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Amazon indigenous groups and truckers ally to oppose Brazil’s Grainrail

  • It is well documented that the construction of new transportation infrastructure in the Amazon leads to an invasion by illegal loggers, illicit ranchers, and other land grabbers. Which is why indigenous people are opposed to Grainrail, a new railroad that, if approved, will penetrate the Tapajós basin threatening 20 indigenous territories.
  • The Baú Indigenous Territory has already been reduced in size by the government which gave into pressure from invading land grabbers. Now, the Kayapó people worry that the construction of Grainrail will bring an onslaught of new land invaders and further reductions of their territory.
  • This concern is especially strong as Jair Bolsonaro comes to power. He has made it known that he is opposed to the concept of indigenous preserves, while also being on the side of Amazon development and in favor of the fast tracking of environmental licensing for infrastructure projects – which means Grainrail could go forward quickly.
  • Indigneous groups have found an unusual ally against Grainrail: truckers who fear they will lose their livelihoods if the planned railroad goes forward. Indigenous groups and truckers are both known for their use of direct actions, such as roadblocks and strikes, to get their views heard – methods that could lead to conflict with Bolsonaro.
Dotô and the Kayapó use modern telecommunication technologies to effectively monitor illegal deforestation on their lands. Image courtesy of Folha do Progresso.

Dototacakire, known as Dotô, spoke passionately to Mongabay about his opposition to Grainrail (Ferrogrão). He is a leader of the Kayapó people from the Baú Indigenous Territory on the banks of the Iriri River in southern Pará state, Brazil – deep in the Amazon.

Authorities hope this new railway will make it quicker and cheaper to transport millions of tons of crops, mainly soy, from the north of Mato Grosso to the Tapajós and Amazon rivers. But indigenous communities fear Grainrail will bring a sudden gush of land grabbers, illegal loggers and ranchers that would transform their ancestral lands and forests beyond recognition.

Even though Dotô had withdrawn from political life for a year as part of a Kayapó cultural grieving ritual to honor a son who had died, his determination to defend the people’s land was evident in every word he spoke: “The government has to consult us before they build this railroad, because it’s written in law, in [the International Labour Organization’s] Convention 169,” he said firmly. Brazil is a signatory of Convention 169.

If the rail line eventually goes ahead, his community wants binding agreements: “We can’t let [the authorities] do to us what they did to our relatives at Belo Monte [the mega-dam on the Xingu River]. There they made many promises but then they destroyed families, they destroyed the environment, they destroyed everything.”

The fight over Belo Monte was lost partly due to disunion among the many indigenous groups, NGOs and other opponents involved. The Kayapó don’t intend to make that mistake and are already looking to Amazon truckdrivers as possible allies in their opposition to Grainrail.

An illegal garimpos mining operation discovered within the Baú Indigenous Territory. These illicit mines cause major deforestation and the polluting of Amazon waterways. Image courtesy of

A history of clashes

Dotô is no stranger to conflict. He comes from a Kayapó village that has a long history of battles with loggers, mining companies, landowners and politicians, all anxious to get their hands on the resources of the Baú Indigenous Territory. Even though the reserve’s size was officially fixed in 1991 at 1,850,000 hectares (7,140 square miles), outsiders invaded anyway. By 2001, an estimated 3,500 non-indigenous families were living on indigenous land. The railway, if built, will most certainly bring many more.

When at the turn of the century the authorities finally moved to demarcate the indigenous reserve, many of these families refused to move out. According to Megaron Txucarramãe, the regional representative of FUNAI, the federal indigenous agency, “The population [of the nearby town of Novo Progresso] was against the demarcation of the indigenous reserve.” As a result, he recalls, the political climate got very tense: “A man threatened to kill the Indians, to do ugly things.”

There was talk of gunmen forcibly expelling FUNAI technicians sent in to demarcate boundaries. Agamenon Menezes, the president of the Rural Producers’ Trade Union in Novo Progresso, and an alleged local land grabber, threatened ominously: “When a hunter goes into the forest to hunt down a paca [a large rodent], he has his gun cocked, ready to shoot.”

In 2003, after landowners and mining companies lobbied heavily in Brasília, Justice Minister Márcio Thomaz Bastos, reduced the indigenous territory’s area to 1,543,460 hectares (5,960 square miles), a 17 percent cut. The Indians, terrified for their lives and under coercion, signed the decree approving the move. By 2009, FUNAI completed the demarcation of the new, smaller reserve.

Map showing the Baú Indigenous Territory and the area subject to land grabbers that was removed from the reserve by the government after 2003. The town of Novo Progresso is the source of many land grabbers, who gain access to the reserve via unofficial side roads constructed off of the BR-163 highway. Image by Mauricio Torres.

