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Guardians of the Forest

Insurgency Overview 

Flag of Maranhão - State where the Guardiõs da Floresta are active

The Guardians of the Forest (Guardiões da Floresta) is an armed Indigenous paramilitary and vigilante movement in the Brazilian Amazon based on community defense, environmentalism and rainforest conservation, and combatting illicit activities such as logging, mining, and narcotrafficking on Indigenous territory (Cardoso and Periera, 2019; Fantástico, 2022; Harris et al., 2020; Lichterbeck, 2021; Taylor, 2019).

Like the Indigenous Guard in Colombia, the Guardians of the Forest are a loosely affiliated network or organizational framework rather than a single specific organization. Several Indigenous communities in different parts of the Brazilian Amazon have organized autonomous militant organizations under the “Guardians of the Forest” moniker, all with similar aims but formally unrelated to one another (Marçal, 2019). However, most media coverage of this movement centers on the first and largest such unit: that of the Guajajara people of the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão. Other Guardians units include one in the Caru reserve, also in Maranhão, as well as one formed by the Ka’apor people of the Alto Turiaçu reserve (Johnson, 2022; Mount, 2015). All Guardian units, regardless of ethnicity or location, share the primary goal of defending Indigenous communities and territories from illicit activities, colonial violence, and ecocide.

The Guajajara founded the first Guardian militia in 2013 in the Araribóia Indigenous Land of Maranhão, one of nearly 400 Indigenous reserves designated as protected land under Brazilian law (Libardi, 2020; Marçal, 2019). The founding of this group responded to the long and ongoing history of Indigenous dispossession, targeted violence, illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching, and narcotrafficking in the Indigenous territories of the Brazilian Amazon—processes which have only accelerated in recent years (Phillips, 2019). Operating as a vigilante paramilitary, Guardian units equipped with firearms and bows patrol their territories in search of illicit actors, apprehending criminals and sabotaging their operations.

Since the actors the Guardians of the Forest operate against are typically armed as well and linked to powerful organized crime networks, this is a dangerous job; Guardians are routinely targeted for assassination in what is already one of the most dangerous regions of the world in which to be an Indigenous leader or environmental activist (Human Rights Watch, 2019; Phillips, 2023; Viera de Souza et al., 2022).

History & Foundations

Beginning with the Portuguese colonization of what is today Brazil and extending through the independence period and to the present, the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been subjected to continuous genocidal violence. The colonization of Brazil began in 1500 when Pedro Álvares Cabral landed on the Atlantic coast and claimed it in the name of Portugal. The Portuguese immediately began forcing the Indigenous peoples they encountered to extract valuable rainforest resources, namely brazilwood, beginning a process of colonial extractivism that has defined Brazilian history ever since, most particularly and most brutally for its Indigenous populations. Some resisted, initiating a parallel history of Indigenous resistance, often militant in nature. The emergence of the Guardians of the Forest may be viewed as a chapter in Brazil’s scarred history of extractivism, colonial violence, and Indigenous resistance.

For this reason, although the first Guardians of the Forest unit was founded in 2013, the Guajajara militants who established it continue that the true date of its founding stretches back to 1500, consciously situating themselves within a lineage of Indigenous resistance to colonial violence and ecocide. More concretely, the formal establishment of the Guajajara Guardians of the Forest in 2013 responded to rising rates of violence and deforestation committed by criminal actors in Araribóia, which intensified following the 2007 assassination of tribal leader Tome Guajajara by illegal loggers (Libardi, 2020). The Guardians of the Forest have since devoted their efforts to defending Indigenous communities and their rainforest territory (Benassato and Marcelino, 2019; Cardoso and Pereira, 2019).

At present, more than one-third of Guajajara territory has been deforested (ABC News, 2020). Up to 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is driven by the cattle industry, which involves clearcutting large swaths of forest to convert it to pastureland; logging, mining, and monoculture account for the remainder (“Deforestation in the Amazon,” 2023). Frequently, the illegal loggers who do the dirty work of clearcutting are in the employ of wealthy cattle barons who take possession of the deforested land; the capture and prosecution of either party is an uncommon affair, and the rare sentence is generally light, failing to discourage either loggers or cattlemen from continuing to engage in criminal enterprise (ABC News, 2020). Where the law enforcement and justiciary arms of the Brazilian state have long proved ineffectual in combatting such actors, the Guardians of the Forest have taken matters into their own hands. Thanks to the Guajajara Guardians, between 2014 and 2015, the number of illegal logging trucks leaving the southern end of the Araribóia reserve dropped from as many as 130 per day to 10–15 (Mount, 2015).

