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‘It’s dangerous work’: new generation of Indigenous activists battle to save the Amazon

Campaigners in Brazil use drones to document work of self-defence teams trying to stop environmental destruction caused by illegal mining

Indigenous journalist Marco Antônio Silva Batista, 20, prepares to film an illegal goldmine near the Indigenous village of Tamanduá in Raposa Serra do Sol. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

The medicine man flashed a mischievous grin as he dabbed his warriors’ eyeballs with a feather soaked in malagueta pepper and watched them grimace in pain. “They’re going into battle and this will protect them,” José Delfonso Pereira said as he advanced on his next target with a jam jar of his chilli potion.

“It hurts and it burns,” the Macuxi shaman admitted. “But it will help them see more clearly and stop them falling ill.”

It was a crisp August morning and a dozen members of an Indigenous self-defence team had assembled in the hillside village of Tabatinga to receive Pereira’s blessing before launching their latest mission into one of the Amazon’s most secluded corners, near Brazil’s border with Guyana and Venezuela.

Activists at the Indigenous Education and Culture Centre at the entrance to the Raposa Serra do Sol territory for an assembly to discuss the future of their land. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

Some of the men clutched bloodwood truncheons as they prepared to journey down the Maú River in search of illegal miners; others held bows and arrows adorned with the black feathers of curassow birds. Marco Antônio Silva Batista carried a drone.

“If I die, it will be for a good cause – ensuring our territory is preserved for future generations,” said the 20-year-old activist-journalist, whose ability to spy on environmental criminals from above has made him a key member of GPVTI, an Indigenous patrol group in the Brazilian state of Roraima.

Batista, who belongs to South America’s Macuxi people, is part of a new generation of Indigenous journalists helping chronicle an age-old battle against outside aggression. For centuries, non-Indigenous writers and reporters have flocked to the rainforest region to tell their version of that ancestral fight for survival. Now, a growing cohort of Indigenous communicators are telling their own stories, providing first-hand dispatches from some of the Amazon’s most inaccessible and under-reported corners.

An Indigenous patrol member on Brazil’s border with Guyana in an attempt to film a goldmine polluting the Maú River. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

“It’s dangerous work and we suffer a lot when we’re out in the field,” said Batista, one of about 26,000 inhabitants of Raposa Serra do Sol, Brazil’s second most populous Indigenous territory. “But it really gives me strength because I’m showing the reality of our lives to the world.”

Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, won power last year promising to improve the reality of Indigenous lives after four calamitous years under the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, who trashed protection efforts and encouraged illegal mining in places such as Raposa Serra do Sol.

Batista and his comrades from GPVTI (pronounced jeh-peh-vi-chee) were among 60 million Brazilians who voted for the leftist. “He’s seen as a brother here … people respect him because he respects Indigenous culture,” the young journalist said of Lula, who authorised Raposa Serra do Sol’s creation in 2005, to the fury of wealthy rice farmers whose henchmen rampaged through one community burning homes, a church and a school.

Activists at the Indigenous Education and Culture Centre. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

But Batista had no illusions that Lula’s return to office would miraculously eradicate the threats facing his mineral-rich home, on which diamond and gold miners have long preyed, as well as drug and gun runners. After being cleansed by the shaman, the journalist and his team left GPVTI’s base in Tabatinga on motorbikes and sped east towards the border with Guyana, determined to capture aerial footage of the miners polluting Raposa Serra do Sol’s rivers. They hoped such images may prompt a government crackdown.

“It’s my job to monitor the territory: to see who’s coming in and who is leaving, to find areas being invaded, and to defend the territory because we cannot live without it,” said Batista, who was trained by a local Indigenous association, the Conselho Indígena de Roraima, as part of an initiative called Rede Wakywai, which means “our news” in the local Wapichana language.

Caíque Souza Wapichana, an Indigenous photojournalist who teaches Rede Wakywai’s reporters to use cameras and drones, said he was inspired by a famous 1989 photograph showing a Kayapó activist using a machete to confront the president of a hydropower company plotting to dam a river in another part of the Amazon.