However, as a local landowner told Mongabay, the government’s decision to give in to the pressure of the landowners and reduce the reserve’s size sent “a dangerous message to violent groups, for they concluded that with threats and violence, they could achieve anything, even something unconstitutional.”

The government’s capitulation caused consternation among indigenous supporters. An outraged Saulo Ferreira Feitosa, vice-president of CIMI, the Catholic Church’s missionary council, said: “Indigenous land cannot be negotiated in this way. Not even the Indians can do this. The government gave in to pressure by rural producers and used indigenous land as a bargaining chip.”

Moreover, land thieves saw the territory that had been taken away from the indigenous communities as up for grabs, even though it was still classified as public land and should have been used for agrarian reform and to settle landless peasants. Instead, land grabbers rapidly moved in, confiscating the land and cutting down the forest at a very rapid rate.

Map showing the surge in deforestation after a large area was removed from the Baú Indigenous Territory after 2003. Land grabbers across the Brazilian Amazon typically invade government or indigenous lands, earn money from illegal logging and illicit cattle ranching there, then urge the government to redraw the boundaries of the protected area to exclude the exploited lands, which the land grabbers can then sell at highly inflated real estate prices. So it is that land thieves chip away at Brazil’s conserved lands. Image by Mauricio Torres.

Triggering wholesale deforestation and conflict

The dynamics of deforestation are complex. IMAZON, an independent Amazon research institute, carried out a study to learn what happens when part of a protected conservation unit is lopped off, in order to resolve land conflicts or pave the way for new infrastructure. IMAZON looked at the rates of deforestation in 40 protected areas and indigenous reserves, including the Baú Indigenous Territory, for the five years before they lost land, and for the five years afterwards. The removed areas experienced staggeringly huge increases in the rate of deforestation — on average, 1,116 percent.

But, most unexpectedly, those deforestation impacts generally roll on outward from the lopped off area and ripple across the whole of a protected area. IMAZON believes that the original land loss acts as a trigger, encouraging a wave of invaders to chance their luck and move in. The research institute calculated that, on average, deforestation increased by 50 percent in the remaining part of protected areas.

However, the Kayapó in the Baú Indigenous Territory bucked the trend. While the deforestation rate in the area taken away from them increased dramatically, from just over 1 percent per year in 2003 to 4 percent in 2008, they managed to stop deforestation from occurring at all within the land that still belonged to them. The study demonstrated once again that indigenous communities are the most successful guardians of forests.

Back in 2003, invaders got interested in occupying the Baú Indigenous Territory because new transportation infrastructure was being built nearby, increasing the price of land and making it possible to more easily move goods to market, mainly cattle and minerals. Dotô said many of the problems his community currently faces stem from the proximity of the BR-163, the highway used to transport soy from northern Mato Grosso to the port of Miritituba on the Tapajós River.

Deforestation levels in the Baú Indigenous Territory 2002-2014. Note how deforestation soared in the area removed from indigenous protection (red line) after 2003, as compared with deforestation within the remaining reserve (green line), and areas surrounding the reserve. The chart shows the standard rule as expressed by analysts: indigenous groups continue to be the best forest guardians. Image by Mauricio Torres.

“The BR-163 has brought us a lot of problems – pollution, alcohol in our villages, and so on,”Dotô said. His people’s indigenous territory is just one of the most recent to be impacted by an expanding Amazon road network first launched during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Research by Brazil’s Truth Commission suggests that these roads indirectly caused the death of about 8,000 indigenous people.

Worst of all, Dotô adds, the recent paving of the BR-163 facilitated a shift northward of the agricultural frontier, granting easy access to loggers, land grabbers, ranchers and settlers.

“Farmers have got close, very close to our village,” he said. “We are fearful that our villages of Baú and Mekragnoti [in the neighboring Mekragnoti Indigenous Territory] will be invaded any day.”

Dotô believes Grainrail will worsen the problem, as it will bring down freight charges, making it profitable to grow soy in more remote areas. That will in turn prompt ranchers to sell off their pastures at good prices to agribusiness and push deeper into indigenous lands, deforesting them to create new grazing lands – a process repeated across the Amazon.

Dotô holds up a document in which ANTT promises to hold a consultation with his indigenous group as required by the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, of which Brazil is a signatory. Past experience has shown Brazil to be resistant to carrying out such consultations. Image by Isabel Harari / ISA.

