The Brazilian Special-Forces Unit Fighting to Save the Amazon

The G.E.F. team sometimes showed concern for the miners; when they found prescription medicine during a raid, they threw it clear of the burn zone so that its owner could retrieve it. But, when I asked Cabral if we were going to fly the cook out with us, he shook his head. “She got herself

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The G.E.F. team sometimes showed concern for the miners; when they found prescription medicine during a raid, they threw it clear of the burn zone so that its owner could retrieve it. But, when I asked Cabral if we were going to fly the cook out with us, he shook his head. “She got herself here,” he said. “She can get herself out.” He reassured me that most of the miners attached to the camp were hiding in the forest and would surely emerge as soon as we left. With their food stores destroyed, they would have to evacuate the jungle, and would make the journey together.

Heading back to the choppers, Finger was frustrated. This mine had been destroyed not long before. “They were quiet for a couple of months,” he said. “But when they saw that the operations had decreased they came back, and they’ve learned how to adapt to our tactics.” He pointed to a wide trail leading from the mine into the forest. It was a track for A.T.V.s, built under tree cover to thwart detection from the sky. On his G.P.S., Finger measured our distance from the isolados. “Less than thirty miles,” he said. “It’s very close, considering the range some Yanomami need for hunting.”

For four decades, the Amazon has existed in a state of persistent conflict—protected by federal law but threatened by the people who live there. On the way to Boa Vista, I’d had lunch in Brasília with Sydney Possuelo, who had seen much of this history at first hand. Possuelo is a legendary sertanista—one of the jungle scouts who made the first contacts with isolated people. He started travelling into the Amazon six decades ago. Since then, he has hiked thousands of miles through unexplored jungle, been shot by arrows, and made first contact with seven Indigenous groups. Now eighty-three, he occupies a position in the Brazilian consciousness somewhere between Buffalo Bill and John Muir.

We met at an open-air restaurant and sat outside, at his request, until a tropical downpour forced us indoors. We were joined by Rubens Valente, the author of “The Rifles and the Arrows,” an authoritative book on Indigenous resistance movements. A soft-spoken man of fifty-four, Valente is one of a very few Brazilian journalists who have made a career of reporting on the Amazon and its Indigenous inhabitants. This media inattention is symptomatic of a larger national neglect, which is partly a result of geography. The rain forest makes up seventy-eight per cent of Brazil’s landmass but contains less than fifteen per cent of its population. For Brazilians who live outside the Amazon, it can seem as remote and exotic as it does to Americans.

As a young man, Possuelo worked for FUNAI, Brazil’s agency for Indigenous affairs. In those days, the Indigenous were thought of as “wild Indians,” and Possuelo’s job was to initiate contact in order to “tame” them; the military government planned to open the “green hell” of the Amazon to development by building a highway through it.

By the early nineteen-eighties, Possuelo had begun to understand that exposure to the outside world was largely disastrous for Indigenous groups. Many succumbed to disease; others suffered from alcoholism and sexual exploitation, their forests targeted by unscrupulous loggers and miners. Some chiefs sold access to their lands and began to make profits of their own.

In 1987, after the fall of Brazil’s dictatorship, Possuelo created a department at FUNAI that organized expeditions to confirm the presence of isolados, to legally protect their territories—but he insisted they be left alone unless they initiated contact. “The true importance of the isolados isn’t in their numbers,” Possuelo told me. “It’s in their languages and cultures and societies, about which we know little, and that has to be respected.” A new constitution, instituted the following year, contained provisions to protect Indigenous lands. Soon afterward, Possuelo led the demarcation of the vast Yanomami territory, a chunk of jungle that spans almost twenty-four million acres—an area larger than Portugal—along the border with Venezuela.

“I’m not great at this whole networking thing.”

Cartoon by Johnny DiNapoli

In those days, the Yanomami were one of Brazil’s most secluded Indigenous groups; regular contact with the outside world had begun barely two decades before. Today, about thirty thousand Yanomami live in the Brazilian Amazon. Spread out in some three hundred communities, they live much as they always have, in malocas that house communal groups of several dozen families. They hunt, fish, and gather fruit in the forest, and also grow a few crops—plantains, cassava, maize—for their sustenance.

