Alto Rio: A bit after sunrise, dozens of Indigenous Tembé men began preparing before setting off on motorbikes into Brazil’s Amazon forest.
Self-declared “forest guardians,” their aim was to find and expel illegal loggers and miners within their territory on the eastern edge of Brazil’s Para state. Emblazoned on their T-shirts was their group’s name — Ka’Azar, which in their language means “Owners of the Forest.” “For a long time, since I was born, I heard my father and the elders talk about the need to fight the loggers in our lands. We are trying to combat deforestation within our reserve, which is becoming increasingly precarious,” said Ronaldo Tembé, a 21-year-old member of the 40-man patrol.
The Tembé began these patrols last year as increasing encroachment on their territory and lax enforcement during President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration prompted them to take matters into their own hands. “We created the guardians, so these young men can inspect the land, to show where the invasions and illegal loggers are,” said village leader Sérgio Tembé.
Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon region may have reached a 14-year high in the 12 months through July, according to preliminary data published last month by the country’s space agency.
The Tembé people’s Alto Rio Guama territory spans some 2,800 square kilometers (1,080 square miles), nearly the size of Rhode Island, and has about 1,700 residents, according to the advocacy group Socio-Environmental Institute.
But even patrolling can be dangerous for the Tembé in a place where public oversight is scant, and where killing is an all-too-common recourse for lawbreakers. “Up until now, we don’t have support and we will never stop protecting our forest,” said Ronaldo Tembé. “We will never stop doing what’s right, never stop allowing our forest to breathe.”