“We Live In The Forest:” Indigenous Ka’apor Community Fights Loggers in Brazil

Members of the indigenous Ka’apor community in Brazil’s northeastern state of Maranhão are risking their lives to expel loggers from their land in the Amazon forest. Amidst the conflict, an indigenous leader was assassinated.

Source in Portuguese: Repórter Brasil
























Written by Ruy Sposati, for the Indigenous Territory of the Alto Turiaçu (Maranhão state) and Piero Locatelli for Repórter Brasil; Photos by Ruy Sposati; Translated by Holly Holmes.

Eusébio Ka’apor and his cousin were traveling by motorcycle when they were approached by two armed, hooded men at a crossroads. The indigenous men continued on their way home, crossing through the towns that surround the Indigenous Territory of the Alto Turiaçu in Maranhão state. “It was raining very hard, almost dark,” recalls P (the indigenous men’s names have been changed). When he heard the gunmen’s shouts, he decided to speed up. “I didn’t think they would shoot, but the guy fired: bang!” he said, simulating the sound of the gunshot that went through Eusébio’s upper hip, and grazed P’s lower back.

The motorcycle covered another 80 yards before Eusébio fell. “It hurts,” were some of Eusébio’s last words. Still alive, he was carried to a nearby town. Then, P went to ask for help in the village of Ximborendá. With M, Eusébio’s son, P used a truck to load the man, now “spurting blood,” and raced to the hospital in the Zé Doca municipal area. A few miles before arriving in the city, the Ka’apor man died.

P is the only witness to Eusébio’s death. The crime occurred on April 26 in the rural zone of the Maranhãozinho [Little Maranhão] municipal area, 1.8 miles from the Ximborendá village entrance. The following morning, Eusébio’s son recounts that he was accosted by a sawmill owner at the county seat of Zé Doca city. “He said that he already knew about his death and came to say that other people would die,” said M. “He even complained that he couldn’t get wood from there anymore.”

The logger was referring to the Ka’apor community’s indigenous territory that suffers constant invasions for the purpose of extracting trees. Tired of waiting for the State to help, the indigenous people have decided to put their own lives at risk since 2013 to expel the loggers. Eusébio was one of the leaders of this movement.

Their actions have been referred to by the Ka’apor community as “missions.” They follow the invaders’ tracks—always within their own territory—and take their equipment, burn their vehicles, and expel the loggers (who have to leave on foot). The trails from where the trees were removed are then closed. The courtyards, used as a base for the sawmills, are transformed into new Ka’apor villages that take the name Kaar Husak Ha, or “protected areas.”

Although the murder inquiry is still in progress, there are many factors that cause the indigenous people to suspect the loggers. Aside from having been accosted by a sawmill owner the morning after the crime, two other Ka’apor people suffered a similar attack: one week before the murder, on April 19, two indigenous men riding a motorcycle were approached by armed, hooded men. The gunmen took the vehicle, beat one of the indigenous men, and ordered them to run into the forest. A few miles from the area, the aggressors discharged three shots—one of them entered the gas tank of the motorcycle, which was left in the road.

Former-chieftain of Ximborendá, the largest of the eighteen villages in the Alto Turiaçu territory, Eusébio lost the position when the Ka’apor community substituted chiefdom with administrative councils. But he was still an important leader. His death frightened the two thousand indigenous people who live in the 530 thousand hectares of indigenous territory—one of the best-conserved areas in Maranhão.

The survival of the Ka’apor community is directly related to the forest. “We do not depend on the city, we depend on the woods. For this reason, our name is Ka’apor: ‘we are from the woods.’  And the woods also depend on us,” said J, another indigenous man who preferred to speak anonymously. Still upset by Eusébio’s death, he points to a chestnut tree and explains why the missions cannot stop: “This tree was already here before I was born and before my father was born. This is why we fight. We could die, but our children will always have the forest.”

Who killed Eusébio?

The investigation was marred by the fact that the police only arrived at the crime scene days later, when the state secretary of Public Safety assembled a team to investigate the case. Deputy José Henrique Mesquita works from two hypotheses: “The first is that somebody is committing assaults in the region, and it has no connection to the logging conflict. The second is that the death occurred at the behest of the loggers to frighten the indigenous people.”

The first line of investigation, that of theft, is more widely broadcast by the local press. The track record of conflicts in the region, however, corroborates the second hypothesis. “This type of threat has already been happening, and Eusébio was one of the threatened leaders. It is strange that somebody had attacked precisely the motorcycle of a leader like him,” said lawyer Luiz Antônio Pedrosa, president of the Human Rights commission of the Brazilian Bar Association of Maranhão (OAB-MA).

