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Brazil’s indigenous agency acts to protect isolated Kawahiva people

  • On 14 December, FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency, supported by law enforcement, launched an operation to clear invaders – land thieves, illegal loggers, miners and ranchers – from the Pardo River indigenous reserve in Mato Grosso state. They did so possibly because FUNAI expects President Bolsonaro to curtail such raids in future.
  • The reserve was established in 2016, after a 15-year effort by FUNAI to get it recognized. The territory covers 411,848 hectares (1,590 square miles) and is meant to protect the ancestral lands of the Kawahiva, a small beleaguered indigenous band that still lives there.
  • Giving the Kawahiva a reserve was controversial from the start, and strongly opposed by loggers and agribusiness who denied the Kawahiva existed. FUNAI expeditions have since filmed the Kawahiva, proving that they do in fact continue to inhabit the territory.
  • FUNAI officials fear that the Bolsonaro administration will refuse to demarcate the Pardo River Kawahiva reserve, and possibly even try to abolish it. Indigenous groups across Brazil say that if the government refuses to conclude the demarcation process for numerous indigenous reserves, and tries to dissolve some territories, they will resist.
An aerial image of a Kawihava village, proving that this isolated indigenous group exists. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

The Brazilian government’s indigenous agency, FUNAI, supported by Federal Police officers and the environment agency IBAMA, undertook a joint operation on 14 December to remove invaders – including land thieves, illegal loggers, miners and ranchers – from land belonging to a small isolated indigenous group in Mato Grosso state who have been pushed to the brink of extinction as the agribusiness frontier intrudes into their land.

The year-end 2018 offensive may have been prompted by FUNAI officials’ fears that such operations could prove far more difficult to organize in 2019, once extreme right politician, Jair Bolsonaro, became president. If so, such suspicions were likely justified – on his first day in office Bolsonaro moved to transfer responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from FUNAI to the ministry of agriculture. It seems very unlikely similar federal operations will occur under the Bolsonaro government, according to analysts.

The isolated indigenous group that FUNAI sought to protect with its raid is believed to number just a few dozen. They are the last survivors of the Kawahiva people, one of numerous groups of Tupi-Kawahib-speaking Indians who once occupied vast tracts of Amazonian forest.

After repeated attacks extending over decades by loggers, gold miners and ranchers, the group gave up its earlier way of life (practicing fire-fallow agriculture, planting cassava and corn), and have since become hunter-gatherers so as to rapidly flee deeper into the forest when intruders arrive. They’ve repeatedly made it clear that they no longer want contact with encroaching industrial society.

An area of rainforest illegally cleared by invaders within the Pardo River Kawihava Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

In the path of the “arc of deforestation”

FUNAI has persistently campaigned for the Kawahiva to be given a protected territory making them safer from attack. In 2001 the agency began the long, bureaucratic process of setting up a reserve on their traditional land in the northwest corner of Mato Grosso state, near the Rondônia state border to the east, and the Amazonas state boundary to the north.

But this land lies within the so-called “arc of deforestation,” a vast sweeping curve shaped like a scythe blade that runs from east to west across the southern Amazon basin. North of this boundary lies largely undisturbed Amazon rainforest; south of it much of the forest has been logged for timber, then burnt to make way for cow pasture, then further cleared and converted for soy plantations. The arc isn’t stationary, but is steadily moving north to feed the economic hunger of illegal loggers, miners, land grabbers, cattlemen and soy growers.

This so-called “economic frontier” or “agribusiness frontier” is also one of the most violent areas of Brazil and has repeatedly recorded the highest rate of illegal deforestation in the Amazon. It is highly desirable territory for advancing ranchers and for agribusiness, as the terrain is flat and the climate relatively mild. Markets too are accessible, particularly after the construction in the 1980s of the MT-206 highway, which links the near-by town of Colniza with Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state. The region also possesses considerable valuable timber along with mineral wealth.

FUNAI’s attempt to establish an official Kawahiva reserve was met with strong opposition. Loggers, ranchers and farmers campaigned to stop the land being handed over, claiming that the small group of rarely sighted Kawahiva didn’t exist. In the beginning it was hard for FUNAI to justify its efforts, as they had little hard evidence of the group’s presence, only unsubstantiated reports of sightings.

Jair Candor works in the FUNAI department that protects isolated indigenous groups. He has spent 20 years fighting for the creation of an official Kawahiva territory. Success seemed assured in 2016, but major setbacks have since followed. Image courtesy of Zeza Films.

But in 2005 FUNAI expeditions uncovered reliable vestiges of recent temporary camps and animal traps built by the Kawahiva. The debate over whether or not the indigenous group existed appeared to be over. The Federal Police and IBAMA took action, arresting 35 people, accused of land theft and illegal deforestation, and the situation became less fraught with conflict.

Jair Candor, who works in the FUNAI department that protects isolated groups and who has spent 20 years fighting for the creation of a Kawahiva territory, said that during that time he finally felt hope.

