Journey to Campo Branco

Mongabay travels with Benito and the other warriors. We leave Fortaleza by boat at 8am, heading down the Andirá River. Later, we stop at the village of Vila Nova, where a group of indigenous leaders exchange urgent updates regarding the most recent anti-indigenous policies of the Bolsonaro administration. We join Cândido, the head tuxaua who represents all the villages on the upper Andirá River, as well as other leaders, as they gather around a long table to discuss options for action.

Cândido’s wife prepares a drink made from the berries of guaraná, a climbing plant native to this part of the Amazon. She uses a stone to grate berry flakes into a water-filled gourd. Then she hands the gourd to her husband, who sips and passes it along. The Sateré-Mawé are known as “the guaraná people” because they domesticated this plant which has gained a central role in their culture; they consume it whenever the entire group meets to reach consensus. The debate itself is known as çapó.

According to anthropologist Gabriel Alvarez, who has studied the Sateré-Mawé, çapó is a ritual without music involving in-depth conversation. It is, he says, a non-coercive form of power. “An elder once told me that decisions reached during a çapó have to be followed, because they indicate what [the community] wants.”

The topic under discussion this day is the reoccupation of the ancestral lands beside the Mariaquã River.

Pouring the traditional guaraná drink consumed whenever a Sateré group meets to reach consensus. The debate itself is known as çapó. Image by Matheus Manfredini.

Jacó, the Vila Nova village tuxaua, tells everyone what his grandfather, Servo Miquiles, told him: that the Sateré fled the Mamuru and Mariaquã rivers to escape disease that had ravaged the people. Servo Miquiles, before he died, asked his grandson to initiate a movement for the return home. Jacó has visited the Mariaquã River watershed several times and knows precisely where his ancestors lived, having spotted vestiges of old forest clearings.

“Our parents and our grandparents lived there so the land is ours and we are going to reoccupy it, initially with 20 families,” declares tuxaua Cândido at the culmination of the çapó.

The ancestral lands the Sateré will be reoccupying near Campo Branco lie about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the village of Vila Nova (see map), but there is no longer a path between the Andirá and Mariaquã rivers. Instead, travellers must make a long detour by boat via the Amazon River. A few years ago, Jacó tried to open a land route through the forest but failed. He plans to have another go, next time with the help of GPS navigation.

Returning to the homeland

The Sateré-Mawé, have a practical reason for wanting to reoccupy the ancestral home: “Our population is growing and, here in the Andirá River, we have to travel ever further to hunt,” explains Adelino Batista from Bom Jardim, an Andirá River settlement.

This explanation could sound perplexing to non-Indians, as the 13,350 Sateré occupy a sprawling demarcated indigenous reserve covering 7,885 square kilometers (3,044 square miles). Indeed, President Bolsonaro repeatedly presses home this point: that indigenous people have “an enormous amount” of land and that some of it should be taken away to support industrial mining and agribusiness interests that feed into the nation’s tax structure and support Brazil’s economy.

But this is a mistaken perception according to ecologist Ricardo Scoles. “This idea that a few Indians have a lot of land [and more than they need] is a fallacy,” he says. “Indigenous areas in Brazil generally have a population density of less than one inhabitant per square kilometer. [Indigenous communities] have an excellent record in 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.”

Jacó provides a good example of Sateré determination not to over-exploit their lands. He is the tuxaua of one the villages currently best served by healthcare, transport and education services, but he has decided to move with his family to the Mariaquã River which has no amenities but has abundant wild life. He will have to start with the gruelling work of clearing a rough stretch of forest to establish a home site. It’s a daunting task, yet neither he nor his family seems intimidated. In fact, as Jacó, his wife and granddaughter set off on their journey, they seem excited at the idea of beginning a new life.

Jacó, the leader of Vila Nova village. Jacó’s grandfather, Servo Miquiles, asked his grandson to initiate a movement for the return home to the Mariaquã River. Image by Matheus Manfredini.

The river journey to the Mariaquã River watershed requires three days. First, we travel north from Vila Nova to Parintins, a port on the Amazon River. We make this leg of the journey in a commercial vessel, carrying at least three times more passengers than official capacity permits. The vessel tows the motorized canoe lent to the Indians by the tuxaua Dico.

Once in Parintins, the Indians set off in their motorized canoe, while we follow with a rental. The second canoe is very much older, with a rough-running engine that we worry might give up the ghost during the trip, leaving us stranded. Our assigned river pilot also fails to appear. But we decide to press ahead. The better boat is called the “Bom Socorro,” Good Help. A positive sign, we think.

Leaving Parintins, we travel south up the Mamuru River. Along it, we see time and again what will happen to the Sateré ancestral lands unless they gain control over them — huge barges laden with gigantic logs pass by.

A pilot who regularly travels this river tells us he often sees three or four tree-loaded barges leaving the river banks each night. “The loggers go into the area, fill the barges up with logs and act as if they have the right to do this. It’s this that the Indians want to avoid, but you can be certain that the loggers will not give up easily,” he warns, refusing to tell us his name for security reasons.

After dark, we reach a Sateré village on the Mamuru River; it is located outside the demarcated indigenous reserve. The indigenous community readily offer us a hut where we can sling our hammocks and set up small oil lamps. We leave the next morning at daybreak, and just after midday, turn our boats into the Mariaquã River.

