The Ka'apor of Brazil Use Bows, Arrows, Sabotage and GPS to Defend the Amazon from Logging
By Jonathan Watts /

With bows, arrows, GPS trackers and camera traps, an indigenous community in northern Brazil is fighting to achieve what the government has long failed to do: halt illegal logging in their corner of the Amazon.

The Ka’apor – a tribe of about 2,200 people in Maranhão state – have organised a militia of “forest guardians” who follow a strategy of nature conservation through aggressive confrontation.

Logging trucks and tractors that encroach upon their territory – the 530,000-hectare Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land – are intercepted and burned. Drivers and chainsaw operators are warned never to return. Those that fail to heed the advice are stripped and beaten.

It is dangerous work. Since the tribe decided to manage their own protection in 2011, they say the theft of timber has been reduced, but four Ka’apor have been murdered and more than a dozen others have received death threats.

Now the Ka’apor are seeking support through NGOs and the media. Earlier this month, the Guardian was among a first group of foreign journalists and Greenpeace activists who were invited to see how they live and operate.


Reaching their land was a long haul. After flying to São Luis, the capital of Maranhão state, it took more than eight hours to drive along a potholed highway flanked by cattle farms and palm plantations before turning off on to a bumpy dirt track through tracts of deforested land, until a dense thicket of jungle marked the limit of Ka’apor territory.

The path was so close to the foliage here that branches constantly scratched and scraped the sides of our 4×4 until finally, just a few minutes before midnight, we emerged into a clearing bathed in moonlight.

This was Jaxipuxirenda, one of eight former logging camps that have been taken over by the Ka’apor and settled by a handful of families so the timber thieves cannot return. It was very simple; six thatched roofs under which families slept in hammocks.

Living in such outposts is a sacrifice. Longer-established villages have electricity, health centres, football pitches and satellite dishes. Jaxipuxirenda is bereft of such creature comforts.

But it is a key part of a drive to regain territory, independence and respect – all of which have been steadily eroded by loggers for more than two decades. Alto Turiaçu, which covers an area equal to Delaware or three times that of Greater London, is a vulnerable and lucrative target. Although 8% has already been cleared, the indigenous land contains about half of the Amazon forest left in Maranhão state. This includes much sought-after trees, like ipê (Brazilian walnut), which can fetch almost £1,000 ($1,500) per cubic metre after processing and export.

Ka’apor Indians setting up trap cameras in areas used by illegal loggers to invade the indigenous territory. Photograph: Lunae Parracho/Greenpeace

Ka’apor Indians setting up trap cameras in areas used by illegal loggers to invade the indigenous territory. Photograph: Lunae Parracho/Greenpeace

The Ka’apor asked the government to protect their borders, which were recognised in 1982. Last year, a federal court ordered the authorities to set up security posts. But nothing has been done, prompting the community to organise self-defence missions.

In the morning, one of the forest guardians, Tidiun Ka’apor (who, like all of the leaders of the group, asked to have his name changed to avoid being targeted by loggers) explains what happens when they encounter loggers.

“Sometimes, it’s like a film. They fight us with machetes, but we always drive them off,” he says. “We tell them, ‘We’re not like you. We don’t steal your cows so don’t steal our trees.”

The main weapons used by the Ka’apor are bows and arrows and borduna – a heavy sword-shaped baton. One of the group also owns a rusty old rifle. Mostly though, they depend on greater numbers.

Tidiun Ka’apor takes us to a charred truck and tractor that the group burned in a confrontation a little over a week earlier and uses the ashes to paint his face. “This gives us strength,” one of his associates says. The Ka’apor are thought to have set fire to about a dozen loggers’ vehicles. Further along the road, they build a pyre of planks seized inside their land, douse it with gasoline and then watch it burn.

Another of the group’s leaders Miraté Ka’apor says the use of violence – which has resulted in some broken bones but no deaths among the loggers – is justified. “The loggers come here to steal from us. So, they deserve what they get. We have to make them feel our loss – the loss of our timber, the destruction of our forest.”

Compared with the past, he said the missions were effective. “Our struggle is having results because the loggers respect us now.”

But the loggers also appear to be responding with lethal force. On 26 April, a former chieftain, Eusébio Ka’apor was murdered by gunmen on his way back from a visit to his brother. Like most killings of indigenous people and environmental activists in Brazil, the crime has not been solved, but the dead man’s son has little doubt who is responsible and what they were trying to achieve.

