“We hope for political change”

We hope for political change

In Brazil, the presidential campaign is closely followed by indigenous peoples, whose situation has deteriorated under President Jair Bolsonaro. Not only do they suffer ever-increasing deforestation, but they are also increasingly victims of deadly attacks. This is the case of the Guajajara people who live in the state of Maranao, in the Amazon. One of their leaders, Olimpio Guajajara, leader of the Guardians of the Forest group, was on a European tour these days to raise international awareness of the situation of indigenous peoples.

RFI: Could you explain to us what your work as a “forest keeper” entails?

Olimpio Guajajara : In truth, we have been doing this work of protecting our land for more than 500 years. Since the arrival of settlers in 1500. But officially, this group was created in 2013. Our people, the Guajajara, live in the Arariboia indigenous territory, which covers 413,288 hectares: this is equivalent to 13 times the area of the state of Sao Paulo. We are almost 17,000 indigenous people living in this territory, including around 60 people who live in total isolation and do not want to come into contact with anyone. It is their most absolute right and our job is also to ensure that this right is respected. We are 102 guardians of the forest, divided into several regions. We patrol, we secure the entrances to our territory and we also destroy the equipment of illegal loggers. In fact, I consider myself an advocate for our planet and our humanity.

Your commitment involves risks, mortal risks. We have just learned of the death of a member of your people, he has been assassinated. Do we know by whom and why?

We have already lost six guardians of the forest in the last 10 years. They were murdered. Why ? Because we fight against the crimes committed against those who live in isolation. The perpetrators of these crimes are loggers and even some local politicians who also work in illegal logging. And the current government, that of Jair Bolsonaro, is also responsible, because it promotes, through its policy of support for deforestation, the violence committed on our territory.

So far, none of these murders have been tried, except in one case, where a trial is scheduled.

For the first time, the suspected assassins of a guardian of the forest, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, killed three years ago, will face trial. It will be in the form of a popular jury. All other assassins are still running free. But we do not yet have a date for the holding of this trial. They want to finish us off by exhaustion. But we are not going to give up. That’s why I came here to Europe to highlight all these violations of the law and the absence of the Brazilian state in indigenous territories.

So, to put pressure on the Brazilian government, you rely above all on international public opinion, and also on a change of government in Brazil with the presidential election scheduled in less than two weeks, an election that former President Lula could win, according to the polls?

Yes, we hope for a political change. And we do have some hope. If Lula wins the elections, we can at least – I hope – establish a dialogue with the government. To make him listen to us. I know that Lula would not change everything, he will certainly not increase the number of protected indigenous territories. You know, when he was president, he also attacked indigenous territories. It was under his government that the construction of the Belo Monte dam in the state of Para was decided. But at least his government hasn’t publicly come out as an enemy of indigenous peoples.

So, who defends your interests at the political level?

Nobody. We are the only ones to defend them. There are indigenous candidates but they no longer live here, they live in the big cities and are involved in political parties. This is the case of Sonia Guajajara, for example, who lives in Sao Paulo (and who is a candidate for a federal deputy mandate, editor’s note). But she uses the indigenous movement for her political career. Never has a deputy defended our interests and our rights. Rights that are enshrined in the Constitution.

And that you will therefore continue to defend, at the risk of your life

Yes. We will never give up. We do our part in protecting the forest, an essential forest for humanity. We will continue to do this work despite political and physical threats. For example, I can no longer go to certain villages in the region for fear of being killed. But we continue, for the future of our planet and our children.

► To read also: First Nations, indigenous or indigenous peoples, who are we talking about?