An old boat engine, a Brazilian-made two-cylinder Diesel Yanmar, on a truck chassis, a few welded steel plates, and a solid wooden rear box make up a precarious looking vehicle, but powerful in all its simplicity.
The four Borarí and Arapiun indigenous communities in Maró Indigenous Land (TI Maró) have been using it for over a year now. On it they can cover the entire perimeter of their territory in just a few days. On foot, as has they had been doing since the beginning, it takes much longer - about two weeks.
The Borarí indigenous group came only recently to this remote territory, in which the Arapiun had been living for centuries. They were fleeing poverty from Alter do Chao, a predominantly Borarí land, about 30 kilometers to the west of Santarém, the capital city of the Lower Tapajós, in the Brazilian Pará. They went along the Arapiuns River right up to its headwaters and, from there, they followed the course of the small Maró River, which gives the territory its name.
The group is rather small, about 300 people spread over 3 villages: Novo Lugar, Cachoeira do Maró, and Sao José. But the territory is relatively large: some 42.000 hectares of primary forest - that is, intact, never cut-down Amazonian forest.
To an inexperienced observer, the whole Amazonian forest may look the same, but there is a fundamental difference between a virgin forest such as this and a forest which has been exploited. In the first phase of logging, the trees that hold the most valuable tropical timber - quoted in international markets - are felled.
The second phase consists in exploiting the remaining wood. And the third and last phase is the total elimination of vegetation, generally for purposes related to industrial agriculture or extensive livestock farming. Even though the jungle can recover in due course the space that has been destroyed, the original biodiversity is extinguished forever.
In Brazil, the devastating advance of illegal deforestation seems unstoppable. But communities like the Maró are resisting, and their very presence has come to be a guarantee of conservation – not without having to overcome many difficulties, and mobilizing against aggression. But with Bolsonaro coming to power in January of this year things are changing very rapidly.
This new reality means that an even greater threat is now looming: the threat posed by those who feel protected by the president’s aggressive discourse against the indigenous peoples and the Amazon as a whole. Many of Bolsonaro’s followers believe that they can finally do exactly what they please, taking atface value Bolsonaro’s assertion that the natives are an "obstacle to agro-industry".
Bolsonaro got elected on the strength of his racist discourse, his attacks on minorities, blacks and indigenous peoples, all of whom, he said, should be "integrated" into the dystopian, uniform, "productive" Brazil that he envisions.
The idea that indigenous territories must be preserved, their lands dermarcated and their rights respected is now over – even though it is enshrined in the Brazilian constitution.
Bolsonaro puts in the same basket environmentalists and human rights and civil rights activists. In his famous fake homemade video campaign speech in the backyard of his house, he made his intentions clear: "either they go away, or they go to jail".
We were able to see for ourselves to what extent some people do feel protected by Bolsonaro’s discourse and encouraged to act on their own on our trip to the hinterland of the Maró territory. Driven by Dadá Borarí - the second cacique of the territory, whose great uncle is the first -, the improvised vehicle took us along the road that marks the perimeter of the indigenous territory, a road hindered by obstacles and dangers which the vigilantes face, however, with enthusiasm and resolve.
Ever since the loggers’ incursions into their territory became more aggressive a few years ago, and following the recommendation of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI – the public body in charge of the indigenous peoples of Brazil), a group of men elected by the villages have organized themselves as a vigilante unit to watch over the territory. They go around its perimeter regularly, in rounds that usually last about ten days.
These experienced men, who have grown up here and know the jungle well, inch by inch, recently included in the group Ednei, a young Arapiun from Cachoeira do Maró, the village next to Novo Lugar, who had also recently been elected coordinator of the Tapajós-Arapiuns Indigenous Council (CITA), which represents 45 villages where 13 different indigenous peoples live in the Lower Tapajós, the Arapiuns River, the Maró River and the Santareno Planalto.
Ednei, who has just turned twenty, is a man of few words but great resolve. He has a clear sense of what the role he has been assigned involves and is determined to carry it through with all the courage of his youth.
Incorporating young people to the vigilante group is key to the continuity of its mission. It is essential that young people acquire the necessary knowledge and experience for the defense of a territory which finds itself under pressure from a hostile and greedy environment that seeks to extract its many riches.
The pressure comes, most of all, from the loggers operating in the region and from poachers too, who come to steal wood or hunt down the rich fauna that is part of the villages’ livelihood.
The latter are, quite often, people from neighboring lands who sold their forests and are now impoverished and have no other option but to try to get some food from the Maró Indigenous Land, which is still intact.
The surveillance rounds are lengthy and conditions in the jungle hard, but the beliefs of these natives provide them with both the necessary wisdom and courage to ensure the success of their expeditions. The Indigenous Land Maró, says Dadá, in addition to providing sustenance, hosts sacred places, fresh water sources (known as igarapés) that flow into the Maró river, herbs and medicinal plants and, above all, it is the place where Curupira dwells.
The concept of Curupira can possibly be translated as "the protective spirit of the jungle"- although its meaning for the natives is much deeper, and enigmatic. As a sacred entity, its magical powers ultimately determine what ends up happening to those who get into the jungle. The mission that the indigenous people have is to respect and protect the jungle and, in so doing, they respect and protect themselves.