Ka’apor Indians stand next to a logging tractor that they discovered and set on fire inside the indigenous territory one month before. Photograph: Lunae Parracho/Greenpeace

Ka’apor Indians stand next to a logging tractor that they discovered and set on fire inside the indigenous territory one month before. Photograph: Lunae Parracho/Greenpeace

“He was a target because [the loggers] thought he was the main leader of the group,” said Iraun Ka’apor. “They thought the Ka’apor would stop if they killed him. But we will continue with our work of protection. I’m not afraid. This is my home, my land, my forest.”

Ten days before we arrived, Iraun received a death threat and was told that the bullet that killed his father had been meant for him.

The authorities in Maranhão – the poorest state in Brazil – warn the Ka’apor that although they are within their rights to protect their land, it is ultimately up to the state to resolve disputes over territory.

“The involvement of the Ka’apor in the defence of their territory against the loggers should be understood as legitimate defence, since the action of the loggers puts their survival at risk,” said Alexandre Silva Saraiva, regional superintendent of the federal police. “But the presence of the state is the only way to diminish the agrarian conflicts and reduce homicides.”

Inside Alto Turiaçu, people are sceptical that the police and government are willing to look after indigenous interests. Last year 70 Indians were murdered in Brazil, a 32% increase on 2013, according to the Missionary Indigenous Council. In many cases the killings were related to land disputes with loggers or ranchers. In their community gathering, many Ka’apor expressed the belief that the authorities were colluding in the sell-off of the forest.

“We are very concerned,” Miraté says. “Even the local authorities are involved. They grant licences to the sawmills and that encourages the loggers. The way the brancos [white or non-indigenous people] are organised also promotes death. They make a profit from this.”

Government officials prefer to focus on the positives: the slowdown in Amazonian deforestation rates over the past 10 years (though in Maranhão’s case this is largely because there is so little forest left) and the progress made in bringing culprits to justice. This year, prosecutors in neighbouring Pará state have broken up an illegal land-clearance ring and arrested corrupt officials in timber-laundering syndicates that supply fake certification to loggers. Elsewhere, satellite monitoring has helped toidentify which landowners are tearing down or burning the most trees, though this approach is of less use when it comes to the steady degrading of the forests by invasive loggers.

Pedro Leão, superintendent for Ibama (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) insists his agency is already combating the criminal organisations behind illegal logging and cautions that it is “extremely risky” for the Ka’apor to do the same. He said he hoped Ibama could make greater strides in the future by focusing on sawmills and possibly using GPS trackers.

These are already areas where the Ka’apor are active. During this month’s visit, Greenpeace – which also helped the Guardian to reach the area – provided the community with 11 camera traps, 11 GPS trackers and two computers, worth a total of 20,000 reais (£3,480/$5,260).

A Ka’apor Indian sets up a trap camera in an area used by illegal loggers. Photograph: Lunae Parracho/Greenpeace

A Ka’apor Indian sets up a trap camera in an area used by illegal loggers. Photograph: Lunae Parracho/Greenpeace

Marina Lacorte, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil, said the devices – which are usually used to capture wild animals on film – were intended to enhance the Ka’apor’s success in diminishing illegal logging. “With the cameras, we hope to prove that at a certain time and date in a certain place, the trucks arrived empty and left with timber. We hope the devices can produce more evidence to persuade the authorities to do something to stop the logging and the conflict and the murder.”

For many conservationists, the significance of the Ka’apor’s actions goes beyond their particular case and puts them on the frontline of the battle against climate change. Brazil, like other Amazonian countries, has struggled to tackle deforestation partly because environmental authorities are constantly outnumbered and outgunned by loggers, ranchers and farmers.

Ibama – the main agency dedicated to protecting the forest – has about 1,500 rangers to monitor the Brazilian Amazon, an area that is more than half the size of the US. Many of them have mixed feelings about land clearance. Some are even in the pay of loggers, as recent scandals have revealed.

By contrast, indigenous groups like the Ka’apor have the incentive and the manpower on the ground to resist the decimation of their forests. For them, this is not just a job, but a matter of identity and survival. The benefits can be global. In a recent report, the World Resources Institute noted that when indigenous people have weak legal rights, their forests tend to become the source of carbon dioxide emissions, while those in a strong position are more likely to maintain or even improve their forests’ carbon storage. Underlining this, a research paper published last month in Science, notes that forest dwellers are the best defence against logging and land clearance.

The danger is that such groups might become involved in a proxy war against emissions without the technology, the firepower or the legal authority to overcome more powerful opponents. But Miraté said the community would pick and choose how and when to get involved.

“It’s not that we don’t understand technology. We can drive cars and motorbikes and we can use computers. But we want to do things our way, the Ka’apor way,” he said.