In 2018, Brazil saw the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who launched an unprecedented attack on environmental protections in the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s policies contributed to skyrocketing rates of deforestation and forest fires while enabling the expansion of both legal and illicit extractive operations in the Brazilian Amazon—processes that have proved both ecologically and socially disastrous to the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous guardians. This has prompted the Guajajara to accuse Bolsonaro of genocidal intent (Archibald, 2022; Guajajara, 2023; Netto, 2023; Phillips, 2019)

The high rates of environmental crime under Bolsonaro only began to decline after the election of his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who created a new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and reinstated protections for the environment and Indigenous communities (Netto, 2023; Rodrigues, 2023). Lula also recently issued the Brazilian government’s first apology to Indigenous communities for their persecution during the 1964–85 military dictatorship (Phillips and Rogero, 2024). However, Indigenous communities throughout the Amazon continue to face widespread environmental crime and violence, prompting the emergence of multiple Guardians of the Forest groups for community and environmental defense (Branford and Torres, 2019; Marçal, 2019; Mount, 2015).

The Guajajara have been particularly affected by environmental crimes and targeted violence. According to the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples, 49 Guajajara were killed in armed conflicts with loggers in Maranhão between 2000 and 2020. Between 2006 and 2020, Guajajara land was illegally invaded 44 times, making Araribóia one of the most violence-stricken Indigenous territories in the Amazon (Libardi, 2020). The Guardians of the Forest in particular have frequently been targeted for assassination; in a well-publicized case in 2019, 26-year-old warrior Paulo Paulino Guajajara was ambushed and murdered by five heavily armed loggers while hunting. Local Guardian leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was also wounded in the attack, going into hiding in the aftermath (Biller, 2019; Marçal, 2019; Silva de Sousa, 2019). The Ka’apor Guardians of Alto Turiaçu have also been threatened and killed for their activism (Mount, 2015). Though frequent assassinations have continued into the 2020s, the Guardians show no sign of giving up the fight for their territory and rights (Associated Press, 2022; Biller, 2020; Mendes 2023b).

Objectives & Ideology

The primary objective of the Guardians of the Forest is to safeguard Indigenous rights, territorial autonomy, and the ecological integrity of the rainforest. Their ideology could be described as Indigenist and environmentalist, recognizing and defending the interdependence that exists between Indigenous communities and their natural environments; as a United Nations report found in 2021, deforestation rates are up to 50% lower in Indigenous territories than elsewhere (Carrington, 2021). In this respect, the Guardians of the Forest share their objectives and ideology with other Indigenous and Indigenist social and militant movements in the Latin American context and beyond. However, the Guardians are relatively unique for having taken up arms to pursue their aims through force, perhaps a consequence of the particularly dangerous and violent context they operate within (Mendes, 2019; Mount, 2015).

In addition to advancing and defending Indigenous rights and the rights of nature, one of the primary aims of the Guajajara Guardians of the Forest is to protect neighboring Indigenous communities with little or no contact with the outside world. For example, the Araribóia Indigenous Land contains an estimated 100 Awá people in voluntary isolation (Forline, 2015). In 2011, illegal loggers captured an eight-year-old girl from one of the uncontacted villages and burned her alive in an attempt to force her community from their land (Sanchez 2012). Gunmen have also attacked the Awá, who number only around 350 in total (Chamberlain 2012). Such attacks are a continuous threat to the Amazon’s last remaining isolated communities. In the absence of effective state protection, the Guardians have made the defense of their isolated neighbors a priority (ABC News, 2020; Mount, 2015).