The gold in Yanomami rivers has been a problem for as long as outsiders have made their way into the jungle. Possuelo said that, in the early nineties, there were perhaps forty thousand miners operating there, but that he and his allies had forced most of them out. It was harder now, though. The Indigenous were more involved in the trade, and the miners were better equipped and more organized. Perhaps most important, he said, the military wasn’t helping to protect the Yanomami. The armed forces maintained three bases in the territory, but, he said, it had not deployed soldiers to stop river traffic, or consistently used aerial surveillance to prevent the miners from coming in. The military had opposed the creation of the Yanomami territory from the beginning, Possuelo explained; when he was marking its borders, the commander of the Army accused him of advancing an independent “Yanomami empire,” stretching across the border with Venezuela. Possuelo laughed as he recalled news stories that the military had orchestrated to spread the conspiracy theory.

Valente said that the armed forces’ view of the Amazon hadn’t changed: “The military fundamentally doesn’t believe in conservation. They think the development of the wilderness is necessary and see it as inevitable.” He showed me a book titled “The Yanomami Farce,” released in 1995 by the Army’s publishing house. The cover depicts a blond, fair-skinned man holding up a mask with the face of a Yanomami man in a feather headdress. The book, written by an Army colonel, argued that the Yanomami were not a real Indigenous community but the invention of an international cabal that intended to take over the Amazon. Bolsonaro promoted the same idea, accusing Greenpeace and environmentalist celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio of being part of this nefarious master plan.

Yet Possuelo was also skeptical of the current government’s campaign, pointing out that Lula had acted after a Supreme Court judge ordered the government to remove the miners. “The fact is that the Brazilian state has never liked the Indians,” he said. “The left doesn’t like the Indians, and the right doesn’t like the Indians, and the center doesn’t like the Indians, either.”

One afternoon, as we approached a mine from the air, a crew of panicked miners went running into the forest. One of them fell over a log, scrambled to his feet, and took off again. As I followed their progress, something caught my eye: two dazzling macaws, flying away from the commotion. After we landed, I found macaw feathers, yellow and blue, hanging on a string from a pole in the camp. Cabral shook his head and said that the garimpeiros must have hunted and eaten the bird. “The animals die a silent death,” he said mournfully.

For a public servant, Cabral is unusually outspoken—at least on Instagram, where his account is devoted to denouncing animal cruelty. In one recent post, he shared a photograph of someone’s pet parrot, with green feathers tinged yellow. “This is mistreatment,” he wrote. “The yellow pigmentation indicates nutritional deficiency. A trained environmental agent would notice and fine the person responsible.”

At the camp, Finger told Cabral that he had found signs of an active site deeper in the forest. We followed him, moving silently along a path through the woods. As we advanced, we could hear a dog barking. Finger scouted ahead, then crept back and motioned for us to follow. In a clearing, there was a wooden shack and a cookhouse, abandoned except for a black dog with distended teats, yowling in distress. Then we heard a peculiar squalling from a box next to the shack. Cabral lifted a plastic cover, revealing a mass of wriggling puppies, just a few days old. He picked up a couple and held them, then walked to a rack where the miners had been drying bush meat—tapir, he guessed. He threw a piece to the mother dog, which began devouring it.

The team searched through belongings, but no one poured gas or piled up flammables. Were they going to burn the place? I asked. The men didn’t answer; they were looking at Cabral, fussing over the puppies. Eventually, Finger barked, “Let’s go.” As the team fell in, Cabral told me that they were leaving the camp intact because of the puppies: “We could move them away from the shack, but the mother might run away in fright and not be able to find them afterward.” One of the men joked that, if there had been a child in the camp instead of the puppies, they would have burned the shack. Cabral laughed and shook his head, but he didn’t protest.

Early in his career, Cabral acquired the nickname Rambo, but it seemed mostly like a joke. He had taken up armed patrols only in service of wildlife conservation, his lifelong passion. He came from Juiz de Fora, a city in Brazil’s interior, and spent his childhood immersed in nature, watching wildlife programs and reading about animals. “This is all I ever wanted to do,” he told me. He earned a degree in biology and another in ecology, then joined IBAMA, a branch of the environment ministry that protects threatened ecosystems.

On our flight back, my pilot, Franke, found a radio frequency where garimpo pilots were talking. As we listened, one gave his coördinates to another. Franke’s co-pilot traced them to an airstrip in the woods—just a few miles from the G.E.F. team’s new refuelling point. Franke passed the information to Finger, in the other helicopter, and they agreed to try to intercept the plane before it could take off.

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