With Paulo Paulino Guajajara another Brazilian forest guardian was killed. The Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado savannah are burning. The first to be overwhelmed by the smoke, Brazil’s indigenous communities keep fighting back.

Jan De Deken

Text and pictures: Jan De Deken
Video: Thomas Ceulemans
3 November 2019

‘On the day that Bolsonaro was elected, they set our school and health center on fire.'

Vasco Pankararu, leader of the Pankararu people, has received constant death threats since that infamous day, October 7th2018. His land, in the dry steppes of the northeastern Pernambuco, is legally recognized as an indigenous reservation. But Bolsonaro’s promises during the last election campaign have emboldened farmers working the land that surrounds the reservation. Bolsonaro announced he would not leave a square centimeter of land to the native population. Later, he corrected himself: not a square millimeter. In fact, he would provide farmers with the weapons to drive these ‘parasites’ from the land that shelters the country’s mineral resources. ‘It is a shame that the Brazilian cavalry was not as efficient as the Americans’ at wiping out the indians’, the far-right ex-army officer once let slip.

‘With the support of the president they now think they can do whatever they want. But we are not afraid. We have already survived 519 years of colonization and oppression; this too we will endure’, says Vasco. He clears his throat and smoothens the black and white sparrow hawk feathers of his imposing headdress. But his attempt to project fearlessness jars with the quiver in his voice.

Together with more than a hundred other Pankararu, Vasco has just completed a 36-hour bus journey. It is his tenth Acampamento Terra Livre. Last year, as Bolsonaro led in the polls, the annual protest march drew 3500 indians of over a hundred different ethnicities to the nation’s capital. It was the largest ever indigenous gathering in Brazil. This year there are substantially fewer people in attendance. While they don’t want to admit it, they are scared. And justifiably so.

The Brazilian interior has never been a playground. Hardly anywhere on earth have more environmental protectionists, human rights activists and journalists been killed. These murders have mostly gone unpunished. But where the bar for human rights was already pitifully low, Bolsonaro has taken it upon himself to stamping it deep into the ground. He has declared himself an enemy of NGOs. He threatens to withhold their funding. He even accuses them of setting the fires in the Amazon rainforest. Many organizations that have fought for years under difficult conditions to protect human and environmental rights have now been dealt crippling blows. I would talk to many representatives of NGOs during this five-week journey through the Brazilian interior, and time and time again I would be asked not to quote them. More than ever they are afraid for the lives of their staff.

Under the leaden sun at Acampamento Terra Livre there is no shortage of stories like Vasco Pankararu’s. 

‘Because of the collapse of a dam belonging to the mining multinational Vale, our river was flooded with toxic waste in January. Everybody had to leave their homes. Vale is not even being held accountable. Everybody is afraid.’ – Yeré Tembié, Minas Gerais


‘Real estate companies can smell the opportunity. This year they already annexed large parts of our land. We are fighting back. But it always seems like blood has to be shed before indigenous lands are protected.’ Cacique Awa, Renascer Ywyty Guaçu


‘They want our skin. They are trying to conquer our reservation by bribing us, by dividing us. They have tried to prevent us from coming to Brasilia to demand our rights. But here we are. This battle we have won.’ Ana Terra Yawalapiti, Xingu


Bolsonaro deployed the elite Força Nacional to keep indigenous protestors out of the capital. Those brave enough to make the trip regardless are corralled by mounted police onto the perfectly mown lawn of the Esplanada dos Ministerios. Here, in the political heart of the country, right in front of the parliament and the senate, protestors have been setting up their tents for years. Now they have to move to a new and much less visible site a mile and a half away. 

Indigeneous communities are marching at Acampamento Terra Livre

Acampamento Terra Livre

They dance and sing to keep their spirits up, if only to drown out the old white man that comes by shouting out bible quotes, trying to convert the indians. But indecisiveness and desperation nevertheless dampen the mood. Some protestors want to plant their tents on the Esplanada, regardless of the riot police. Others are afraid of the violence. Or how the media will frame the issue, in which they–and not Bolsonaro–will be portrayed as savages. There is no real leadership. It’s only late that afternoon, when Sonia Guajajara gets off a plane from New York and arrives at the camp, that protestors finally take the bull by the horns. As chairwoman of the Brazil’s Indigeneous People’s Organisation (APIB), Sonia is one of the most powerful indigenous leaders in the country.

