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The Guardian: ‘A struggle for us all’: new film reveals light and shade of fight for Amazon

Five years in the making, We Are Guardians takes a hard look at the complexity of the struggle between Indigenous people, loggers and ranchers.

A UN report in 2021 described the Indigenous peoples of Latin America as the “best guardians” of the rainforests. Now, a new documentary, We Are Guardians, tells the story of those in Brazil fighting to protect their land from deforestation.

The film, which premiered on Netflix in Latin America, is due to be screened in London on 15 March as part of the Human Rights Watch film festival. It is co-directed by the Indigenous Brazilian activist Edivan Guajajara and the environmental journalists Rob Grobman and Chelsea Greene. Leonardo DiCaprio was an executive producer.

Grobman and Greene met Guajajara in 2020 after they came across Mídia Indígena, the Indigenous news network he co-founded.

A key theme in the film is the story of the illegal logger Valdir Duarte, seen here. Photograph: Evandro Rocha/We Are Guardians

A central theme in the film is the story of an illegal logger, Valdir Duarte. Grobman says Duarte was found after a two-day journey during one of the expeditions that inspired the film.

“We went on more than eight missions with the guardians to try to find the loggers,” Grobman says. “There would be times when we could hear them close by, and we would just not be able to find them in the dense jungle, or they would run away. It was like finding a needle in a haystack.

“These loggers are often armed and hiding, and we were nervous to approach them. But when we finally found Valdir and his friend and explained what we were doing and why, they were surprisingly like, ‘Yeah, sure, please film,’” he says.

“In a way, it felt like Valdir was waiting for someone to ask him what was going on in his life – because no one had ever done that before,” Grobman says.

Greene feels it was important for them to set up a direct antagonism, the Indigenous versus the loggers, but then show the complexity of the relationship in these Amazon regions. “The industries have created a situation where illegal logging traps people inside this job,” she says.

“Valdir has no other option in his town – he didn’t get to have an education.”

Greene says their team received death threats during one of their expeditions. “We left immediately,” she says. “A different group of loggers found out what we were doing, and they wanted us dead.”

The illegal timber market, she says, compounds already heightened tensions between Indigenous peoples and loggers. “If the US, Europe and China were not buying this protected and endangered hardwood, then Valdir wouldn’t be in that situation,” Greene says.

Parallel to Duarte’s story, the documentary follows two leading Indigenous figures: Marçal Guajajara, the 32-year-old regional coordinator of the forest guardians from the Indigenous territory of Araribóia; and Puyr Tembé, an Indigenous leader and activist from the territory of Alto Rio Guamá.

The film opens with shots of loggers sawing down a 500-year-old tree. “For us, they killed a life, and that’s sad,” Marçal Guajajara says after inspecting the felled tree. He is later seen donning urucum – red face-paint derived from the achiote plant (Bixa orellana) – in preparation for a surveillance mission.

Puyr Tembé, who wears a cocar feather headdress when she defends her territory and western clothes when she travels to the Amazonian city of Belém for activism, stresses the critical role of Indigenous peoples in protecting forests.

“Five per cent of the world’s population is Indigenous, and we protect 80% of the remaining biodiversity on the planet,” she says in the film. “At least 600 of us land defenders have been murdered since 2014.”

Another key person in the film is Tadeu Fernandes, who bought 28,000 hectares (69,000 acres) of forest land in the 1970s to create an ecological sanctuary. But his land has since been prey to numerous invasions. Aerial shots show a complete town carved out of his land, with 3,200 people living there illegally.

“This is the biggest environmental crime in Brazil,” Fernandes says about his battle against governmental indifference. Most of his 500 or so official complaints have gone unheeded.

The documentary, filmed between 2019 and 2022, also adds a political backdrop to its intimate, character-focused narrative. Tembé is warned that powerful politicians are connected to timber companies, cattle ranchers and encroaching miners. An ex-mayor becomes a wood exporter, while parliamentarians are accused of receiving money from agribusiness associations.

However, the film ends on a positive note, as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeats the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, to become Brazil’s president. Edivan Guajajara says Lula’s time in office has already shown positive effects, such as the government’s decision “to support the demarcation of the Indigenous territories”, even though Brazil’s National Congress has struck down some measures.

“I think you have to have the participation of an Indigenous person if you’re talking about Indigenous issues, no matter what,” says Edivan Guajajara, a member of Maranhão state’s Guajajara people, whose leading representative became Brazil’s first minister for Indigenous Peoples.

“The Indigenous people’s struggle is a struggle for all of us, not just those in the territory,” he says. “It’s a fight for all of humanity.”

Grobman says a tangible change in the fate of the Amazon will only happen if the world understands “that the Amazon is critical to the health of the entire planet”.

He adds: “We all need to recognise our part in its destruction.”

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The three film-makers launched an impact campaign to further the work covered in the documentary and recently received a $200,000 grant from the Erol Foundation to support reforestation and agroforestry projects in the Tembé and Guajajara territories.

“Most of the destruction of the Amazon comes from a small handful of companies,” Greene says. “People around the world need to stand up and say something to these companies because if enough people speak out, they won’t continue this unacceptable behaviour.

“All of us have a deep-down intuition and understanding that when you harm nature, we’re harming ourselves, and we all feel this anguish at what’s happening on this planet.”


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