A still from the documentary ‘We Are Guardians’

‘We Are Guardians’: A Vital Tale Of Defiance And Destruction

By 28 October, 2023

In the heart of the Amazon rainforest, a stark contrast unfolds – the juxtaposition of breathtaking natural beauty with relentless destruction. We Are Guardians (Brazil-US-Macedonia, 2023) is a harrowing and eye-opening documentary that plunges viewers deep into this paradox. Through the perspectives of its diverse characters, all driven by unwavering dedication to protect the Amazon and secure their own survival, as well as the livelihood of those dependent on the region’s natural resources, the film paints a vivid and compelling picture of this critical struggle. 

As deforestation reaches alarming rates in the Brazilian rainforests, We Are Guardians does not attempt a comprehensive analysis of the complex interests at play. Instead, it embraces a character-driven approach, proving to be its greatest strength. By immersing the audience in the experiences of the most vulnerable and determined individuals, the documentary provides profound insights into the ongoing battle to preserve the invaluable rainforest.

The documentary opens in the serene Amazon Forest, with nature’s peaceful rhythm—birds chirping, rivers meandering, and ants at work. But this tranquillity is shattered by the dissonant roar of loggers’ chainsaws and ancient trees crashing down. As centuries-old giants fall, Indigenous guardians emerge, their chants and dances carrying a deep connection to the land, mingled with a sense of loss for the once-majestic trees. It is a poignant reminder of the price of environmental degradation.

At the heart of the narrative is Marçal Guajajara, a dedicated Indigenous forest guardian from the Arariboia region, who eloquently traces the origins of their arduous journey. Confronted with the tragic assassination of a predecessor, they made a resolute choice to forge their own military force – The Guardians, recognising the glaring absence of official protection for their cherished lands. Marçal’s account poignantly underscores the ever-present urgency and desperation that fuels their steadfast commitment to safeguarding their ancestral home. Before embarking on each mission, The Guardians offer traditional prayers that invoke the spirits of their forebears, seeking protection to ensure the well-being of their warriors and to preserve the sanctity of their forest by keeping invaders at bay.

Meanwhile, on the other side, within a logging camp, a radio transmission warns about the presence of Indigenous people in the area and advises avoiding any conflict. It is here that we meet resilient Valdir Duarte, who is trapped in the world of illegal logging, a harsh reality in the Amazon where survival often compels participation in environmentally destructive activities. Valdir started working at the tender age of eight, learning the trade from his father. His lack of educational opportunities and the need to support his family propelled him into the realm of illegal logging, underscoring the challenging choices faced by many in the Amazon when it comes to caring for their families.

The sound of more chainsaws catches the attention of compassionate Tadeu Fernandes, originally hailing from Rio de Janeiro, who arrived in the Amazon region in 1967. He stumbles upon a young logger and father of a sick child whom Tadeu releases, remarking that the vulnerable logger’s son has saved his life. Tadeu, as a landowner, recounts that years ago, loggers would meet a grim fate by their own chainsaws when caught in illegal actions.

With dreams of creating an ecological tourist haven, Tadeu has transitioned into a critical role as an advocate. He unveils a disturbing reality by comparing two aerial maps from the region: one dating back to 1997, revealing the area as a pristine 100% ecological sanctuary, and the other from 2008, which now depicts the same region marked in red, denoting rampant illegal activities. These revelations expose the extensive encroachment of the Amazon by lumber, mining, and land-grabbing activities, to the point where it appears as if towns are engulfing the once lush greenery. A drone image taken from Villa Samuel shows approximately 3,200 inhabitants within Tadeu’s lands, housing eight illegal sawmills operating at full steam.

What is even more disheartening is the complicity of politicians who willingly ignore the exploitation of these precious lands and support the illegal network. It begins with small loggers who cut down the trees and take them to the sawmills. These sawmills, in turn, sell the stolen wood to exporters who send the wood to international importers. Politicians promote this well-organised corruption scheme. Their motivation? Securing votes during elections, regardless of the environmental toll it exacts. Over the past 20 years, despite lodging over five hundred complaints and officially reporting to relevant authorities and even making a personal appeal to the Governor, no action has been taken. 

Far-right President Bolsonaro’s policies, including funding cuts for environmental enforcement, have triggered a surge in fires and deforestation during his presidency between 2019 and 2022. Since Bolsonaro assumed office in 2019, illegal incursions into Indigenous territories have tripled, with deforestation rates hitting a 15-year high. Encouraged by the president’s stance, cattle and soy farms continue to encroach deeper into the heart of the Amazon, pushing the region to the brink of an environmental crisis. The narrative explores the role of global agricultural giants like Louis Dreyfus, Cargill, and Cofco in driving deforestation, all while shedding light on the controversial arguments made by some farmers in favour of deforestation to boost the Brazilian economy. 

The film also offers a ray hope through Lula’s election as Brazil’s new president, fuelled by his commitment to combat deforestation and reinstate environmental laws. This becomes source of optimism for the embattled jungle. The documentary presents a vision for change, advocating for regeneration through agroforestry, promoting the practical and hopeful concept of intercropping with fruits while living in harmony with the forest. Marçal’s closing words serve as a touching reflection that the guardians of the Amazon embody the essence of the forest itself, from the rain to the river, the animals, and the wind. Furthermore, the film highlights the growing influence of Indigenous voices in Brazilian politics, as Indigenous individuals assume roles in Congress and ministries, underscoring their pivotal role in protecting the Amazon’s dwindling forests.

Directed by Indigenous activist Edivan Guajajara and environmental filmmakers Chelsea Greene and Rob Grobman, with Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens as the producer, the documentary will have its UK premiere on Saturday 28th October at the Raindance Film Festival in London. It is a must-see for those deeply concerned about the fate of our planet’s most critical rainforest.

Follow Sounds and Colours: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Mixcloud / Soundcloud / Bandcamp

Subscribe to the Sounds and Colours Newsletter for regular updates, news and competitions bringing the best of Latin American culture direct to your Inbox.