Inciting others to go to war with only maracas, ancestral spirits, and makeup made from fruit juice for weapons is something very few people can manage. But this firebreathing, five-foot descendent of the renowned Guajajara people is one of them. In genipapo and achiote warpaint and armed with pipes and rattles, thousands of protestors march towards parliament.

Click and swipe in this 360°-video.

Maria Alves Munduruku from the Munduruku tribe

Maria Alves Munduruku

‘Not one more drop of indigenous blood’! Maria Alvares Munduruku chants at the top of her voice, her maracas working overtime. She vividly remembers the military dictatorship that ran from 1964 to 1985. In that time, more than eight thousand indans were murdered because they had stood in the way of the economic development of the Amazon rainforest. That age has returned, she fears. Maria invites me to visit her village Açaizal, in the northern region of Para, to see the damage for myself.

Technically speaking, Açaizal lies within the Amazon rainforest. In reality, there is hardly any forest to be found there anymore: from horizon to horizon, the land has been razed. Açaizal’s surroundings have been reduced to a raw materials depot for the port city of Santarém.

Of all of the federal states in the Amazon region, Para is the one most affected by illegal logging, intensive livestock farming, and monoculture. As early as last year, when Bolsonaro pulled ahead in the polls, farmers in the area saw an opportunity to step their activities up a notch. New terrain was deforested. Those who stood in the way were swiftly disposed of. 

‘They murdered my brother. On August 12th last year. Not even because they wanted him dead, but just to get to me. Because of our battle against the soy farmers’, says village elder Josenildo Munduruku. His people have spent the last few decades fighting against loggers and cattle farmers. ‘But soy is the biggest threat we have ever faced. Especially now that the president has declared open season on us.’ Josenildo gestures at the empty interior of his modest, wooden hut. ‘They have firearms. How should we defend ourselves? With a bow and arrow?’

Chief Josenildo Munduruku from the Munduruku tribe

Chief Josenildo Munduruku

Josenildo blames SIRSAN, the largest real esate syndicate in the region. ‘The chairman of SIRSAN has fields here on our territory. And so do some politicians in local and national government. They won’t stop at anything to force us away from here.’

An hour’s drive from Açaizal, in a sweltering, windowless SIRSAN office in Santarém, Dannie Oliveira tells me it’s not the farmers that are at fault, but rather the lack of legal regulation around the issue. ‘Our members often do not have land deeds. Because land boundaries are not clearly demarcated, there are often conflicts with the indigenous peoples. And when the law fails to protect people, they take matters into their own hands.’ According to Oliveira, SIRSAN itself has nothing to do with this. 

I ask her if she approves of Bolsonaro’s plan to make the Amazon rainforest available for agriculture and livestock farming. She downplays the situation. ‘He is not going to be able to open the whole Amazon basin for business; the infrastructure for that is simply not there. Besides, the vegetation is dense. It requires a lot of work to prepare that land for agriculture.’ But Revista Tapajos Rural, the magazine that Dannie Oliveira writes for SIRSA farmers, is less reserved. ‘The Amazon is the new farming frontier of the nation,’ the magazine enthuses. 

‘We are fighting against Goliath,’ Josenildo sighs. ‘Cargill buys up everything that is produced by the farmers who are threatening us.’

Cargill, one of the largest agricultural producers in the world – their turnover hit 115 billion USD in 2018 – was a cosignatory to the 2006 soy moratorium. Following an initiative by Greenpeace, and together with a number of other multinationals, Cargill promised not to purchase any soy from Amazon regions deforested post-2006. 

Maura Arapium

Maura Arapium: ‘Dit land is pas vorig jaar ontbost.’

‘Nonsense’, says Maura Arapium, a young indigenous activist studying pharmacy in Santarém. Together with Maria, she guides me through dozens of kilometers of fields in and around Açaizal. ‘Look: as far as the eye can see, only corn. The soy has just been harvested. This area was deforested only last year, on indigenous territory.’ According to Maura and the Munduruku, Cargill is the sole purchaser of soy in the region. When I ask Cargill for an explanation, they assure me via email that they take the allegations seriously and will investigate. They guarantee that every supplier responsible for new deforestation in the Amazon is immediately blacklisted. That is not the kind of soy that they want.  

