Guardian – Flávia Milhorance in Rio de Janeiro

Jorginho Guajajara’s killing is believed by members of his tribe to be the result of conflict with loggers in their Amazon territory

Members of the Kanela, Gaviao and Guajajara indigenous groups protest against the encroachment of ranchers on their traditional lands

Members of the Kanela, Gaviao and Guajajara indigenous groups protest against the encroachment of ranchers on their traditional lands Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon are mourning the murder of a community leader who campaigned to protect the forest from logging amid escalating violence in the region.

Jorginho Guajajara, a cacique, or leader, of the Guajajara people, was found dead near a river in the city of Arame, Maranhão state, at the weekend.

Members of the tribe say his death was the result of a fierce conflict provoked by the incursion of loggers into their land. Up to 80 Guajajaras have been killed in the area since 2000.

“Jorginho’s body was found dumped by a stream which is renowned for being a dumping ground for Guajajaras killed by loggers or people connected to them,” said Sarah Shenker, a senior researcher at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights.

Guajajara supported a group called the Guardians of Amazon, who have taken direct action to reduce illegal logging in the Araeibóia reserve in Maranhão state: tying up loggers, burning their trucks and tractors, and kicking them off the reserves.

The Guardians say they defend the forest for their families and for the uncontacted Awá people that live in the same territory.

“Given they are uncontacted, they are extremely vulnerable people, who will face a catastrophe unless their land is protected,” Shenker says. “Survival International has been pressuring the Brazilian government to protect the land and also to protect the land defenders – as well as to investigate and bring all criminals to justice.”

Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara, – who is from the Araribóia reserve and is currently running as vice-presidential candidate for the Socialism and Freedom party, said: “Our people are dying on their land. This was not an isolated case, but part of an ongoing genocide.”

Guajajara’s candidacy has cast the spotlight on the Guajajaras, one of Brazil’s largest indigenous groups, who inhabit more than 10 protected areas in the eastern margin of the Amazon in Maranhão.

This area is subject to intense deforestation, and according to government data, 70% of the biome in the state has already been cleared.

“Maranhão is a state with a high rate of indigenous conflicts,” she said. “The loggers enter our territories to exploit our natural resources, and the violence escalates. Many leaders are being threatened by these invaders and we urgently need to end this situation; we do not want to lose any more relatives who fight and protect our Mother Earth.”