Ka’apor Indians have occupied a site formerly used by illegal loggers. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

Ka’apor Indians have occupied a site formerly used by illegal loggers. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

The loggers are not the only threat to the tribe’s survival. Previous battles with the authorities and the spread of diseases brought in by outsiders reduced the population – which once stood at several thousand – to little more than 500 at the low point in 1982. The community has since rebounded – largely thanks to the recognition of its territory – and it continues to assert its cultural identity on a variety of fronts.

While many other indigenous groups are plagued by alcoholism, the Ka’apor recently introduced a ban on consumption of beer and spirits (as well as visits by Christian evangelists and political campaigners). If a member violates the rule once, he gets a warning; twice, he must face a full meeting of the tribe; three times and he is sentenced to work in the nearby town. In their relations with the government, the tribe insisted last year on being represented by a member of their own community rather than a bureaucrat from Funai (the National Indian Foundation). They have also moved away from what they say is a Funai-led system of having a single village chief and instead reverted towards collective leadership.

In education, they have ensured that their children are taught entirely in Ka’apor rather than Portuguese until the age of 10. Most creatively, they also recently codified their own calendar, which prioritises planting, harvesting and mating seasons, as an alternative to the solar-based Gregorian system. While they occasionally shop for rice, the Ka’apor says they are largely self-sufficient with crops of manioc, bananas, pumpkin and watermelon. They also raise chickens, and hunt wild boar, deer, capybara and parrots – though only in certain seasons to ensure wild populations remain strong.

But Miraté fears the authorities in Brasília are more concerned about the country’s non-indigenous population and the pressure of a global economy.

“We believe that what the Brazilian government is doing now is wrong. They are following a policy to finish off the indigenous people,” he warns. But “we want to do things our own way, to respect our own culture. That’s the only way to survive.”

0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 9,040 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
Why Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited 'Fake News' Blacklist?
Adam Johnson · 6,622 views today · The Washington Post (11/24/16) last week published a front-page blockbuster that quickly went viral: Russia-promoted “fake news” had infiltrated the newsfeeds of 213 million...
The Orwellian War on Skepticism
Robert Parry · 5,137 views today · Official Washington’s rush into an Orwellian future is well underway as political and media bigwigs move to silence Internet voices of independence and dissent, reports Robert...
Where Do You Draw the Line? (2016)
60 min · 4,028 views today · Why is the Ecuadorian government proposing to extract oil in an area frequently classified by ecologists as one of the most bio-diverse rainforest regions left intact on earth?...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 3,494 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
Projext X: Using Leaked Documents to Reveal the NSA's New York Spy Hub, Hidden in Plain Sight
10 min · 3,311 views today · A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on...
Social Media Echo Chambers: Here's How Most of Us are Living in One
2 min · 2,615 views today · Americans are blocking out the friends and news sites that won't confirm their views.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,328 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,799 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Twelve Things To Remember After The US Election, From Front Line Organizers
Bill Quigley · 1,691 views today · When you find yourself in a suddenly darkened room, what do you do?   Some rush blindly to where they think the door might be.  Others stand still, let their eyes get...
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 1,305 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
This Short Film Plays Out Like an Epic Movie That Will Shake Your Soul - But the Movie Is Real, and We are The Actors
6 min · 1,135 views today · For next year, we need a resolution capable of confronting the crisis we face, and making a future worth fighting for. This short film looks back on the crisis and confusion...
Why We Need Big Picture Activism
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 978 views today · Despite the countless grassroots projects already under way, the global economic juggernaut can seem too powerful to stop. But because more and more of us are becoming aware of...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 960 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 899 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
How a Land High in the Western Himalayas Can Help Us Understand The Crisis of The Modern World
9 min · 551 views today · This is a clip from The Economics of Happiness. Watch it here. It's a brilliant film that was easy to put at the top of our list of the top 100 documentaries we can use to...
The 6 Grand Illusions That Keep Us Enslaved
Sigmund Fraud · 427 views today · For a magician to fool his audience his deceit must go unseen, and to this end he crafts an illusion to avert attention from reality. While the audience is entranced, the...
Escape! From the Cult of Materialism (2016)
50 min · 399 views today · Does the philosophy of materialism work to destroy our identities, experience, and environment? Join narrator Daphne Ellis on a radical romp through the evidence and decide for...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 379 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
The Daily Show's Trevor Noah Talks With Conservative Host Tomi Lahren
14 min · 367 views today · "Tomi" host Tomi Lahren gives her take on the Black Lives Matter movement and explains why she lashed out against Colin Kaepernick for his national anthem protest.
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Ka'apor of Brazil Use Bows, Arrows, Sabotage and GPS to Defend the Amazon from Logging