But when I call researcher Nathalie Walker of the American NGO National Wildlife Federation, this doesn’t check out. Four years ago, Walker revealed in leading scientific journal Science that hundreds of soy farmers are illegally deforesting new areas of the Amazon rainforest. And as long as they partially occupy that land with corn, lettuce or cattle, nobody takes notice. This allows farmers to grow even more soy on land that was previously occupied by other operations. This extra soy, farmers are able to offload to Cargill without any trouble.

‘And yes, our research team has been to soy fields where shortly before there was forest, despite the fact that on paper that shouldn’t be possible’, says Walker. ‘Only Cargill can buy that soy, because the next-nearest port is 320 miles away. So it’s either that, or they use the soy locally as cattle feed.’ But Dannie Oliveira at SIRSAN claims that their members only produce for the overseas market.

De Cargill-terminal in the harbor of Santarém

De Cargill-terminal in the harbor of Santarém

As night falls, while fishermen try to sell their last catch of the day on the shore, a cargo ship is loaded at Santarém’s Cargill terminal. Here, the mighty Amazon and Tapajós rivers flow into one another, one chocolate-milk brown and the other a deep, dark blue; it’s a miles-long struggle between titans that ends in an exhausted, black mass. The indigenous people believe that there is a bustling city on the riverbed here. One of spirits, ancestors, prehistoric animals and pink river dolphins that climb ashore disguised as handsome men dressed in white, seeking to wile young women into mating with them. The next morning, they remember nothing. Many an indigenous child of the Amazon basin has been chalked up to the pink river dolphin.

The Munduruku and Arapium people see the cargo ships as an illegal invasion by the world. In turn, Cargill sees these rivers, which cut deep into the landscape, as an opportunity to ship up to five million tons of soy straight to Europe and China every year. And soon there’ll be six million more tons. Cargill is planning a second terminal in Para.

Disguised as handsome men, pink river dolphins lure young women away from the village. Many an indigenous child of the Amazon basin has been chalked up to the pink river dolphin.

This is music to the ears of Amazon rainforest farmers; they want to mine new land. They look to Bolsonaro in the hope that his quick dismantling of Brazilian environmental groups will put the soy moratorium in danger. In early August, Bolsonaro fired Ricardo Galvao, then-director of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), whose satellite imagery clearly reveals the rate of deforestation. INPE had announced that this rate had increased by 88 percent in the space of a single year, but this was dismissed by Bolsonaro as a lie designed to benefit only the NGOs. Galvao’s replacement was a Bolsonaro ally with connections to the military. The director of Ibama–the Brazilian environmental police that put INPE’s satellite images to work in tracking down illegal loggers–has also been given the axe. By promising to end financial penalties for breaches of environmental law, the president has now paralyzed his own environmental police. And while the number of such penalties fell to a historic low, farmers steamed ahead by burning vast parts of forest to the ground. By the end of August this year, INPE had already logged a record-breaking 72,000 fires.

Along the BR-163, the forest fire map glows red. The 2871-miles-long freeway runs from the south of Brazil through vast savannahs and the Amazon rainforest to Santarém, coming to a dead-end at the Cargill terminal. 

If you follow the BR-163 south, you leave the Amazon basin behind and enter the Cerrado. The Cerrado is a savannah larger than Western Europe, and the first victim of the Amazon rainforest’s international success. In August, 9631 square miles of the Amazon were in flames. The West almost choked on its soymilk in indignation. But that in the same month 14111 square miles of the Cerrado were on fire, nobody has the slightest clue. The Cerrawhat?

Despite the lens that environmental organizations have trained on the Amazon rainforest for decades, more than half of the Cerrado’s two million hectares have been clear-cut anyway. On the journey from Cuiaba to the indigenous reservation of Manoki I pass farms wider than Maryland without spotting a single standing tree, the landscape graced only by the occasional fazenda and billboards that sing the praises of pesticides and genetically modified crops. Every few hours I drive through a farming hub with tractor showrooms and barbeque restaurants, where expressing sympathy for the indigenous population is enough to get a beating. It’s like playing cowboys and indians here, but for real.


