Activists expressed outrage Sunday at the killing of an indigenous "guardian of the forest" in Brazil's Amazon and called on the government to thwart illegal loggers in the region.

Paulo Paulino Guajajara and another tribesman, Laercio Guajajara, were ambushed by loggers late Friday as they patrolled the Arariboia territory in the northeastern state of Maranhao.

Both men are members of the Guardians of the Forest, a group of more than 100 tribesmen who attempt to protect their land from criminal logging gangs.

Paulo Paulino was shot in the neck and died in the jungle, according to Survival International, a group that defends indigenous rights. Laercio was shot in the back but managed to escape.

The two men had left their village to look for water when the attack occurred, the Maranhao government's human rights secretariat said on Twitter.

"Violence and death threats against the guardians have been happening for years," Sarah Shenker, a researcher with Survival International who knew Paulo Paulino, told AFP.

"There is a lot of impunity. The authorities are unwilling to protect the indigenous lands," Shenker charged.

"Their racist words and genocidal, anti-indigenous proposals give a kind of green light."

Greenpeace said the two men were "the most recent victims of a state that refuses to comply with what the constitution determines."

"It is time to stop this institutionalized genocide. Stop authorizing the bloodshed of our people!" Sonia Guajajara, coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, said on Twitter.

'Their responsibility'

Since taking office in January, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of harming the Amazon and indigenous tribes in order to benefit his supporters in the logging, mining and farming industries.

Map of deforestation and indigenous territories in Brazil, including the area where a land defender was killed in an ambush by loggers on November 1, 2019
Map of deforestation and indigenous territories in Brazil, including the area where a land defender was killed in an ambush by loggers on November 1, 2019 AFP / Simon MALFATTO

Amazon deforestation nearly doubled in the first eight months of the year, compared with the same period a year before. Raging fires in the region made international headlines.

In September, Human Rights Watch said the threats and attacks on forest defenders were "only getting worse" under Bolsonaro.

The group said the right-wing president's "assault on the country's environmental agencies is putting the rainforest and the people who live there at much greater risk."

Bolsonaro has vehemently defended his policies.

After the attacks on the forest guardians in Maranhao, Justice Minister Sergio Moro tweeted that police would investigate the murder, which took place some 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the state capital San Luis.

"We will do everything to bring those responsible for this serious crime before the courts," said Moro, a former federal judge.

Shenker, who was in the region in April, said they would hold Moro to his promise.

"The Brazilian government has to accept that it is their responsibility to protect those lands. That they do not, their absence there, is what pushes the guardians to assume this defense -- a very hard and dangerous job," she told AFP.

In a video interview released by Survival International last year, Laercio said: "They want to kill us all."

The Arariboia territory is home to about 5,000 indigenous people -- the Guajajara and the Awa.

Three other forest guardians have died in previous attacks there, Survival International said.

Brazil's National Indian Foundation, Funai, issued a statement lamenting the death of Paulo Paulino, and said it would send a special team of technical experts to the area.