Permanent vigilance

Losing 17 percent of their ancestral lands came as a bitter blow for the Kayapó, something they haven’t forgotten. Long vigilant in defending their property and forests, the community called on IBAMA, the federal government’s overworked and underfunded environment agency, every time intruders were detected.

Today, the Kayapó carry on doggedly, harnessing modern technology including two-way radios to improve their monitoring. In 2014, IBAMA organized a joint operation with the military police, the indigenous agency FUNAI, and the National Force, to close down eight illegal gold mines on Kayapó land.

“The destruction caused by the mines is not just limited to the deforestation itself, as it leads to pollution and the introduction into the reserve of degrading social practices, like drug-trafficking, prostitution, child labor and slave labor,” explained Luciano Evaristo, IBAMA’s Director of Environmental Protection. In 2016, the Kayapó worked closely with IBAMA and the Military Police to have 17 men arrested and charged with illegally fishing on indigenous land.

Like other indigenous communities, the Kayapó have often complained of the long delays prior to IBAMA action. Adriano Jerozolimski, executive coordinator of the Protected Forest Association, an organization representing indigenous communities, said in 2017: “The State is absent for such long periods that, in the eyes of the local populations, illegal acts become acceptable. People start believing that this is just how things are.”

In IBAMA’s defense, it is the only organization to which indigenous people can currently turn to get intruders evicted. That’s why indigenous groups became so dismayed when president-elect Jair Bolsonaro recently announced his plans to cut back even further on IBAMA’s already halved budget, while authorizing the use of fire arms by landowners.

The Kayapó could become even more vulnerable if Bolsonaro pushes ahead with an electoral promise to “emancipate” the Indians, removing their collective land ownership rights and treating them instead as individuals, each with the right to own their own small land plot. This divide-and-conquer approach would allow individual Indians to sell or rent their assigned plots, breaking up indigenous reserves. Such a process would expose now autonomous indigenous territories to increased pressure from ruralists, elite landowners, anxious to rent or buy indigenous property.

Transnational commodities companies such as Cargill, Bunge and ADM have much to gain from the construction of Grainrail and other Amazon railroads. However, indigenous groups and conservationists fear the rush of Amazon invasions and deforestation that such infrastructure brings. Image courtesy of Bunge.

Grainrail to impact many indigenous groups

The Kayapó aren’t the only indigenous people that would be affected by Grainrail. Indeed, there are nineteen potentially impacted indigenous territories within the municipalities to be crossed by the railway, according to the Study of the Technical, Economic and Environmental Viability (EVTEA) for the railway, produced by Estação da Luz Participações (EDLP). There are two additional indigenous territories near the planned route, though neither is yet officially recognized and thus don’t figure on EVTEA’s list.

Moreover, there are 102 land settlement projects, covering 2.9 million hectares (11,196 square miles), within the municipal districts crossed by Grainrail, plus numerous traditional communities of fishermen, collectors of forest products and subsistence farmers, according to the Social-Environmental Institute (ISA), an NGO. All could be vulnerable to invasion.

Over the last 20 years, says ISA, “a process of increased land concentration [into the hands of fewer and fewer large-scale owners] has occurred in Mato Grosso state, because of the agro-export model of economic development pursued since the 1990s.” This land concentration has caused serious problems for small-scale farmers and ISA believes that a similar process could occur near Grainrail, as the agricultural frontier moves in.

ANTT (The National Land Transport Agency), an independent state body responsible for regulating road and rail networks, held a Grainrail public hearing in Brasilia on 12 December 2017 at which it made a commitment to the Kayapó people that it would carry out a process of Free, Prior and Informed Consultation, as demanded by the ILO’s Convention 169. Indigenous populations and NGOs are now calling on ANTT to honor that promise.

Recently, Brazil’s judicial system recognized the validity of indigenous demands, in part. On 24 October 2018, Judge Arthur Pinheiro Chaves in Belém found in favor of an action brought by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), Brazil’s independent litigators, and ordered ANTT to halt the licensing procedure for Grainrail until a new, more thorough, environmental analysis had been carried out. The judge ruled that the “environmental diagnostic,” presented by the authorities, had “serious weaknesses.” He cited, among other inadequacies, the use of imprecise Google Earth images as a tool, a lack of essential technical studies, and the failure to interview local inhabitants.

Traffic jam of commodities-loaded trucks on the BR-163 highway. Truckers now largely hold a monopoly on Amazon grain transport, which gives them policy leverage with the government. Agribusiness badly wants Grainrail built, as it would break the back of this monopoly while also reducing transportation costs. Image courtesy of Verde Vale FM.