Marta Manoki

It’s pitch-dark when I reach the junction where Marta Manoki is waiting for me. Together, we drive up a bumpy track past miles more farmland, and the vegetation becomes denser.

I first met Marta’s mother Rosines at Acampamento Terra Livre. Rosines is the chief of one of the hamlets on the Manoki reservation. Marta teaches at the local school, and works as an activist for the environmental and legal protection of Manoki territory. According to Marta, these two protections are dramas that play out on the same stage.

‘Indigenous territories are the best preserved areas of all of Brazil’, she says. ‘We really do see Mother Earth as our mother. We people, the animals, the plants, we are all connected to her. If you do not protect biodiversity, the whole system will be ruined. We will be too. So I don’t understand how people can pollute the rivers from which they drink. The air that they breathe. It doesn’t make any sense.’

She hasn’t yet managed to convince the surrounding farmers of this, though. On the contrary, the Manoki are also feeling the Bolsonaro effect.

The next day, the village elders come together to discuss how they should deal with a volley of recent threats. They are afraid of land invasions by farmers, but also of the construction of new hydroelectric power stations along the river. Before she enters the community center, Marta picks a prickly, bright pink Achiote fruit from a tree. With the seeds inside, she paints her cheeks rust-brown. ‘For protection.’

De Manoki come together to discuss the recent threats

De Manoki come together to discuss the recent threats

During the hours-long meeting, she explains to her neighbors what their rights are. She explains that no hydroelectric power stations can be built before consulting with the Manoki, a right that is grounded in the protocols of the International Labour Organization (ILO). After her speech, she encourages the youngest attendees to take the microphone. 

‘This is important. Our forefathers gave their lives for our rights. Without their fight, we would not exist today. We need to educate our children politically from an early age, so that, in the future, they too will make a stand to protect our territory, the rivers and the forests.’

The soy that is harvested from Marta’s burned-out homeland finds its way straight into our single-friendly ready meals. 

But the struggle for the hearts and minds of the young is getting more and more difficult. Children grow up with two cultures; they become part Manoki and part white Brazilian. One of these cultures is marginalized and threatened, the other dominant and all-consuming. Football long ago supplanted traditional sports. With the arrival of electricity in 2006, television also made its debut. Stories beneath the stars gave way to telenovelas from Rio de Janeiro, through which indigenous youth are exposed to a worldview light-years removed from their own. And while there’s still no cell service, the internet is nevertheless beginning to creep in. With their smartphones, youths troop together around the single mast on the reservation with reception.











Marta knows it is an unavoidable evil. You can’t fight your enemy without being able to see him, or defend your rights without knowing them. That’s why, as the first Manoki ever, she went to study at university. ‘We have to make the laws of the whites our own to be able to fight with the same weapons.’ 

And yet all the ILO rules and other legislation she has learned by heart are in vain. In August, the farmers answered Marta’s question of how far they were willing to go: the Manoki reservation was torched. The inferno was so extreme, that it became Amnesty International’s campaign image.

Manoki reserve burning

The Manoki reserve burning in August. © Marizilda Cruppe/Amnesty International

Here in the Cerrado, there is no moratorium. The soy that is harvested from Marta’s burned-out homelands will find its way straight into our single-friendly ready meals, and into the cattle feed for our juicy T-bone steaks.

EU countries import 14 million tons of soy annually from Brazil. This soy largely becomes cattle feed. But as most supermarkets are also important clients of traders like Cargill, JBS and Bunge, a great deal of Brazilian soy also finds its way into a wide range of the foods on our supermarket shelves.

I call Hilde Stroot of Greenpeace to discuss this. ‘As a customer of those supermarkets you simply can’t know if forests have been illegally burned down to make your meal’ she says. ‘Cargill and Bunge know that the Amazon rainforest is one of the treasures of the world, that there’s outcry over this. That’s why they wipe their hands of it, and why they are just green enough in some areas to be able to relax their environmental efforts in other ecosystems like the Cerrado. They had promised to make their entire operation free of deforestation by 2020, but they won’t even come close to reaching that target.’

