LAGOA DA CONFUSÃO, Brazil—
It was noon, and we were driving west as drab fields of parched soybean and scrub rushed past. Our goal was to find a local with a skiff who could take us across a river and into a national park that does or does not exist, depending on whom you ask.
There was a metallic click as my companion, Raoni Japiassu Merisse, the very real boss of this paper park, slid the ammunition cartridge into his black semiautomatic pistol engraved with the initials of his employer, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. Japiassu had never fired a single shot outside of his training, but he was prepared to. “Our leaders believe we are at war with the indigenous,” he said with a mixture of duty and resignation.
Just 30 years old, Japiassu was the man caught in the middle of what he called “an impossible situation.” On federal maps, Araguaia National Park still encompasses the northern third of Bananal Island, a 200-mile long river island in north central Brazil that is shaped like a crude arrowhead pointing north. The place was once considered Brazil’s answer to Yellowstone, but 13 years ago, the Javaé and Karajá tribes who live on the island took one of Japiassu’s predecessors hostage, commandeered boats and vehicles, and set fire to the park headquarters.
Ilha do Bananal, in north central Brazil. Map Courtesy of Raoni Japiassu/ICMBio
They were angry about attempts to rein in illegal fishing and cattle ranching, activities that brought outsiders—and cash—to the impoverished island people. After a long struggle, federal lawmakers demarcated new indigenous territories that have complete overlap with the park’s boundaries, creating a legal conundrum. Japiassu’s bosses back in the capital of Brasília demand that he enforce Brazil’s conservation laws inside an indigenous territory where he no longer has unambiguous jurisdiction.
Every year, the forest becomes a veritable inferno as it is set ablaze to facilitate dragging nets along lake bottoms and to make room for illegal cattle pastures. Over the last 10 years, satellites have recorded 3,611 fires inside the park, according to the National Institute for Space Research.