But the truce didn’t hold.

“Everything calmed down until about 2012,” Candor said. “But since then it has turned into hell, mainly because loggers and land thieves are once again invading the area.”

Indigenous supporters repeatedly appealed to the government for action, but to little avail. Ivar Busatto, from Native Amazonian Operation (OPAN), an NGO, was in despair: “Ranchers want to make money and they simply occupy the land. In general terms, Mato Grosso is a state where invaders still use brute force: arriving, deforesting and occupying, all illegally.” Officials generally do little in response: “The government has taken very few actions to control, monitor or impose some kind of order over the occupation,” Candor said.

A view of a portion of the rugged Pardo River Kawahiva Indigenous Territory. The precise day-to-day location of the roving tribe of hunter gatherers is unknown. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

Breakthrough, then breakdown

In 2015, a FUNAI team managed to catch on video a chance encounter with the Kawahiva, making their existence irrefutable. But ruralists stubbornly claimed the footage was a hoax. Candor began to lose heart: “I don’t know what else I can do,” he said in early 2016. “I’ve done everything I can think of to prove these people [the Kawahiva] exist. We’ve made reports, taken photos, filmed them. But we can’t get the situation resolved. Have we got to kidnap the Indians and take them to Brasilia to convince people that they exist?”

Then there was a seeming breakthrough. In the dying days of the Dilma Rousseff administration, FUNAI took advantage of the political confusion during her impeachment proceedings and published studies identifying the borders of four new indigenous reserves. One was the Indigenous Territory of the Pardo River Kawahiva, covering 411,848 hectares (1,590 square miles). After a 15-year struggle, the territory was finally to be demarcated.

Since then, FUNAI has moved forward to get the land’s boundaries properly marked, officially establishing the indigenous territory. In 2018, despite the difficulty of reaching remote areas, the agency sent in teams to register illegal occupations and carried out 14 expeditions to prevent further illegal land invasions. “The defense of territory is fundamental for the survival of isolated indigenous people,” explained FUNAI’s Geovânio Pantoja Katukina.

The anthropologist Gilberto Azanha, who wrote the FUNAI report that defines the borders of the new Pardo River reserve, believes that the Kawahiva must return to their traditional way of life, based on shifting agriculture, if they are to survive. But this can only happen if their land is protected. “If the Brazilian state provides the necessary security, we are absolutely certain that the population of the River Pardo Kawahiva will recover, as happened with the Zo’é in Amapá state,” he said.

Non-indigenous invaders leave a trail of forest destruction within the Pardo River Kawahiva indigenous territory. The reserve can’t be officially recognized until demarcation is complete, a process that Bolsonaro declared to be at an end during his presidential campaign. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

The Bolsonaro factor

Prospects for the Kawahiva under the new Bolsonaro administration appear far from encouraging, given the power that the new president has already given to the ministry of agriculture, allowing it to play a key role in indigenous policy and demarcation.

Damares Alves, the head of the new catchall Ministry for Women, the Family, and Human Rights, which is taking over FUNAI, has already said that she will be rethinking past agency priorities: “We have to see whether this isolation policy is the best policy for the Indian.” Bolsonaro has repeatedly expressed the view that indigenous reserves should be reduced in size, or even dissolved, with indigenous people encouraged to own small plots individually and be absorbed into modern society.

But some experts see this plan as akin to ethnocide, destructive of indigenous culture, especially based on Brazil’s shocking record regarding indigenous rights. The National Truth Commission, which investigated the crimes committed during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1988), estimated that 8,350 indigenous people died as a result of violence or negligence during the regime.

In fact, FUNAI drew up the policies it lives by today in order to assure that the agency never repeats past bad behaviors. Officials from the FUNAI department that protects isolated indigenous groups are deeply concerned that these agency policy advances may be overturned, with a reversion to past operational rules. On 13 December they published a manifesto which pointed out that current FUNAI policies are based on principles enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, drawn up after the military stepped down from government.

The policy of not making contact with isolated groups, they write, specifically assures that the agency doesn’t repeat “past tragic experiences of genocide.”

Brazil’s indigenous communities are far better prepared today, much more outspoken and better organized politically, than during the years of the military dictatorship. Sônia Gujajajara, one of a new generation of indigenous women leaders, has declared that land demarcation is crucial to indigenous rights and survival: “In Brazil there has been a political decision not to demarcate indigenous land and, with that, you condemn a whole population to extermination.” This, indigenous people will not accept, Gujajajara states emphatically.

Many analysts are deeply apprehensive that the hostile rhetoric and unbending will displayed by Bolsonaro, along with potential actions by his new administration, could collide with the unyielding determination of indigenous groups wishing to maintain their identities and their traditional lands. The hope is that a middle ground can be found to avoid violent conflict.

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A Kawahiva indigenous man fleetingly caught on film. Image courtesy of FUNAI.
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