Story Publication logo August 20, 2019

Amazon ‘Retakings’ Challenge Bolsonaro


Benito Miquiles, a Sateré man. Image by Matheus Manfredini. Brazil, 2019.

Indigenous groups in the Brazilian Amazon are preparing themselves as the economic frontier is...

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The Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. Image courtesy of Flickr. Brazil, 2017.
The Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. Image courtesy of Flickr. Brazil, 2017.

This January, nine Sateré-Mawé Indians from the Andirá-Marau indigenous territory, which straddles the border of the Brazilian Amazon states of Amazonas and Pará, set out by boat for an area of teeming tropical forest where their ancestors once lived. The north-central Brazil land was left out—erroneously, they say—of a reserve demarcated for them in 1986. After pressing the government unsuccessfully for years to recognize their rights to the territory, the Indians decided to take matters into their own hands and join an emerging effort to resettle the area.

It was a daring challenge to the policies of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has argued Indians occupy far too much of the country’s territory—land he and his government contend should be opened up to mining and agribusiness. In his electoral campaign, Bolsonaro vowed “not to give another centimeter of land” to indigenous communities. And since he took office in January, illegal occupation of indigenous land and protected areas by loggers, ranchers and others have been on the rise—spurred by a climate of impunity encouraged by Bolsonaro, his critics say.

Against this backdrop, some indigenous communities are pushing back by carrying out occupations, known as “retomadas,” of traditional lands that they say the government has been too slow to recognize as rightfully theirs. “In a situation in which indigenous territorial rights are being repeatedly violated, these retomadas have become a form of political action,” says Brazilian anthropologist Daniela Alarcon. “[Through them] indigenous groups not only apply pressure to have their rights respected and the demarcation of their land completed, but also assert their entitlement to a different way of life, confronting attempts to crush them.”

In their journey in January, the Sateré-Mawé headed north from the large village of Vila Nova, traveling downstream on the Andirá River. They had long discussed doing so; and in the days before the expedition, a series of community meetings were held in which local village leaders, called tuxauas, formally supported the initiative. After arriving at the port town of Parintins on the Amazon River, they traveled east to the Mamuru River, then turned south on that waterway, motoring upstream to the Mariaquã River. Finally, a relatively short way up the Mariaquã, they reached Campo Branco, a tiny village established 14 years ago as a first step toward a resettlement they aim to extend. The journey took them four days, though the region they are reoccupying lies only 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the east of their starting point.

Sateré-Mawé Indians used to inhabit this region; and Jacó, the Vila Nova village tuxaua, recounts what his grandfather, Servo Miquiles, told him: that the Sateré-Mawé fled the Mamuru and Mariaquã Rivers to escape a disease that swept through the region in the middle of the 20th century. Before he died, Miquiles asked his grandson to organize a return to his old home. Jacó has visited the Mariaquã River watershed several times and knows precisely where his ancestors lived, having spotted vestiges of old forest clearings where small-scale farming had taken place.

Jacó, his wife Delma, and a granddaughter formed part of the group undertaking the retomada. Jacó, who enjoys great respect as tuxaua of Vila Nova, has prospered, cultivating a productive plantation of guaraná, a tropical creeper which the Sateré-Mawé domesticated many centuries ago. The plant plays a central role in Sateré-Mawé culture and is also in demand as an energy supplement and as a key component of a popular soft drink. Yet Jacó and his family are prepared to give up the social position, steady income, relatively good healthcare and transport and education services they have in Vila Nova because they consider it crucial to reoccupy the land along the Mariaquã River. 

This is partly because the Sateré-Mawé population, which declined catastrophically in the first half of the 19th century due to epidemics and persecution, has tripled since the late 1980s, and pressure on their land is growing. They now number 13,350. That, the Indians say, is too many if they are to carry on with their traditional way of life in their 7,855-square-kilometer (3,033-square-mile) reserve. They have already noticed they have to leave their riverside villages and travel deep into the forest to hunt. Ecologist Ricardo Scoles of the Federal University of Western Pará (Ufopa), says the Indians require large amounts of land to maintain their traditional—and eco-friendly—ways: “Indigenous areas in Brazil generally have a population density of less than one inhabitant per square kilometer. [Indigenous communities] have an excellent record of maintaining the environmental quality of their land, but to achieve this, they need vast areas so they can exploit their territory at a very low level of intensity.”