The cutting down of rainforests emits more CO2 than the entire European Union. Yet Brazilian deforestation is done almost exclusively to feed foreign beef cattle. So it makes sense to calculate those emissions as part of the EU’s totals.

But with this, producers like Cargill shoot themselves in the foot. The Cerrado is a forest that is upside-down; its roots are three times longer than the vegetation aboveground. This is how plants and trees keep large amounts of water in the area, Professor Rosangela Azevedo Correa explains in her office at the University of Brasilia. She has built a digital ‘Museum of the Corrado’ to draw attention to the importance of this ecosystem. 

‘Eight of the twelve big Brazilian rivers have their sources in the Cerrado. They flow to the Amazon, the Pantanal, the northern steppes and the pampas in the south of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay’, says Azevedo Correa. ‘But the Cerrado is drying out at a frightening pace, and as that happens, all of South America is getting drier. This is almost entirely the fault of intensive agriculture practices. These practices are responsible for 82 percent of Brazilian water consumption. We really aren’t going to solve this problem by taking shorter showers, like some are suggesting.’ 

Climate change is also contributing to the destruction of the Cerrado and ecosystems like it. In recent years, Brazil has had to endure both catastrophic flooding and extreme heat and drought. Failed harvests have eaten away greedily at the Brazilian economy. Nathalie Walker, the researcher who exposed the Amazonian soy farmers in Science, is sympathetic to the concerns of individual farmers about their own crops. But she can’t understand how large purchasers like Cargill and Bunge don’t leverage their dominant market positions to ensure that these lands remain productive for the future. ‘You would expect more of a long-term vision from them, even if only out of self-interest. On top of that, there are already tens of millions of clear-cut hectares ready for cultivation in the Cerrado. If their producers used those instead of logging new forest, Brazil could double its soy production without further deforestation. It’s a huge missed opportunity.’ 

Instead, Big Agra fires off another round of bullets into our collective feet, with consequences that go far beyond South America. Cerrado vegetation takes up large amounts of CO2. Maximum capacity: a whopping 13.7 billion tons. But when vegetation loaded with carbon is razed to the ground and set on fire, CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This is what makes deforestation, after fossil fuels, the biggest cause of global warming. To put it into perspective: the logging of rainforests is responsible for more emissions than the total emissions of the European Union. But it’s also a fact that this Brazilian vegetation is burned almost exclusively to either grow cattle feed or raise cattle for the international market. So really these deforestation figures should be included in European emission calculations. Add to that Brazil’s 220 million greenhouse-gas emitting cows, and the impact on the climate is twice as bad. In 2018, Brazil produced 41 percent of all beef imports to the EU.

‘Whole Brazilian states are being obliterated to produce meat for Europeans and Americans. Brazilians don’t benefit from this. Eighty percent of what we consume comes from family farms. Industrial agriculture creates barely any jobs. Only a tiny elite profits from this,’ says Azevedo Correa.

Correa asks Europe, Brazil’s biggest trading partner after China, to take up a robust position against deforestation. ‘If you stop eating our meat, we will simply have to change our farming practices.’

‘If you stop eating our meat, we will simply have to change our farming practices.’

This is all good and well, but whom exactly are you asking to do this? The consumer? Major supermarkets? According to Hilde Stroot, supermarkets are already a lost cause. She believes it’s up to European governments to take responsibility, and urgently too. ‘For too long, the issue has been left to business. They aren’t even meeting their own resolutions for improvement, so now it is up to government to lay down the law. Macron, Merkel and Rutte all rush to cry out their indignation over the carnage in the Amazon rainforest, but they’re as complicit in it as Bolsonaro is. There is still not a single legal restriction on the import of Brazilian soy.’

Instead, in June the EU agreed a multi-year deal with the Brazilian-dominated Mercosur trade bloc. According to a top Western European diplomat in Brasilia, this was an urgent priority for which all ethical objections to Bolsonaro’s leadership had to give way. It was so important, in fact – given this precarious moment in global trade – that it justified gifting Bolsonaro the trade deal as his first big international success. 