Political & Military Capabilities

The Guardians of the Forest represent the paramilitary wing of the broader Indigenous territorial defense, environmentalist, and human rights movement in the Brazilian Amazon. Politically, Guardian units are independent and autonomous, though they sometimes collaborate with political organizations such as Indigenous government entities, Brazilian law enforcement, and FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs bureau (ABC News, 2020; Mount, 2015). In the case of the Guajajara of Araribóia, their community has produced not only the Guardians but also Brazil’s first-ever minister for Indigenous peoples, the feminist and Indigenous rights activist Sônia Guajajara. She rose to prominence through her work on many of the same issues that the Guardians address through vigilante action, suggesting the cohesion of both political and militant strategies to the problems faced by Indigenous communities (Netto, 2023).

The Guardians of the Forest are few in number and lightly armed. Their arsenal includes light firearms such as handguns, shotguns, and hunting rifles, as well as traditional weapons such as bows and clubs. Some guardians wear ballistic vests, though most appear to go without protective equipment (Silva de Sousa, 2019). For mobility, the Guardians employ vehicles such as trucks and motorcycles, typically moving in convoys of several vehicles and up to 20 militants (ABC News, 2020). Typical operations involve patrolling their territories, identifying the locations of illicit activities such as mining or logging camps, investigating reports of illicit activities, ambushing and apprehending suspects, and holding them for release to state authorities. In a context in which targeted assassinations against Indigenous leaders and environmental activists are common, many Guardians wear facemasks to disguise their identities. The number of Guardians varies by group and no official record is maintained for security reasons. In 2015, the Guajajara Guardians were estimated at 48 militants, while by 2020 their numbers were reported to range from 120 to 180 (Benassatto and Marcelino, 2019; Libardi, 2020; Mount, 2015). In 2015, the Ka’apor Guardians of Alto Turiaçu numbered up to 90 militants (Mount, 2015).

Approach to Resistance

The Guardians of the Forest engage in both peaceful and armed acts of resistance. Their regular duties include patrolling their territories, investigating instances of illicit activity, and intercepting criminals—with heavy force when necessary. Video footage of an intercept operation captured by ABC News in 2019 illustrates the rough treatment the Guardians employ against apprehended opponents, including beatings and death threats. However, such extreme methods are generally discouraged. In 2015, a federal police officer under FUNAI accompanying the Guajajara Guardians on an armed action intervened between a Guardian and a suspect he was threatening to kill; the Guardian in question was later expelled from the organization for his behavior (Mount, 2015). There are no recorded cases of the Guardians having killed anyone. In addition to physically confronting their opponents, the Guardians also employ sabotage, namely the destruction of criminals’ vehicles, machinery, camp infrastructure, and illegally felled timber, serving to curtail their opponents’ operations where they occur and disincentivize their return (ABC News, 2020; Benassatto and Marceloni, 2019; Mount, 2015).

An important dimension of the Guardians’ overall strategy is winning their communities’ sympathy and allegiance; leaders of the movement are generally men of high standing in their respective communities, situating their actions as self-defense on behalf of their people (ABC News, 2020; Mount, 2015). However, opinions within their communities are split; while some recognize the Guardians as legitimate and support their aims and methods, others criticize them for employing violence which they believe may provoke the ire of the criminals they target, risking further escalation (Mendes, 2019; Mount, 2015). An additional complication is that some Indigenous communities have collaborated with the criminals, such as by accepting bribes in exchange for access to logging grounds, prompting Indigenous infighting and reprisals by the Guardians (ABC News, 2020; Mount, 2015).

Media is another tool employed by the Guardians to advance their aims. The Guardians began receiving media coverage shortly after their founding, accelerating greatly with the election of Bolsonaro and the global interest in environmental crime and ecological devastation in the Brazilian Amazon that followed. The first investigative reports on the Guardians appeared in the mid-2010s, with an uptick in coverage coming in 2019 and continuing into the 2020s. In 2023 the Guajajara Guardians were the subject of a documentary film covering their struggle called We Are Guardians; the film was co-directed by a local activist, Edivan Guajajara. In addition to mobilizing public awareness and sympathy for the Guardians’ cause, a corresponding impact campaign succeeding in securing a $200,000 grant to support reforestation initiatives in the Tembé and Guajajara territories, indicating the practical benefits such media projects can bring to the Guardians and their communities (Brasil, 2020; Kamali Dehghan, 2024).