According to Funai’s records, the first reoccupation was begun by Bernardino Miquiles, who in 2005 set up the village of Campo Branco, where he now lives with his family and serves as tuxaua. He is keen to have others follow his lead. In January, Benito Miquiles, one of his sons, travelled up the Andirá River to the village of Fortaleza to take part in the ritual of the tucandeira, a rite of passage by which young Sateré-Mawé men make the transition from childhood to adulthood. It involves being bitten by scores of vicious tucandeira (Paraponera clavata) ants. Young men, dancing in a circle in the center of the village, thrust their hands into two gloves filled with ants. The bites go deep, transmitting the poison directly into the central nervous system, causing excruciating pain. The young men try not to show the pain they feel, for only the most resilient may become tuxaua in the future. 

Benito, who expects one day to succeed his father as tuxaua of Campo Branco, stoically resisted the pain, though near him a young man threw himself to the ground, howling in agony. Indigenous men often choose to endure the ordeal many times because, they say, it strengthens disease-resistance and their indigenous identity, making them better warriors. Anthropologist Gabriel Alvarez, who has studied the tucandeira ritual, says the songs the men chant during the ceremony describe how in the past children have been seized and women forced into prostitution. He sees the chants as a biting criticism of the way indigenous groups are being incorporated into the “white” world. Franciel Açaí, a Sateré-Mawé Indian, explains their thinking: “We are the first inhabitants of this land. For us, landowners and loggers are like a virus, and, to get rid of the virus, we practise our rituals.”

The reason for Benito’s trip to Fortaleza was not solely ceremonial. He also went to ask other Sateré-Mawé tuxauas for support—both in terms of material and, more importantly, in helping them lobby the government to complete demarcation of their lands. “We are being threatened by land thieves and loggers, because we live in a non-demarcated area,” he explains.

Benito’s father, Bernardino, also believes that with the support of more people, the Sateré-Mawé could prod authorities to improve public services in their reoccupied lands. “We don’t have a school, or access to transport, or a public-health service,” he says.

The health challenges facing women are particularly daunting. Sonia, Bernardino’s wife, lost the use of her right hand after being bitten by a poisonous snake. She says she had her last child, her sixth, while out working in the fields alone. “I had to cut the umbilical cord and make my way home”, she says. “I’m also constantly worried that one of my children will get ill and die before we can reach a doctor.”

Offsetting such hardship is the reoccupied land’s abundance. It’s easy for the men to hunt monkey, boar and other game, and the river is bursting with life—caiman and many fish species, including tucunaré, or peacock bass (Cichla spp.).

The Sateré-Mawé claim to the land is strong, given that it was occupied for many years by their ancestors. Since 2002, the Indians have been asking Brazil’s indigenous agency, Funai, to redraw the boundaries of their reserve to include it, but the agency has failed to act, and land-grabbers are moving in, using a new land-registry system called the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) to assert ownership. CAR requires landowners to undergo a registration process that pinpoints their property’s location, boundaries and forest cover. It recently became mandatory with a much-applauded objective—to enable monitoring of landowners’ compliance with government land-clearing limits. Experts say that eventually it also will help give rise to a system under which conservation-minded landowners receive payment for providing environmental services. “Creating CAR was the first step,” says Andrea Azevedo, director of public policies at Brazil’s Institute for Environmental Research in Amazonia (IPAM), a leading non-governmental Amazon research and policy institute. “We believe that in the future Brazilian agriculture will be differentiated—that is, as well as producing agricultural goods, it will aggregate an enormous quantity of environmental services.”

