member, homegrown force of indigenous volunteers who call themselves the Forest Guardians. This group and others like it have sprouted up in recent years to meet a rising tide of illegal logging that is decimating protected woodlands in the eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão, including the 1,600-square-mile Arariboia Indigenous Land. Along with the forests, the wild game that has sustained the Guajajara’s hunting culture for generations is vanishing. The lakes that give birth to their rivers and streams are drying up because of deforestation. Fish and birds are dying off.