In Maranhão, 76% of the original Amazon rainforest has already been devastated, as indicated in a study published in Land Use Policy, a scientific journal. According to the researchers who were involved, Maranhão no longer has any virgin forest outside the 16 original indigenous territories controlled by the National Indian Foundation. With 413,000 hectares, Arariboia is the second largest territory in the state, preceded only by the Alto Turiaçu reservation, with 530 thousand hectares. However, it is by far the most populated and, therefore, has the most human lives at risk.
“Arariboia is a green island amidst a sea of deforestation. The Guardians are risking their lives to protect what is left of the forest in this part of Maranhão,” explains Sarah Shenker of Survival International.
The economy in many of the cities around Arariboia was based historically on extractive industries, mainly logging. With the degradation of unmarked land, local loggers see indigenous land as a gold mine. “The Guajajara are on land that includes what is left of the Amazon. So, the area has a lot of wood and it sparks an interest,” says CIMI’s Gilderlan Rodrigues. Arariboia has an abundance of trees with high market value, such as zabucajo, angelim, ipé, cumarú, jatobá, copaíba and cedar (also known as acaiacá).
The Guajarara subsist mainly through farming, as explained on the PIB website by anthropologist Peter Schröder from the University of Pernambuco. Yucca, yams, corn, rice, pumpkins, beans, avas, caras (an Amazon fish) and bananas are some of the most common foods in Arariboia. According to Olimpio Guajajara, they are the bedrock of indigenous health. Farming is done in two stages: “In the dry season, from May to November, they till, cut, burn and clear, while planting and weeding are done from November to February,” wrote Peter Schröder.
Hunting continues to be an important activity for the Arariboia Guajajara, says Olimpio. However, as Peter Schröder notes, it has become less productive in recent decades, due to competition from non-indigenous people and the limitations of land. Hunting was further complicated by the wildfires in 2015, which burned nearly 200,000 hectares in Arariboia – about 50% of the territory – and devastated the mammal and bird populations. Hunting declined as a result. But Olimpio says it is returning to Arariboia, little by little. Giant armadillos, gualacates (yellow armadillos), anteaters, opossums, sloths, penelopes (bird), muitu turkeys, peccaries and monkeys are among the animals most commonly found in the area.
Other customary forms of livelihood are fishing and gathering honey and fruit, says Sarah Shenker. According to her, some Guajajara exchange and sell farm products. Handicrafts are produced as well and sold mainly to non-indigenous customers.
The extent of access to formal education is far from ideal. There are government schools in every region of Arariboia, but not in every village, explains Sarah. Some schools were not operating even before the pandemic, forcing children to go to another village to study, or to attend schools with non-indigenous students. Violence, however, remains the main problem for the local indigenous population.
Traces of Blood in the Forest
In Maranhão, the struggle to defend the land, the culture and the people is marked by death. According to data from the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples, 49 Guajajara were murdered in the state between 2000 and 2020 as a result of conflicts with loggers. Eighteen of these crimes were committed in Arariboia, and four Guajajara were murdered in the last two months of 2019.
One of the recent victims was 26-year-old Paulo Paulino Guajajara, who was also known as Kwahu Tenetehar, his indigenous name. According to several Guajajara leaders, Paulo and Tainaky Tenetehar were hunting with bows and arrows in the area of Bom Jesus das Selvas, inside Arariboia, on 1 November 2019 when they were ambushed by a group of five men. Paulino was shot in the neck and died. Tainaky was wounded by a bullet that hit his right arm and ribs, but he managed to survive.
The case received a great deal of attention in the media and there were international repercussion. Yet, it was not enough to break the cycle of impunity that prevails in cases of violence against indigenous people. The Federal Police charged two suspects for intentional homicide in January 2020, but both remain at large.
According to CIMI data compiled between 2006 and 2019, there were 20 registered cases of land invasion in Arariboia. In all, there were 44 cases in areas where members of the Guajajara community also were reported to have been murdered. Almost half (20 invasions) occurred in the last five years. “The certainty of impunity and lack of oversight by the respective authorities added to the violence,” says CIMI’s Gilderlan Rodrigues.