Deep in the Amazon Rainforest, the soft, piping whistle of a native bird echoes through the trees, to be rejoined a few moments later by another call not far away. Even to the trained ear, it might sound like a group of toucans or macaws were having a lively conversation with each other, but these are in fact not birds at all, but instead a group of natives who call themselves the “Guardians of the Forest.” They use bird signals while moving along the forest floor in order to avoid startling the wildlife around them. They move quickly, traveling along a well-known path, holding buckets full of a white, milky substance. They are the rubber tappers of Machadinho d’Oeste in western Brazil. They live on protected land and make a living by harvesting the latex of rubber trees using a 100 percent natural and sustainable method. The rubber trees grow wild in this protected forest, and the natives know the exact location of each one. In order to extract the latex, they make small incisions in the trunk of a given tree and place a bucket underneath to collect the sap.

Being an Environmental Activist in the Amazon Doesn’t Come Without a Price

But if you were to see them, you’d notice something else about these natives. They look hardened and grizzled, and one of their leaders, Elizeu Berçacola, has bullet holes in his backpack, and you remember why they call themselves guardians. All over the Amazon Rainforest, trees are being cut down by illegal loggers. They come for some of the biggest, most valuable trees, some of which can be hundreds of years old. Tree by tree, they rob the rainforest of its ancient denizens and export the stolen timber to foreign markets.

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But that’s where the rubber tappers come in. There isn’t enough of a local police force to protect the land, and the natives aren’t content to sit idly by as their forest disappears. They have weapons and are willing to fight. When they come across timber that is waiting to be hauled off, they burn the wood, returning the nutrients to the soil and depriving the loggers of their profits. But the work is dangerous. In the past 10 years, 16 rubber tappers have been murdered in the area of Machadinho d’Oeste, sometimes gruesomely to serve as a warning to others who try to push back against the tide of deforestation.

Environmental Activists Threatened Around the World

And this isn’t just a local anomaly either. All around the world, illegal loggers and miners are stripping forests bare and retaliating against those who protest or try to stop them. According to the advocacy group Global Witness, more than 100 environmental activists were killed in 2014 alone, many of whom were indigenous people trying to stave off the development and exploitation of their land, and because many of them live in remote rural areas without access to media outlets, it’s likely this number is higher.

In Cambodia, rice farmers are trying to protect the forest of Prey Lang, one of the largest in the South Asian Peninsula, which borders their village. When these guardians come across illegal loggers, they take their tools and burn the wood, which has led the loggers to retaliate the way they’ve done in Brazil. Recently, a woman named Phan Sopheak was on patrol in Prey Lang, and the group she was with had gone to sleep for the night. She awoke suddenly to find that someone had pushed her motorbike onto her and had chopped open her foot with an axe. Thanks to outside organizations, she’s now receiving the medical attention she needs to recover, but the brutality these people face for trying to protect their natural ecosystems isn’t likely going to stop anytime soon.

 

Prey LangPrey Lang Community Network

What You Can Do to Help

  • Avoid things like palm oil, which is often grown by cutting down the forests of indigenous peoples in order to create large palm plantations in countries like Borneo and Sumatra.
  • Switch to products with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), rainforest alliance, or Fair Trade seals of approval. These products, which can range from things like coffee, paper, and building products, and even moisturizers, are made from sustainably sourced materials.
  • Consider switching to a plant-based diet, as rainforests are often deforested in order to give way to land for cattle.

Lead image source: Prey Lang/Facebook