“In the old days we pointed machetes. These days we fly drones,” Souza said, calling unmanned aerial vehicles “defensive weapons” against invaders.

Lauriano Afonso da Silva, a 61-year-old activist, with Jedeão Pereira Batista, 21, shows off the wooden spear he uses to guard his Indigenous community. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

By early afternoon, the GPVTI activists were powering down the Maú River, which Guyana calls the Ireng, in aluminium canoes. Dark clouds loomed on the horizon above grassy, boulder-strewn slopes inhabited by mountain lions, red hawks and margays. The illegal miners made their presence felt through plastic cachaça bottles floating in the murky river.

“We see miners as the enemy. Not just a personal enemy but an enemy of nature – an enemy of our fresh air and our clean rivers … We consider them poison,” said Jedeão Pereira Batista, a 21-year-old activist who runs one of seven GPVTI checkpoints designed to stop mining equipment and alcohol being smuggled into the highlands of Raposa Serra do Sol.

The work of Indigenous surveillance teams such as GPVTI is a high-risk occupation.

Last year, the British journalist and Guardian contributor Dom Phillips was ambushed and murdered while reporting on the activities of another such group, EVU, which targets poachers and drug traffickers on the Itaquaí River.

The Contigo River flows through the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous territory near Brazil’s border with Venezuela and Guyana. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

GPVTI’s four-wheel-drive carries a bullet hole above the driver’s window – the result of a gun attack last year. In July, knife-wielding miners attempted to abduct Batista as he tried to film an illegal mine near Tabatinga. “We managed to escape,” he said, downplaying the dangers. “We’re not afraid any more. We’re used to the death threats ... If something happens, we were doing our job.”

There was no sign of miners or machetes as GPVTI’s activists moored their boats near a set of rapids just shy of their objective and scrambled up a muddy riverbank. There were, however, swarms of blood-sucking simulium flies, known in Brazil as piuns, which leave tiny black dots on the skin and can transmit a parasitic disease known as river blindness.

Swatting them away, Batista steered his drone skywards and sent it racing south over the sierra towards the goldfield, about a mile away. “That’s the mine – right there,” he said as a toffee-coloured crater and a floating dredge appeared on his screen.

“It makes me so sad seeing all this environmental destruction,” Batista reflected. “It’s not just wrecking the environment but killing off biodiversity too.”

Standing beside him, GPVTI’s local boss, Anastácio Lima Batista, said he was convinced the number of wildcat miners invading their territory had increased since Lula’s government launched a major operation to drive tens of thousands of miners from Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory, which is also located in Roraima. “These are miners who were expelled from Yanomami lands,” Batista claimed. “We’re certain of it.”

Night fell and the patrolmen retired to their hammocks in Tabatinga to prepare for the next day’s operation. They rose at dawn to find their encampment framed by a full rainbow and set off for another suspected crime scene after receiving a tip-off.

Picking their way through a grove of sandpaper trees, the activists came to a stream where dozens of black and rust-coloured rocks had been stashed by unknown outsiders looting mineral resources from Indigenous lands.

“I haven’t a clue what it is – but it must be valuable,” said Anastácio Lima Batista, 33, as he examined the mystery slabs. He suspected miners had paid a local village chief “a pittance” to turn a blind eye to their clandestine quarry. “This is a crime,” Batista complained as his team hiked back to their vehicles.

A 25-year-old Yanomami man who is training to become a journalist in the hope of telling the world about the situation in his Indigenous territory. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

Back in Tabatinga, Batista’s octogenarian father, Domingos, said GPVTI’s crusade was the latest chapter in a four-decade fight that began in 1977, when local chiefs gathered in a nearby village to launch their resistance campaign.

Since then, Domingos had been arrested, threatened and shot at by police for confronting the invaders. “So many things have happened to me but … I never gave up. How could I, when this land is mine?” he said. “I was born here and it’s here that I’ll die.”

At 81, Domingos was too old to join Raposa’s warriors on their audacious monitoring missions – but he was determined to speak out.

“Please take this message around the world so people understand that our struggle isn’t easy – it isn’t easy at all,” the village chief urged his guests. “And things are getting worse.”


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