Sonia Guajajara looks on in astonishment. ‘The EU is constantly talking about environmental and human rights. But here environmental policy has been completely dismantled, and Europe apparently doesn’t have a problem with it. Isn’t that contradictory?’ In November, she will head to Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam to denounce the Bolsonaro government’s environmental and human rights infringements, and the complicity of European companies in these transgressions.

Sonia Guajajara at Accampamento Terra Livre

Sonia Guajajara

Since the media coverage of the burning Amazon rainforest, calls for sanctions against Brazil from Europe’s centers of power have grown. The current chair of the European Council, Finland, has asked if the EU should place an embargo on the import of Brazilian beef. But where the EU really could have had an impact, it failed to seize its opportunity; the only article in the trade agreement with Mercosur that is exempt from sanctions is the one on climate. The chapter on sustainability is not legally binding.

In the meantime, the calls of Macron and Merkel seem to be having very little effect. Just like Macron’s threat to sink the Mercosur trade agreement if Bolsonaro took his country out of the Paris climate change accord. While Brazil may not have formally left the Paris agreement, the country continues to lag far behind its climate obligations under the agreement. The only concrete result of European intervention is that Bolsonaro can now turn to his supporters and show that he won’t bow down to what he sees as neocolonialist meddling. 

'Even if we were to cut down every last tree, it would be our God-given right to do so.'

‘Brazilians are allergic to this. We won’t destroy the Amazon, because that is not in our interest. But even if we were to cut down every last tree, it would be our God-given right to do so’, a Brazilian diplomat at the EU in Brussels tells me. It’s September 7th, Brazil’s day of independence, and caipirinhas have loosened tongues in the garden of the ambassador’s residence. His colleague, who is closely involved with the trade agreement, has a different opinion. ‘Brazil is heading down a very slippery slope. We can only hope that the EU will use this accord to compel our government to respect environmental regulations.’

Back in Brazil, there is growing conflict between Bolsonaro’s followers, thanks to the extraordinary recklessness with which he has handled the country’s essential export markets. Minister for Agriculture Tereza Cristina Correa de Costa Dias, herself a member of a powerful farming dynasty, approved hundreds of new pesticides this year alone. Of those, 24 include ingredients that are banned in the EU. This follows Bolsonaro’s predecessor Michel Temer’s time in office, during which 193 EU-banned pesticides were legalized. 

In areas where pesticides are most heavily used, rates of infant mortality from cancer and the incidence of malformed fetuses have both reached new highs.

I head to the Federal University of Mato Grosso, in Cuiaba. I’m meeting Marcia Montanara. For years now, her research group has shone a light on the correlation between pesticide use and serious health problems. She shows me maps that leave little to the imagination. In those areas where pesticides are most heavily sprayed, there is a sharp rise in rates of infant mortality from cancer and malformed fetuses. ‘We find the banned pesticides in blood and urine samples, in breast milk and in a large number of agricultural products’, says Montanara.

Bizarrely enough, products containing these EU-banned substances simply end up being sold on the European market. And the pesticides are often even produced by European companies. In other words: European companies sell pesticides to Brazil that the EU considers too dangerous to allow to be sold in Europe. But as long as the clouds of toxic sprays increase child mortality in Brazil and not in Europe, the EU sees no reason to stop the import of sprayed crops. It’s hard to imagine a more cynical form of leadership, not least for a world power that prizes itself on how seriously it takes environmental issues.   

Even Brazilian business can’t quite believe that Europe’s remarkable acquiescence can go on. Blairo Maggi–former minister of agriculture, until recently a Bolsonaro loyalist, the world’s biggest soy farmer and himself the recipient of hefty fines for illegal deforestation–is now publicly concerned that Bolsonaro’s chosen path will damage Brazil economically.

I ask Dannie Oliveira of the agricultural syndicate SIRSAN about this. She shrugs. ‘It doesn’t really matter which pesticides the government legalizes. Our farmers follow the regulations of the foreign markets to which they sell. They are not going to take the risk of planting hectares and hectares of soy that they can’t sell when they harvest.’ Still, she is pleased with the newly approved products. ‘The lizards that threaten our harvests are becoming resistant, and so we need stronger pesticides. Otherwise farmers will turn to extremely poisonous substances that enter the country illegally. This is already happening to fight whitefly, for example.’