Relations & Alliances

The primary opponents of the Guardians of the Forest are the assorted criminal actors whom the Guardians collectively refer to as “invaders.” The main culprits include illegal loggers, miners, narcotraffickers, and cattle barons—not always mutually exclusive categories in a regional context in which diverse forms of criminal collusion are widespread. These outsiders are the cause of deforestation and violence in the politically autonomous and ecologically protected Indigenous territories that the Guardians seek to defend. However, Guardian operations generally only succeed in capturing low-level criminals, comprising the mere foot soldiers of large-scale illicit enterprises. Operating at a higher level across the region, higher-ups and bosses are rarely captured. Even when criminals are captured by the Guardians and released to Brazilian authorities, they rarely face criminal prosecution or legal consequences for their crimes, while cases of violence or assassination targeting Indigenous activities regularly go uninvestigated by the state (ABC News, 2020; Viera de Souza et al., 2022; Human Rights Watch, 2019). For this reason, the Guardians have little faith in the efficacy of the Brazilian state in addressing the problems their communities face.

The Guardians of the Forest have had a fraught relationship with the Brazilian state, particularly under President Jair Bolsonaro (2019–2022). While the Guajajara, like all Indigenous communities formally recognized under Brazilian law, have a legal right to patrol and protect their land as they see fit, Bolsonaro has regularly dismissed Indigenous communities’ claims to their land and has sided with environmentally destructive corporations over the interests of Indigenous communities and their ecosystems (Gómez-Upegui, 2021; Libardi, 2019; Marçal, 2019). Additionally, Brazilian law enforcement and justiciary entities have regularly obstructed or otherwise failed in their duties to the Indigenous communities represented by the Guardians (Viera de Souza et al., 2022; Human Rights Watch, 2019).

Despite the Guardians’ enmity for certain elements of the Brazilian government, they have occasionally aligned themselves with others. One of their primary occasional allies in government is FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s Amerindian bureau. Like many such agencies in settler colonial countries, FUNAI has a checkered history, sometimes helping but often harming Indigenous communities. Nevertheless, it has historically represented an important bulwark in protecting Indigenous communities from the depredations of settlers and criminal enterprises through mechanisms such as close fieldwork with Indigenous communities, the demarcation of protected areas and Indigenous reservations, and aiding Indigenous communities in legal matters (Mendes, 2019b). Several Guardians of the Forest units have worked in a formal capacity with FUNAI representatives, such as federal police officers on assignment to accompany the Guardians’ armed actions and to prevent breaches of the law or escalations of violence (Mount, 2015).

Works Cited

(1) - ABC News. 2020. “Guardians of the Amazon (Full Documentary).” YouTube, 51:28.

(2) - Archibald, Roger. 2022. “Walking With the ‘Guardians of the Forest’ — Lessons From Coverage of Amazonian Fires.” Society of Environmental Journalists, February 16.

(3) - Associated Press. 2022. “Indigenous ‘forest guardians’ reported slain in Brazil.” AP, September 4.

(4) - Benassatto, Leonardo and Ueslei Marcelino. 2019. “Fighting fire with fire, Amazon ‘forest guardians’ stalk illegal loggers.” Reuters, September 20.

(5) - Biller, David. 2019. “An ambush in Brazil’s Amazon that killed a forest guardian.”AP, November 4.

(6) - ———. 2020. “Fifth Guajajara tribesman killed in Brazil in five months.” AP, April 1.

(7) - Branford, Sue and Maurício Torres. 2019. “Indigenous peoples are standing up to the rising tide of violence in Brazil.” Intercontinental Cry, February 20.

(8) - Brasil, André. 2020. “Confronting Devastation: The Guardian Cinema of the Guajajara People.” Film Quarterly 74, no. 2 (Winter): 26–31.

(9) - Cardoso, Rafeal and Sidney Pereira. 2019. “Quem são os ‘Guardiões da Floresta’, o grupo de índios protetores da Amazônia no Maranhão.” Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, November 7.

(10) - Carrington, Damian. 2021. “Indigenous peoples by far the best guardians of forests – UN report.” The Guardian, March 25.

(11) - Chamberlain, Gethin. 2012. “‘They’re killing us’: world's most endangered tribe cries for help.” The Guardian, April 22.

(12) - “Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest: causes, effects, solutions.” 2023. DGB Group, May 12.

