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Invaded Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous reserve awaits relief by Brazil’s new government

  • On January 12, Brazil’s Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reserve in Rondônia state, which covers 1.8 million hectares (6,950 square miles) and includes significant intact rainforest, was invaded by 40 land grabbers, some of them armed, who began cutting down trees, cut 15.5 miles of trails, and started subdividing cleared land into lots.
  • Detected, challenged and videotaped by indigenous men, the invaders said they came from “outside” and that 200 more invaders would be coming soon. Indigenous inhabitants made an immediate appeal to the new Bolsonaro administration for significant law enforcement assistance to repel the invaders.
  • While federal police in high numbers have not been deployed as requested, the federal and state governments did send in a high level official delegation to investigate the situation including new FUNAI National Indian Foundation president General Franklimberg de Freitas.
  • The government says the situation is being watched closely, but is under control for now, and that the administration will “stop illegality.” But indigenous leaders fear “the invaders believe they have support” from the Bolsonaro government. The incident is ongoing. There have been two arrests, but to date the invaders have not been completely expelled.
A shot up border marker at the edge of the newly invaded Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reserve. Image by Divulgação Kanindé.

In mid-January, land grabbers invaded Brazil’s Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reserve, prompting desperate indigenous peoples ­there – whose legal territory includes one of the last major continuous intact stretches of Amazon rainforest in Rondônia state – to request federal law enforcement intervention. However more than a month later, no significant police help has arrived.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reserve covers 1.8 million hectares (6,950 square miles) in southern Rondônia. Declared and approved in 1991, the territory is home to six indigenous villages of the Uru-eu-wau-wau ethnic group, as well as three isolated populations: the Yvyraparakwara, the Jururey, and an uncontacted group of unknown name. The reserve overlaps with Pacáas Novos National Park, and together they protect a stretch of tropical forest in a region that has seen very high rates of deforestation since the 1970s.

According to reports and videos coming out of Uru-eu-wau-wau on January 12, indigenous people had an unexpected encounter with a group of 40 men who had entered the indigenous reserve and begun cutting down trees and opening up areas of conserved forest for division into lots. Some invaders were armed with shotguns, according to witnesses. Approximately 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of trails were opened by the land grabbers near the Linha 623 village, located in the east portion of the indigenous reserve, that is close to the Ji-Paraná municipality.

Confronted by the Indians, the invaders explained that they were complying with orders from “outside,” and that they would soon be joined by another 200 land grabbers who would further help occupy the territory. Since then, the Uru-eu-wau-wau have conducted regular patrols to document ongoing illegal deforestation.

The new president of FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, General Franklimberg de Freitas, sitting at center, during his visit to the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory.

Government reconnaissance

On January 30, after several denunciations by ethnic representatives and civil society organizations, a number of top government officials visited the territory to survey the tense situation. They included new FUNAI National Indian Foundation president, General Franklimberg de Freitas; the Undersecretary for Policies of Promotion of Racial Equity of the Ministry of Family, Women and Human Rights, Esequiel Roque do Espírito Santo; and the prosecutor for the Federal Public Attorneys Office (MPF) in Rondônia, Tatiana Nogueira Ribeiro. The team carried out an overflight of indigenous lands, identified invaded areas and evidence of illegal activity, including logging and land subdivision. According to FUNAI, nine invasion focal points were identified.

To date, no civil or criminal proceedings have been opened to ensure the safety of the territory and its inhabitants. Some federal police officers did make a patrol in the vicinity of the Linha 623 village two days after the visit of the authorities. Two suspects were arrested. But no additional police protection has appeared.

According to the Undersecretary Esequiel Roque do Espírito Santo, their visit to the territory on January 30 helped contain new invasions. Besides the reconnaissance flight, their visit was marked by a coordination meeting with the government of Rondônia state. According to the federal government officer, the vice-governor has committed to fighting the land grabbers: “We want to send a message that the State is close, that we were there to stop the illegality,” said  Espírito Santo in a phone interview with Mongabay on February 13.

MPF prosecutor Tatiana Ribeiro is not satisfied with the government response, saying that the current level of police activity “does not have the character of an intensive protection.” She adds that some measure of “ostensible policing” is expected as a result of the visit of federal authorities.