A welcome side effect of the pesticides is that they are a powerful aid in the fight for land. ‘Not only does the soy destroy our vegetation; the pesticides are driving the natives out. The river, the groundwater, the air, the earth, everything is poisoned. It threatens our entire existence’, says Josenildo Munduruku in Açaizal.

Elias Munduruku

Elias Munduruku

His fellow villager Elias Munduruku agrees. ‘My neighbor gave in under the pressure and sold his land. Now I get am literally covered with pesticides. If my other neighbor also sells, I’m done for. They came here to do tests; I already have pesticides in my blood.’ He receives threats, too, but refuses to leave. ‘Then they should just murder me. I’m not going anywhere. Only the man in the sky has the right to come take me.’ 

Maura Arapium

Maura Arapium

As we leave Santarém by river to embark on a seven-hour journey to her village, Marta Arapium points to the riverbanks. ‘You only see trees, but behind them are the quarries. They are cutting down huge parts of the forest to mine for minerals. As if the soy plantations weren’t already threatening enough.’ In 2009, when the river had become so polluted they could no longer drink from it, the indigenous peoples of the Tapajos decided to mount a counterattack. ‘We blockaded the river with our canoes. The boats that refused to stop, we set their loads of wood on fire. It was a way to demand our rights’, Maura says measuredly. 

In those days, now ten years ago, Maura could still travel to her village via a tributary to the Tapajos. But illegal logging around the Arapium caused the riverbanks to collapse, blocking the way. So we hop off the boat and the next morning cover the remaining ten miles through the forest on foot.

Maura may as well be permanently fighting for indigenous rights from her base in Santarém, as she only manages to set foot in her village a few times a year. It takes her a long time to save the twenty euros for the boat ride home. And after Bolsonaro’s slashing of university budgets and scholarships for minorities, the financial noose is tightening around Marta’s neck. ‘Many indigenous students will have to give up their studies. Of course, that’s exactly what the government wants’, says Marta.

She refuses to give in, though. She’s not just studying for any old pharmacy degree. ‘I want to prove the therapeutic value of our natural medicines, and secure the intellectual property for those who deserve it: the indigenous peoples. Pharmaceutical companies earn billions with our plants. For generations, we have been robbed.’

I spend four days with the Arapium. Marta’s mother tells me about the medicinal workings of dozens of plants. She was the first ever woman cacique, or village chief. Now her sister has taken over the responsibility. There are only around a hundred Arapium in Braso Grande, and most of them are related. They spend their days on their farmland, with their handfuls of cows, and sometimes hunt small game in the forest. It’s tempting to idealize the quiet, traditional life of these native people, far from internet connections and cell service. ‘Make no mistake, life in the forest is hard’, Marta regularly reminds me.

Then, just before we leave, her point is terribly proven. As I quickly wash myself in the river ahead of the long walk back, the chirping of cicadas is broken by a bloodcurdling scream.  

Vitorio Arapium

Vitorio Arapium

Vitorio, Maura’s two year-old nephew, has been pumped full of poison by a scorpion. The fist-sized creature just happened to fall from the ceiling of their building. Vitorio screams like I’ve never heard anybody scream before. He goes into shock almost immediately, his tiny body violently convulsing.

It isn’t the first scorpion sting in the village. Two adults just barely survived theirs. But a two year-old is a different story. With the only motorbike in the village, Maura races ten miles along a dirt track to take to the river in a dinghy in search of a cell signal. It takes forever. All along, Vitorio continues screaming and shaking. It is bone chilling. The world has stopped dead, the whole village just waiting, wracked with anxiety. Maura’s mother rushes to and fro with plant mixtures to induce Vitorio into vomiting up the poison. 

After three hours, the helicopter finally arrives from Sesai, the institute for indigenous healthcare. Incredibly, Vitorio has held on. Exhausted and still screaming, only now with broken vocal cords, he is raced to hospital in Santarém.

Just like the environmental police, the space agency, and the universities, Sesai’s funding has also been gutted by Bolsonaro. If they want healthcare, they will have to live like Brazilians, the president says. Perhaps for the next toddler stung by a scorpion, no helicopter will come.