​​How Native Brazilians Are Using Spy Tech to Stop Illegal Logging in the Amazon

We camped with the Ka'apor for a few days to get to know what it's like to live in a scenario of violence, threats, and death.

by Débora Lopes
Sep 22 2015, 11:00am

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

This story was originally published by Motherboard Brazil and translated from Portuguese by Thiago "Índio" Silva.

In early September, the Ka'apor people started setting up surveillance cameras throughout Reserva Alto Turiaçu, in the Amazonian part of Maranhão, Brazil, to catch illegal logging activity in the area. We camped with the Ka'apor for a few days to get to know what it's like to live in a scenario of violence, threats, and death, and to learn how technology can help them change this dire situation.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

The technological initiative, which stands in stark contrast to the rustic environment in which it's being used, was spurred by Greenpeace. The NGO provided training and funded cameras, trackers, computers, and hard drives, which totaled around R$25,000 (US$6300).

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

Coordinates were given by the natives, who planned to wake up the journalists attending the expedition at 3:30 AM for an initial conversation where everyone introduced themselves to one another. Connecting Maranhão's capital of São Luís to the village are eight hours of roads filled with potholes and lots of bacuraus (a Brazilian bird akin to the European/North-American nightjar), which sleep in the middle of dirt trails and suddenly take flight, acting like stoned frogs. We arrived minutes before midnight and woke up at the set hour. With a serious look on his face, Miraté*, leader of the Ka'apor, told us what we already knew: we were in the middle of a war zone.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

In September 2014, illegal loggers were caught in the act and got their asses kicked by indigenous people, who've been protecting the woods on their own for quite some time. Before being kicked out, the loggers were stripped and tied up. In April of this year, an indigenous chief was killed, and a little while after that, two young Native Brazilians were shot at while riding a motorcycle throughout the reservation (fortunately, they were not hit). The Ka'apor deem the loggers responsible for those crimes, and say that investigations were rather inconclusive, since no one was charged.

"We are being threatened and persecuted. That's why we are asking you not to be shown," the group's representative said.

This was the first time dealt with reporters and photographers from all over the globe so up close. Not even the local Maranhense press has access to the Ka'apor. They refuse to give interviews to the "karai," the term they use to describe non-indigenous people.

To cover long distances and avoid imminent danger, we rode in armored cars at all times. With no electricity or cell phones and surrounded by wildlife (from cute monkeys to snakes and jaguars), we slept on hammocks, took showers by the river, saw a stunning starry sky and, of course, carried out our most intimate and human needs in the middle of the jungle. We were in the Amazon, after all.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

With the project still in the test phase, the first cameras were set up on August 30. Two days after that, our mission with the Ka'apor was to retrieve the devices and check on their initial recordings (monitoring can't happen in real-time). Also joining were Greenpeace activists and the "forest rangers," as they call the responsible for carrying out missions in the woods in search of deforestation signs, loggers, and hunters. They all wore uniforms including green shirts with patterned collars—the color chosen to help rangers blend into the forest, a sort of camouflage. During those missions, most of the Ka'apor also wore an "uirará," a headpiece made out of macaw and curassow feathers, as well as vines, which in English is called a panache. "It gives strength," explains Miraté.

The first place chosen to set up the cameras was one of the roads in the reservation. There, we listened to Iraun*, son of Eusébio, the Ka'apor chief who was murdered this year, discuss the surveillance program. Speaking in his own language, the young man recalled the meaning of the word Ka'apor: "people of the jungle."

"We are standing up for what is ours. My father is gone, but I'm here fighting next to my people. We are all relatives," he said. Always quiet and with a cigarette between his fingers, he went on to explain the relevance of the current struggle. "To us, land matters because we are attached to these woods. We're the Ka'apor. We will not forget. Our spirit is very close to the jungle, not to any city."

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

Two of the rangers then retrieved the cameras hidden among the trees. Inside one of them, the 8GB memory card had a tag with the word "jabuti" (a type of turtle) written on it, which is regularly represented on the body paint worn by the Ka'apor. Handling computers with ease, the Ka'apor saw the first recordings from the camera and spotted a hunter.