(13) - Fantástico. 2022. “Guardiões da Floresta: veja o esforço de grupo indígena para impedir o desmatamento da Amazônia.” G1, February 6.

(14) - Forline, Louis. 2015. “The Awá-Guajá And Brazil's Expanding Frontier In Amazonia.” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 44, No. 3/4 (Fall-Winter): 293–329.

(15) - Gómez-Upegui, Salomé. 2021. “The Amazon rainforest’s most dogged defenders are in peril.” Vox, September 1.

(16) - Guajajara, Maria Judite da Silva Ballerio. 2023. “Decolonizing genocide in Brazil: challenges to defending Indigenous collective life.” International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, July 5.

(17) - Harris, Dan, Brian Epstein, Evan Simon, Aicha El Hammar Castano, and Pete Madden. 2020. “Deep in the Amazon rainforest, armed tribesmen battle illegal loggers for their future — and ours.” ABC News, February 14.

(18) - Human Rights Watch. 2019. “Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon.” Human Rights Watch, September 17.

(19) - Johnson, Andrew. 2022. “In Brazil, Indigenous Ka’apor take their territory’s defense into their own hands.” Mongabay, March 14.

(20) - Kamali Dehghan, Saeed. 2024. “‘A struggle for us all’: new film reveals light and shade of fight for Amazon.” The Guardian, March 14.

(21) - Libardi, Manuella. 2020. “Amazon heroes who don't give up.” openDemocracy, September 16.

(22) - Lichterbeck, Phillip. 2021. “Guardiões da floresta: a luta de um povo pela Amazônia.” DW, December 12.

(23) - Marçal, Carol. 2019. “The Life and Death of the Guajajara.” Greenpeace, November 8.

(24) - Mendes, Karla. 2019a. “Fears over rising violence in Amazon as ‘forest guardians’ battle logging.” Reuters, May 13.

(25) - ———. 2019b. “Brazil’s Congress reverses Bolsonaro, restores Funai’s land demarcation powers.” Mongabay, June 5.

(26) - ———. 2023a. “Violence escalates in Amazonian communities’ land conflict with Brazil palm oil firm.” Mongabay, April 26.

(27) - ———. 2023b. “End of impunity for Indigenous killings in sight for Brazil’s Guajajara.” Mongabay, November 20.

(28) - Mount, Bonnie Jo. 2015. “Defending the Amazon.” The Washington Post, October 6.

(29) - Netto, Andrei. 2023. “Brazil’s first-ever minister for Indigenous peoples: ‘It is time for the world to look at our way of life.’” The Guardian, September 29.

(30) - PBS. 2019. “Forest Guardians Protect Their Land in Brazil.” Earth Focus, May 7.

(31) - Phillips, Tom. 2019. “‘Chaos, chaos, chaos’: a journey through Bolsonaro’s Amazon inferno.” The Guardian, September 9.

(32) - ———. 2022. “Amazon forest guardians fulfil Bruno Pereira’s mission of Indigenous exchange.” The Guardian, August 22.

(33) - ———. 2023. “‘It’s dangerous work’: new generation of Indigenous activists battle to save the Amazon.” The Guardian, September 3.

(34) - Phillips, Tom and Tiago Rogero. 2024. “Brazil apologizes to Indigenous people for persecution during dictatorship.” The Guardian, April 3.

(35) - Rodrigues, Meghie. 2023. “How is Brazil’s President Lula doing on climate? Experts rate his performance.” Nature, August 10.

(36) - Sanchez, Raf. 2012. “Loggers ‘burned Amazon tribe girl alive.’” The Telegraph, January 10.

(37) - Silva de Sousa, Marcelino. 2019. “Illegal loggers ambush and kill Amazon forest guardian, Brazilian government says.” The Globe and Mail, November 3.

(38) - Taylor, Alan. 2019. “The ‘Forest Guardians’ of Brazil’s Amazon.” The Atlantic, September 23.

(39) - Viera de Souza, Enrique, Marcelo Fetz, Bruna Pastro Zagatto, and Nataly Sousa Pinho. 2022. “Violence and Illegal Deforestation: The Crimes of ‘Environmental Militias’ in the Amazon Forest.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 33, no. 2 (November): 5–25.


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