Learning to defend the land is one of the important challenges that young Ednei, who is also in his first year at the University of Santarém (a half-day trip by boat from the village) studying climate science, has to face.
Led by Dadá, we go into the jungle with Ednei and the Maró IT group of vigilantes for a reconnaissance round. On route we find the remains of stolen wood - 26 large, already numbered valuable tree trunks - which a logging company could not finish removing because it went bankrupt: a sad cemetery of trees which were felled before the territory managed to get its demarcation as indigenous land protected by law.
This abandoned timber, which is now slowly decomposing into a nutrient for the land in which it grew, is the tragic evidence of depredation. A long trailer carrying a load of imposing trunks running along the territory’s border track, probably taking its felled treasure to the international markets, reminds us that the threat is not a virtual one.
The Maró indigenous people are keen on showing us a wasteland where an old logging company abandoned unusable machinery and other debris from their predatory activity in the territory. To them, this dump is a wound, an execrable trace that they want to erase, what amounts to a desecration according to their sacred conception of the forest.
The conflict becomes explicit through a real estate property dispute: a building that once belonged to a logger but, after the territory’s demarcation, is now located in indigenous land and belongs by law to the Maró.
Notwithstanding this, the former owner insists on marking his power and has been hiring guards to inhabit the house and confront the natives, who wish to give that property a community use.
Since the demarcation process was resumed in 2016, the building remained uninhabited. But recently, some threatening graffiti have appeared on a side wall. One of them reads: "Indian burglars, go to hell". “Bonsonaro” (spelling error included) reads another. Summoning Bolsonaro is a premonition that the worst is yet to come, a bad omen.
The surprise this time was that we found the house closed and guarded inside by two dogs. When the vigilantes managed to unlock the door and finally get into the house, they found fresh food around and obvious signs that the house was again occupied. It was cvlear that the alleged owner had returned to a policy of confrontation.
Helped by a group of young indigenous activists who were part of our expedition, and led by Ednei, who is also a member of that group, the vigilantes decided to paint two banners with a very clear message. "This is indigenous territory", said the first. "MARÓ"(in capital letters), said the second.
They took their time painting the banners. They spent quite a lot of time decorating them with indigenous graphics to show their willingness to reaffirm the ownership of the territory and everything in it. And to do so with dignity and pride. Ednei personally oversaw the job to its very last details, particularly the combining of red and blue in the geometric decorative bands, a sign of indigenous identity.
At the precise moment in which they posed for the picture, happily and proudly showing the two colorful banners before hanging them up, a very humble-looking young indigenous woman appeared on the road, carrying a macaque on her head and a little pig by her side that seemed straight out George Orwell's farm.
After some confusion, Dadá spoke to her, with a mixture of authority and solemnity as corresponds to his status as cacique. Dadá explained that the protest action was not against her, but against those who had sent her to occupy the house.
He demanded that she tell the logger that he wanted to talk to him, and that he would be waiting for him on the following Friday to explain to him personally that he has no right to this property, which is in Maró land, and that the community does not intend to give in to his acts of intimidation. After that, the young Indian woman was allowed to get into the house with her monkey and the piglet.
They then hanged the banners on the front of the house. Dadá hammered in the last nail with a fierce blow, the blow of a determined man who knows that he is facing a real threat, now favoured by that Bonsonaro whom the logger summons as a guarantee of impunity.
This three-hundred strong indigenous community which is defending its territory against the potentially overwhelming power of any logging or extracting industry that may feel empowered enough by Bolsonarism as it witnesses the freezing of the demarcation processes, is a living example of the enormous vulnerability of this piece of virgin jungle.
On our way back to the camp where we had spent the previous night, standing in the truck box and holding his hunting rifle under an intense tropical rain, Ednei was the embodiment of a new generation poised for affirmation and resistance. He belongs to a generation that has proudly assumed its parents' and grandparents' values and is now prepared to face the challenges of an all-round threatening future.
They are the heirs to a struggle that encompasses many generations. They are learning how to defend these small territories from forbidding devastation. And they know that their struggle contributes also to the defense of a more global cause: the defense of the planet's green lung and biodiversity, the struggle against climate change and against those who, like Trump, Bolsonaro and several others, are still denying it.
This new generation, already raised and educated in self-affirmation, is beginning to make use of the tools of activism in order to fight for its rights - hopefully, with the necessary efficiency to resist what is to come.
Defying the night in the primary forest, under a bright sky full of stars that have never come across light pollution, our impossible vehicle gets us to the village just in time to board an old barge that will take us back to where we came from.
Ednei and his people know, as do so many other Brazilian indigenous communities which have survived genocidal waves, that the mere fact of existing is resisting.
Too many things however depend on people like them. The rest of humanity can not afford to turn a blind eye.
This article is part of the Rainforest Defenders series, a project by democraciaAbierta in collaboration with Engajamundo Brasil, with the support of the Rainforest Journalism Fund of the Pulitzer Center. It was originally published by El País here