Strange bedfellows

The unlikely force pressing this legal action was the Mato Grosso Truck Drivers Trade Union. It turned to the MPF for help, as it doesn’t have the legal standing to question ANTT’s actions. Truckdrivers and indigenous populations might seem like unusual allies, but for the moment at least, they have common interests, though very different perspectives.

Silvio Marinho, the union’s legal adviser, told Mongabay that the truckers’ chief concern was the impact of Grainrail on the 10,000 drivers who currently transport soy on the BR-163 highway, because most will likely lose their livelihoods once a train offers cheaper freight.

But, he added, it wasn’t just truckdrivers who’d be affected. “We know that a road creates problems of pollution and can cause environmental problems,” Marinho said, “but it also promotes development. Thousands of people are employed to service the needs of the truckers. Mechanics, workers in filling stations, those working in hotels, will all be [negatively] affected.” Few people in the region are aware of the risk to their livelihoods, he concluded. “We need a broad discussion.”

Marinho says that his union is also worried about the railway’s impact on the Amazonian ecosystem, noting that the rail line will intensify river traffic from the port of Miritituba on the Tapajós River into the Amazon River. “Can the Tapajós [River] handle two million tons of soy a year? We don’t think so.”

The truckers are keen to work with indigenous groups, according to Marinho: the Indians “are fundamental because they give visibility,” he said. “People listen to them.” Indigenous people, however, remain cautious. Dotô explained: it has been “difficult, very difficult” to get his community to work with “whites” because of the long history of conflict. However, he added, an alliance is being forged. “We can all agree that we want the law respected.”

Both groups have a shared strategy – their willingness to resort to direct dramatic action if negotiations don’t yield results. Earlier this year truckers brought Brazil to a near standstill with a nine-day strike insisting that President Michel Temer reduce diesel fuel prices. They only ended their action after the government caved to their demands.

Indigenous groups, too, can be effective in taking the law into their own hands. They have often evicted illegal loggers from their territories, and even set fire to their equipment.

Dotô revealed that his group plans similar actions, if talk fails: “We’ll do what it takes to stop Grainrail. We’ll organize blockades. We’ll move our village so it lies directly in the planned route of the railway. I’m warning [current Agriculture Minister] Blairo Maggi and all his family [owners of Amaggi, Brazil’s biggest soy producing group]. We will cause problems!”

Megaron Txucarramãe, the regional representative of FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency: “The population [of the town of Novo Progresso] was against the demarcation of the indigenous reserve.” As a result, the political climate got very tense. “A man threatened to kill the Indians, to do ugly things.” In 2019, analysts worry that similar smoldering tensions could erupt into conflict. Image courtesy of

The Grainrail battle ahead

The truckers and Indians will face stiff opposition from agribusiness. The ruralists are Brazil’s most powerful economic lobby – emerging even stronger after the October elections – and becoming increasingly frustrated and vocal over Grainrail approval delays.

Their exasperation flared recently when ANTT announced fines for trucking companies, many of them contracted by soy farmers, if those companies pay their drivers less than the minimum fees ANTT negotiated with the truckers’ union. The farmers balked, saying they hope to speed up Grainrail construction in order to break away quickly from the monopoly imposed by the truckers’ union.

Antônio Galvan, president of the Mato Grosso branch of the soy farmers’ association, APROSOJA, announced that it plans to help finance the railway itself, potentially bypassing a need for international investors. The move came after a 11 September meeting with farmers from the most important soy-producing municipalities in northern Mato Grosso,

“Our idea is to get Grainrail off the ground,” he said. “We would benefit from an increase in the value of the land, through a reduction in freight charges and from profits from the rail operation, as we would become stakeholders.”

Galvan may be bluffing. When Mongabay interviewed him in July, he stated categorically: “I’m not going to risk my money [in Grainrail]. It’s an area I know nothing about. And the investments are high.”

But there is no doubt that the soy farmers are very keen for Grainrail to go ahead. And, considering all the lobbying power ruralists will have in the Bolsonaro government come January, they may get their way. Especially if the Chinese, who have also expressed interest in Grainrail, are prepared to come up with part of the investment.

At the moment, Grainrail work is halted by the judicial decree. But earlier governments have overturned such orders through draconian measures, orders such as the suspensao de seguranca inherited from Brazil’s military dictatorship, a trump card that allows any infrastructure project to move ahead if deemed vital to the economy or national security.

This is an authoritarian route that President Bolsonaro, the former army captain and strong military proponent, may be very inclined to follow. Should that happen, the indigenous communities and truckers will either need to capitulate or resort to potentially dangerous direct action. The stage appears to be set for Grainrail drama in the new year.

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