RONDONIA STATE, BRAZIL – As evening falls over their Amazon home, the hunter gatherers of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people extract bamboo arrows from the flank of a wild pig and begin roasting it.
A few miles — and a world — away on the opposite side of the rainforest’s delicate existential divide, cowboys on horseback round up cattle at the outer reaches of a vast ranch.
“We have no problem with them,” said Awapy Uru-eu-wau-wau, the young chief of the 19-person forest community in central Rondonia state.
It’s an uncommon expression of goodwill in an area where the worlds of rich landowners and indigenous tribes collide and jostle over the future of the planet’s largest rainforest.
The tribe’s resource-rich 1.8 million hectare native reserve — an area nearly twice the size of Lebanon — is under constant siege from landlords, timber traders, landowners and miners, who rely on deforestation to exploit its bounty.
“I’ve been facing this invasion since I was 19 or 20, and these guys are threatening (us) because we’re standing up to them,” says Awapy, 38. “I’m not afraid of risking my life. It’s the only way.”
The few hundred inhabitants of the reserve, divided into seven hamlets, have a long history of resistance. To help surveil the forest and protect themselves, the self-styled guardians of nature mostly live along the boundaries of their territory, demarcated in the early 1990s.
Awapy’s village comprises half a dozen small dwellings, some of wood with a straw roof, others of cement with roofs of tile. The five families here live almost entirely off the jungle, where they venture daily to hunt and when necessary, to see off invaders — often organized groups — in confrontations that frequently turn violent, he says.
In this area south of the town of Porto Velho, fresh clearings and grasslands are evident from the air, signs of ever-advancing deforestation often heralded by the wildfires which have reverberated on a global scale in recent weeks.
The state’s absence from the ground has made areas like this a breeding ground for gangs, and encourages occupation of land that often ends up being integrated into cattle farms, NGOs say.
Prosecutors have filed complaints against rural producers for having occupied, parcelled and sold land on this reserve and in other places.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau argue that the invaders feel protected since the arrival in power, in January, of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has supported the opening up of protected lands to agriculture and mining activities. He said at his inauguration that indigenous people needed to be integrated into society and not live in reserves “as if they were animals in a zoo.”
“It wasn’t like that in the past, but today they are deforesting everything,” said Awapy, in his oca or room used for family gatherings, surrounded by villagers lying in hammocks.
An hour and a half away along a forest road, in the small town of Monte Negro, the agribusiness sector shows its muscle at a rodeo. Around 20 cowboys display their talent, riding bulls for as many seconds as they can.
Dressed in stetson hats, blue jeans and cowboy boots, they work at some of the area’s vast cattle ranches that have cut into the forest over decades.
The spectators enjoy the show, and laugh loudly at an interlude sketch in which a clown chases a deer — a veado in Portuguese, which is also a disparaging term for homosexuals.
This is rural, conservative Brazil — a fiefdom of Bolsonarism — whose inhabitants belong to the so-called BBB demographic. The “Beef, Bible and Bullet” set is the triumverate of powerful interests that helped sweep Boslonaro to power; the agribusiness sector, Evangelical churches, and the pro-arms lobby in Congress.
The landowners, arrogant and circumspect to outsiders, are accused by environmental activists of being partly responsible for spreading ruin in the Amazon, profiteering to the detriment of public lands and indigenous reserves.
They maintain that they respect the boundaries of their lands, claim their right to develop it and recall the importance of agricultural expansion for the Brazilian economy.
“People have to respect the fact that what is reserve is reserve, what is indigenous is indigenous,” said Marconi Silvestre, owner of a farm in Monte Negro and organizer of the rodeo.
Another owner who came to the show to sell breeding bulls says privately that the indigenous people themselves deforest and sell wood and land.
“They are doing the same thing that Pedro Alvares Cabral did when he arrived,” he said, referring to the Portuguese pioneer who in 1500, landed on the coast of the future Brazil. “They are exchanging wealth for mirrors.”
Several landowners here claimed the media had exaggerated the reach of the wildfires and mocked French President Emmanuel Macron, who last month called for “internationalizing” protection of the Amazon rainforest.
“The Amazon is ours,” one of the landowners said. “Tell that to Macron!”