Arrival at Campo Branco and the trouble with CAR

Reaching Campo Branco village, we are welcomed by Benito’s father Bernardino, a jovial tuxaua.

Turning more somber, he tells us that some time ago a white man, introducing himself as the “owner of the land,” showed up at his home, offering compensation if everyone would leave. The outsider resorted to an old trick commonly used during the colonial period: first, he offered a bottle of cachaça (sugarcane rum) and then placed a wad of cash on the table.

Bernardino turned down the offer; after that the threats began.

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 proved, the man said, that he was “the real owner.”

“It took us by surprise,” says Butel. “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 Brasilia was dealing with their demand.”

Mongabay consulted official records to see if the outsider had any basis for his claims. We couldn’t locate the relevant land registration entries in the local real estate office, but were able to access data within CAR, Brazil’s official land registry, where landowners themselves state how much land they own. There is no independent verification of the claims.

There we found a major discrepancy between what we’d seen on the ground and what CAR showed. While we’d seen a rainforest occupied by Sateré-Mawé, the CAR website showed an area of 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) divided into 36 individual plots, each with an “owner.” This mapped area, that was supposedly already in the hands of outside inhabitants, overlaid Bernardino’s village.

Such discrepancies are common in the Brazilian Amazon, where indigenous groups and traditional peoples have long dwelt on land without deeds, and where outsiders often manipulate the land registry system to gain control.

The ultimate objective behind CAR is admirable: it seeks to assemble comprehensive ownership information on all the country’s rural properties, with landowners obliged by law to fill in the forms accurately. But frequently, there are abuses.

The system has been widely praised, but Ione Nakamura, head of Agrarian Legal Prosecution for Pará state, points to a serious shortcoming: “[CAR] is an instrument by which the landowners themselves make the declarations, 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, she says, “We need to create public policies to make traditional populations visible, above all with respect to CAR.”

The Sateré-Mawé at Campo Branco have been caught in precisely the predicament described by Nakamura. And theirs is far from an isolated case: unofficial data suggests that nearly 500 indigenous groups are asking FUNAI to redraw the boundaries of their territories, though not all of these have problems with CAR.

It is FUNAI’s responsibility to carry out the process of revision, but with so many requests, and such a small staff and budget, the indigenous agency has to prioritize. The first two criteria it applies are: how long has the group been demanding recognition of their right to land? And is the group in a position of social vulnerability? The Sateré-Mawé score well on both counts: they’ve been demanding protection since 2002, and they are in a desperate situation of near total abandonment. As Bernardino explains: “We don’t have a school, or access to transport, or a public health service.”

He adds: “We are also exposed to the violent tactics of those who wish to grab our land.”

The risk of violence has likely increased since President Jair Bolsonaro made provocative remarks in April, pledging to pass a bill permitting “landowners” to shoot anyone “invading” properties.

FUNAI’s failure to recognize existing Sateré settlements and their long-term ancestral claims on the Mariaquã River lands means that, if Bolsonaro’s plan becomes law, CAR-recognized “owners” may feel empowered to label indigenous inhabitants as “invaders” and legally use guns to evict them.

Thriving in the present moment

For now, the Sateré inhabiting Campo Branco aren’t thinking of future risks, but rather are revelling in the abundance of wildlife in their new home. Largely untouched by the encroaching economic frontier — with its illegal logging camps, cattle ranches and soy plantations — the waters of the Mariaquã River are bursting with life, including caiman, piranha, electric fish (the poraquê [Electrophorus electricus] which can deliver a 500-volt discharge, enough to kill an adult), and much else.

Upon our arrival, Bernardino, his family and all of us visitors gorge on fish, game (including monkey meat), yams, pumpkins, manioc flour and a drink made from açaí berries.

As they eat, the Sateré plan their trip for the next day to the abandoned village of São Roque. With the rainy season now ending, they intend to clear a patch of forest there and plant it with subsistence crops. It’s a way of carving out a new life for Benito, Bernardino and their relatives. Underlying these homesteading activities is a very sincere wish to protect the rainforest that plays such a key role in sustaining their lives.

The following morning, we receive a pleasant surprise. Pedro, Érik’s father, who had been reluctant to speak to us earlier, sang us a song that he’d learnt from his grandmother. It spoke of the bountiful waters of the Mariaquã River — a fitting farewell to the Mongabay team. Later, we made our way down the river, back to Parintins, even as the Sateré made their way up river to reclaim their homeland.

The Sateré’s journey aboard the Bom Socorro was hopefully more successful than ours. Justifying our earlier forebodings, the engine on our older, smaller boat broke down, and we were left adrift in the Amazon — literally up the river without a paddle. For five hours we baked under the tropical sun, unable to go to the riverside because of strong winds which forced us into a large lake. While we waited, a sound reached us across the immense river — the incessant whine of chain saws. We tried to block out the disturbing noise by recalling and singing Pedro’s lullaby, a symbol of resistance.

At last, we were rescued by a fisherman and towed to safety. The safety of the Sateré remains less certain.

Bernardino’s youngest child. The Campo Branco village tuxaua (leader), believes that the Sateré need their Mariaquã ancestral lands to sustainably support a growing population. Image by Matheus Manfredini.

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Banner image caption: Bernardino, the Campo Branco village tuxaua (leader). He has so far resisted threats from outsiders who have demanded he leave the Sateré’s ancestral lands on the Mariaquã River. Image by Matheus Manfredini.

Article published by Glenn Scherer
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