Guardian of the Amazon
November 1st 2019, the life of a beloved Amazon ‘Guardian’, Paulo Paulino, a Guajajara leader, was cut abruptly short by a suspected attack from illegal loggers. Paulino, also called ‘Lobo’ by friends and family, was murdered for his efforts to protect the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve. Located in Brazil’s Maranhao state, it is one of the country’s most threatened Indigenous territories and the place Paulino called home. He and another ‘Guardian’ and Indigenous leader, Laércio Souza Silva Guajajara, were ambushed the night of November 1st by five heavily armed illegal loggers who shot and injured Silva in both the arm and back while fatally shooting Paulino in the head. Paulino’s death is the fourth out of the ‘Guardians’ along with Cantidi, Assis and Afonso Guajajara. Paulino was just 26 years old, leaving behind a wife and two children. His death has sparked outrage and is being investigated by both the federal police and the Maranhao state police. Paulino and his fellow ‘Guardians’ were active members in a group called the “Guardians of the Forest”, created to defend against a rising invasion of illegal loggers, miners, land grabbers and even drug traffickers on tribal lands in the North and Northeastern regions of Brazil. “Guardians of the Forest”, established in late 2012, is comprised of 120 members who consistently risk their lives in their efforts to protect the land as well as the uncontacted Awá Guajá hunter-gatherer tribe, one of the most at risk indigenous groups on the planet. Violence against Indigenous peoples in Brazil has been at a steady incline over the past few years, significantly increasing since Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2018. In fact, since Bolsonaro took office, a total of 135 indigenous people were murder in 2018 alone, creating a near 23% increase from 2017. The first nine months of the Bolsonaro administration showed 160 cases of land invasion and illegal exploitation of natural resources most notably in Indigenous territories. Since their formation, the Guardians have successfully dismantled some 200 illegal logging camps found within indigenous reserves. However, according to the group, the situation within Arariboia has only worsened under the new government. Bolsonaro’s consistent comments and announcements on controversial policies, specifically on opening up indigenous reserves for large-scale mining and agribusiness along with measures to weaken environmental regulations and agencies, have emboldened and encouraged illegal loggers and land grabbers. Though no policies have been implemented at this time, the evidence of the harmful impact on indigenous lands as a result of his incendiary statements is clear. The combination of Bolsonaro’s agenda with a broader system that relies on endless cheap commodities is a recipe for unethical resource extraction and environmental disaster. Threats against the lives of the ‘Guardians’ were not unknown to Paulino in the months leading up to his death. In a documentary filmed in January, Paulino was interviewed saying, “Our work is very dangerous. One of the Guardians has already died. His name was Afonso. The logger killed him and nothing happened. The justice didn’t do anything….” “…Close to our village there is a white man who promised to kill me. It has been a month since he threatened to kill me because I’m defending the forest.” Blatant threats and the very real dangers that these Guardians face in their efforts to protect their lands and, by extension, their ways of life, is utterly unacceptable, especially during a time when Brazil (let alone the world) is in desperate need of conservational action. The kind of work that the Guardians carry out is indispensable in the fight against the seemingly imminent demise of the Amazon rainforest. Already deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is around 17 percent. A study done by Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre states that “negative synergies between deforestation, climate change and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25 percent deforestation”. In other words, the unsustainable rate at which deforestation is occurring in the Brazilian Amazon, and if it continues, indicates that the rainforest could very likely become a savanna. An outcome that would not affect Brazil alone, but the rest of the world as well, as the rainforest plays a crucial role in the filtering and reprocessing of the worlds carbon dioxide output.
The style of “A Tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajajara” is intentionally reminiscent of my “Blue Poaching” series, a series dedicated to threatened, endangered and extinct species as a direct result of illegal hunting and poaching. The similarity in the circumstances of Paulino’s death and that of the animals in the “Blue Poaching” series is profound. “Blue Poaching” focuses on the violent impact of humanities negative actions on wildlife, whereas “A Tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajarara” highlights the violent impact of humanity now aimed at itself. The dark implications of that are why I chose to use darker, richer tones as opposed to the more vibrant and bright colors of “Blue Poaching”. Another distinct difference is that Paulino, as opposed to the animals in “Blue Poaching”, does not show any tears. Instead, his gaze is steady and unwavering, daring the viewer to look away, an effect that is further enhanced by the large 4 feet by 5 feet size of the work.
“Blue Poaching” is meant to evoke feelings of sadness and empathy towards the wildlife that cannot speak for itself. “A Tribute to Paulo Paulino Guajarara”, however, is intended to evoke feelings of anger, righteousness and indignation as Paulino, who could speak for himself and indeed used his voice to speak against injustice, was violently silenced. The light, intentionally placed behind Paulino’s head, along with the bloody handprint, alludes to the way in which his life was abruptly taken. The light duals in its symbology as it also creates a halo-effect, signifying his important role as a guardian. Overall, the work is meant to portray Paulino not necessarily as a victim to be pitied, but rather a strong figure whose life and mission deserves to be known and whose tragic death can, at the very least, move us into action and awareness.
The ending of any innocent life through violent means is always a tragedy, and when that life was dedicated to the good of humanity it makes it even more so. Paulino, along with his comrades, strove to protect something bigger than themselves in a seemingly impossible fight against enormous odds. A fight that continues and is becoming more and more dire, for us all, by the day. Paulino’s actions and life meant something and the tragedy of its abrupt end will only increase if his death does not mean something as well. His story is one that needs to be known and to inspire in us all the same sense of selflessness and action he was so clearly an example of.