Indigenous leaders and representatives of NGOs feel that an appropriate action would include the deployment of Brazil´s National Force (Força Nacional). But the use of this special unit is only authorized by the Ministry of Justice in cases of imminent violence. For example, they are currently acting in the border of Brazil and Venezuela, where hundreds of refugees are crossing. According to the Undersecretary, although the Bolsonaro government is not presently discussing the use of Força Nacional in Rondônia, the idea is not off the table. Another option he said, would be to send in the army to avoid new invasions. The high command for the Amazon within the Brazilian Army was also present at the January 30 meetings.

The MPF sent a letter to the federal government asking for action to ensure the safety of the Uru-wau-wau territory. In part the document read: “We have called for the adoption of urgent measures to confront the scenario of large-scale invasion of the Karipuna and Uru Eu Wau Wau Indigenous Lands, located in the State of Rondônia.” The Karipuna Indigenous Reserve, just 160 kilometers from the state capital, in the municipality of Jaci Paraná, has also suffered regular attacks from land grabbers. The prosecutors’ statement warns that the invasion could,” trigger bloody conflicts, especially to the detriment of vulnerable traditional populations.”

After a major invasion by land grabbers on January 12, Uru-eu-wau-wau men organized regular patrols. They are determined to defend their ancestral territory. Image by Divulgação Kanindé.

Attackers emboldened by Bolsonaro rhetoric?

The invasion occurred just 12 days after the New Years Day inauguration of new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, well-known for his hostility to indigenous reserves, and for his promise if elected of preventing any further demarcation of indigenous lands, even though demarcation is guaranteed by law under Brazil’s 1988 Constitution.

Leaders of the Uru-eu-wau-wau reported in the press that the invaders mentioned the new Bolsonaro government as a guarantee that they could occupy indigenous lands without fear of punishment. This statement, however, was not recorded on video, and cannot be fully verified.

A Bolsonaro administration representative assured Mongabay that these rumors are being denied by the new government, and that environmental agency personnel have been deployed to rural communities to communicate that a policy of lenience toward illegal activities does not exist.

Conflict on the edges of the Uru-eu-wau-wau reserve have been occurring for years. According to annual reports on violence against indigenous peoples prepared by the Catholic Church’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), five invasions of the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory by illegal settlers have occurred since 2008.

The invasion video captured on January 12 on an indigenous cell phone features a tense exchange between invaders and Indians. One spear-carrying indigenous man warns an invader in a brown shirt: “Here, we do not authorize, no.” The land grabber responds: “This order comes from outside.” When the indigenous man commands the invaders to leave the reserve, the invader threatens: “Tomorrow there will be 200 people here!”

Newly deforested area within the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reserve. Included in the damage is 25 kilometers of illegal trails cut to date, according to local residents. Image by Divulgação Kanindé.

Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau, one of the leaders of Jamari village, who attended the meeting with the new FUNAI president, said that only a few invaders are known to the Indians, indicating that they are not local actors in the region, but come from some distance away. Who might be employing them and directing their activities isn’t known. But in past such cases, it hasn’t been uncommon for a wealthy ruralist to hire armed thugs to invade conserved lands.

Bitaté says that the most pervasive threat so far is intimidation. The peace of the rainforest at night is now regularly pierced by gunshots or fireworks launched near the villages. There is at least one report of a direct threat of violence aimed by an invader at women and children. “The greatest fear is an attack on the villages,” Bitaté says.

According to Ivaneide Bandeira of the NGO Kanindé, which defends indigenous rights in Rondônia, the recent episode of illegal invasion and deforestation within the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory has degraded the health of elders living in the villages. She says they fear a repetition of the massacres remembered from the 1970s and 1980s, committed by Amazon colonizers invited in by Brazil’s military dictatorship which ruled from 1964 to 1985. The reduction of the indigenous population at that time was drastic, from 250 people to only 80. Currently the population is estimated at 85 Uru-eu-wau-wau, according to data from the publication Povos Indígenas do Brasil produced by ISA, the Instituto Socioambiental, a socioenvironmental NGO.

“It’s a very great psychological pressure,” says Neidinha, as the Kanindé activist is known. “Now with this government, there is a difference: the invaders believe they have support.”

One of the main worries of the MPF and civil society organizations is that there could be a secretive organized movement to perpetrate crimes against conservation units and indigenous reserves in Rondônia, a state known for its radical, sometimes violent, ruralistas who have long wanted to take over public lands and indigenous territories and convert them to agribusiness and mining.

Correction: This story as originally published included an area conversion error which read that “The Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reserve covers 1.8 million hectares (1.1 million square miles) in southern Rondônia. The correct figure is 6,950 square miles.

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