Yet some contend that CAR design flaws have allowed the registry to be used by land thieves to dispossess the very indigenous communities that best protect the forest—and thus are best-placed to provide the environmental services to which Azevedo refers. Eliane Moreira, a prosecutor with the Pará state Public Ministry (MPPA), an autonomous public watchdog agency, agrees CAR has become an instrument of land theft in the Amazon region, where land titling is chaotic. “Although a CAR register doesn’t prove ownership, it is being used by land thieves as a document that links them to the land,” Moreira says. “They declare they’re the owners, then—backed up with a CAR register—improperly proceed to expropriate it from the inhabitants [including traditional peoples].” 

Says Ione Nakamura, an MPPA prosecutor in charge of ensuring laws on agrarian issues are upheld: “[CAR] is an instrument by which the landowners themselves make the declarations,” Nakamura says. “And often their claims are superimposed on land effectively and historically occupied by traditional populations who, because they don’t have access to the necessary technology and technical assistance, don’t produce information for the state’s official [land recording] systems.” To correct the problem, Nakamura says, “we need to create public policies to make traditional populations visible, above all with respect to CAR.”

"Real Owner" Appears

The Sateré-Mawé’s plight illustrates how CAR can be misused. Because the land beside the Mariaquã River isn’t officially part of their reserve, land thieves are claiming it. CAR records viewed by EcoAméricas show that an area of 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) that was traditionally occupied by the Sateré-Mawé and has been awaiting demarcation as part of their reserve, has been divided into 36 individual plots. According to Sérgio Butel, a Funai employee based in Parintins, an unnamed man from the south of Brazil came to his government office and asked Funai to remove the Indians, producing a map that the man said proved he was the “real owner.” Says Butel: “It took us by surprise. We told him that the Sateré had long ago asked for this area to be included in their territory and that the Funai office in Brasília was dealing with their request.” 

Outsiders also are entering the land near Campo Branco, asking people there to leave. Bernardino says a white man, introducing himself as the land’s owner, came to his house, offering compensation if everyone would move elsewhere. He said the man used an old trick, offering Bernardino a bottle of cachaça [a clear liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice], then placing a wad of money on the table. Bernardino turned down the offer, and since then has been receiving threats. He is fearful the man will return, perhaps with gunmen in tow. 

The situation has become more critical for the Sateré-Mawé in recent weeks. On June 11, the unicameral legislature of the state of Pará passed legislation (PLE 129/2019) that overhauls agrarian law in the state. Currently, individuals can be granted title to public land only if they live permanently on the property. The bill, signed into law by Pará Governor Helder Barbalho, requires only that individuals state their intention to farm the land.

“The bill will facilitate what we call speculative land theft,” says the Amazon Institute of Man and the Environment (Imazon), a Brazilian environmental group. The term refers to a process by which land thieves occupy public land, clear it of forest and sell it to cattle ranchers at a profit. Although illegal, it has been the main driver of illegal deforestation in Pará.

More Land Grabs Feared

Imazon believes the new law could make a further 21 million hectares (81,000 square miles) of public land vulnerable to land grabs of this kind. Speculators such as those seeking to take over traditional Sateré-Mawé lands could cite the law as they press their claims, confident that the Bolsonaro administration will do little to enforce federal law protecting indigenous communities’ territorial rights. 

For the time being, however, Bernadino and his family are overjoyed by the arrival of Jacó and other indigenous people from Vila Nova, believing the greater numbers will boost their ability to retain the land. The new residents have travelled upstream with Benito to the abandoned village of São Roque, and are busy clearing land and planting subsistence crops there, delighted with the abundance of fish, game and forest fruits. When other families arrive, they plan to open a series of “vigilance villages” intended to keep out invaders. Jacó is hoping later this year to build a 40-kilometre (25-mile) trail linking their villages along the Andirá River, using GPS technology.

Daniela Alarcon argues that the importance of retomadas such as this one transcends their impact on specific land conflicts. The actions should instead be understood, she says, “as a way of rewriting history against the flow of hegemonic historiography, which means that they are significant not only for the groups that undertake them, but for all of society.”