The cameras have an infrared sensor and work in two ways: capturing color combinations or movement. They only record when something moves: a truck, an animal, a person, or even when leaves are falling.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

Resistant to extreme temperatures, wind, rain and dust, the cameras come from the US and work with a set of AAA batteries. According to the manufacturer, those must be exchanged every five or nine months, varying with use.

The videos capture 10 seconds of movement, just enough to catch trucks' license plates—the operation's main objective. In total, 13 Ka'apor were trained to handle the equipment.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

The Ka'apor explain that their land is not meant to be exploited for commercial purposes—a ban they keep in place even when firearms are brought to the table.

"We disarm them. We tell them it's Indian land and the trees can't be taken down; that we own these woods. We take their gear and send them on their way and tell not to come here ever again," explained Miraté. It's also common for indigenous people to burn trucks, bulldozers, and wood they find. Yellow and purple Ipê trees, the most valuable trees in the reservation, are usually sold to other countries and are the ones most valued by the loggers.

In case the deforestation issue continues even with the surveillance cameras, the Ka'apor and activists will have to resort to trackers, which will be secretly installed on trucks to find out the final destination of the trees that were cut down. The trackers will be operated via satellite, providing geographical coordinates as well as the time of the places where the vehicle goes.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

The lack of electrical power won't be a problem, since the Ka'apor have a small headquarters in a nearby town, which will house computers and all other gear. There, a simple office with a computer and a furnitureless workspace share room with mulberry and acerola trees.

The use of phones is unusual among the Ka'apor. Miraté was the only one holding a smartphone wherever he'd go. At one moment during our visit, he was lying on a hammock watching a few videos—even though the cell signal and internet weren't working where we were.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard


According to satellite images analyzed by Greenpeace, 8 percent of the 530,000 acres belonging to the Ka'por have already been logged. FUNAI (Brazil's National Indian Foundation) considers the reservation to be the last piece of greenery on Maranhão, and although it justifies intensifying its participation on inspection efforts in the region, the organization is not well regarded by the Ka'por. Quite the opposite, actually.

"FUNAI is not on our side. We won't accept them anymore. Their ideas, to us, are old," said Miraté. By email, the organization informed Motherboard that it has been "executing territorial protection operations, especially inspection efforts, along other institutions, such as IBAMA (Brazilian Environmental Institute), Maranhão's Environmental Police Battalion (BPA/MA) and the Federal Police Department throughout the complex." For the Ka'apor, that doesn't seem to be enough.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

Upon being questioned about burning vehicles and violent behavior towards the loggers, the leader of the Ka'apor was categorical. "It enrages us," he said. "We, as the owners of the jungle, won't go there at their farms to steal, or their stores. When we go there, we buy things. And they come and steal. So they deserve it."

For the Ka'apor, the violence comes from those entering the area illegally. "We have to do our part. Show them that they must suffer some damage, just like we do. We lose our wood, the forest's been destroyed. So they have feel it just like we did."

IBAMA's course of action is similar to those of the Ka'apor: To find and arrest the loggers, and destroy all their gear. By phone, Luciano Evaristo, director of environmental protection for the institute, explained that a huge operation is about to go down: "We're close to busting a lot of people."

He told us that the satellite used by IBAMA is not always enough to fight those irregularities. "We use a low resolution system that shows us potential deforestation. The thing is: The device cannot identify selective cutting—which makes it harder for us to identify where exploitation is actually happening so we can stop it," he said.

Image: Felipe Larozza/Motherboard

On the final day, the Ka'apor hold hands, forming a circle with children in the middle, then sing and dance. After that, pictures are taken with the journalists. They're hopeful about the possibility of having peace on their land. That joy doesn't last long. On the road, about to return to São Paulo, we hear that our presence probably has bothered someone. A Ka'apor was called out by a man at a gas station. "You better stop what it is that you're doing," said the man in a mix of mystery and threat, before vanishing from our sights.

*The names of the Ka'apor were changed for this article as means to preserve their identities.

Motherboard traveled at Greenpeace's invitation.