“We understand that, in principle, it is a crime related to the situation of local conflict with the loggers,” said attorney Galtiênio Paolino from the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office [MPF] in Maranhão. He requested that the Federal Police (PF) investigate the case, but they responded that they can’t take the case until the suspicion of theft is discarded by the Civil Police.

Despite not having federal aid, the investigation is supported by the indigenous people. First to arrive at the crime scene, they found a .38 calibre shell fitted with a copper casing. Rare in the region, it is similar to another bullet discharged against the indigenous people the week before the murder on April 19. According to a deputy of the Civil Police, the correlation between the shell casings strengthens the hypothesis of an assassination by the loggers.

A documented crime

The track record of threats and attempts against the Ka´apor community point to another possible factor in Eusébio’s murder: the failure of the State. Since 2008, the MPF has asked for aid from federal courts in containing the conflict. Six years later, the Justice system determined that Funai [Fundação Nacional do Índio – National Indigenous Foundation] would present a plan for the supervision of indigenous territory and the installation of fixed security posts, which has yet to take place.

Funai affirms that it has intensified operations in the last five years against the illegal extraction of wood in the region and that it “advises indigenous people not to approach the invaders directly.” According to the Ka’apor community, however, the supervisory activities don’t work because the loggers return later.

The director of environmental protection at Ibama [Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], Luciano de Meneses Evaristo, recognizes the limits of the operations and positively evaluates actions like those of the Ka’apor community members. “They protect these areas. Why do I have a million square meters [of preserved Indigenous Territory] today? Because the indigenous people are there. If they weren’t there, it [the forest] would already be gone,” he claims. But these acts of protection could cost indigenous people their lives. The threats against them have increased since December 2014, after the Ka’apor community closed the most recent branch from where wood was removed from indigenous land. This was when a group of loggers invaded and burned village plantations. “They stole clothes, the hens, burned the huts, trampled the elderly [people],” recounts J.

He remembers how difficult it was to register a police report of the episode. “The police saw the relatives all bandaged up, heads with adhesive tape, injured shoulders, but nobody wanted to make a police report. We walked 125 miles. We were in the police station in Encruzo [in the Governador Nunes Freire municipality], at the Centro do Guilherme municipality in Santa Luzia do Paruá, and they only said that the deputy wasn’t there, that he didn’t have a notary.” In February, Ka’apor men from the different villages involved in the operations reported that they suffered two attacks similar to that of Eusébio, but they said they were “afraid to register a police report because they didn’t trust the policemen and were afraid of being insulted or attacked by relatives of the aggressors in the city,” according to a document delivered by the indigenous association Janderuhã ha Ka’a rehe to the state secretary of Public Safety in Maranhão at the beginning of May.

Last December, the Ka’apor community requested that the Special Secretary of Human Rights, an agency linked to the Presidency of the Republic, include four indigenous representatives in the Protection Program for Human Rights Defenders. This program provides an escort to threatened leaders. The secretary affirms that it received orders for three indigenous people and that it awaits information from the MPF, Funai, the PF and the state government to grant a continuation in the evaluation of the case.

Green Frontier

The Ka’apor community’s trees are coveted because they represent the few that remain of the Amazon in Maranhão. According to data from the National Institute of Spatial Research (Inpe), a little more than half of what was left of the forest in the state is in indigenous territory. Even in Google Maps, it is possible to see that the Ka’apor community borders coincide with the deforestation borders: the green of the forest is stronger inside the indigenous territory, while the surrounding areas are deforested.

The simple repression of the loggers, however, will not be enough to remedy the conflict, federal prosecutor Alexandre Soares believes. For him, the pressure on the forest is aggravated by the lack of another economic model in the region, one that gives alternative sources of income to the local inhabitants. Before the missions began, some Ka’apor people even resorted to working in sawmills to survive.

“This was before our awakening,” said J, who carries a certain sadness in his face when remembering this part of his past. “We, the Ka’apor, were losing the traditional [way], now it is returning. We are recuperating the forest and recovering the way we lived before.”

After the murder, the pressure on them only increases. “Yesterday [May 9], the loggers opened another branch near the one we had closed in the mission,” says the indigenous man A, who saw various trucks and tractors inside indigenous territory. But he reminds us that it is only possible to evaluate the real intensity of the invasion with the end of the Amazonian rains and the arrival of dry season in June. The tension could take tragic shape if, until then, the federal, state, and municipal governments continue to leave the Ka’apor community alone to defend the forest.

Holly Holmes is a translator, ethnomusicologist, and vocalist who is passionate about sharing stories from Brazil on everything from politics and ecology to music and education.