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As their land claim stalls, Brazil’s Munduruku face pressure from soybean farms

  • Indigenous Munduruku communities in Brazil’s Pará state have seen their crops die as agribusiness expands in the area, with soybean farmers spraying pesticides less than 10 meters (33 feet) from villages.
  • The streams used by the Munduruku have also been damaged, if not dried up, and even the artesian wells the communities are digging to survive appear to be contaminated.
  • Aside from pesticides, soybean farming has also brought fraudulent requests for land appropriation and violence against indigenous people.
  • The Munduruku have for the past 12 years tried to get their land demarcated as an indigenous reserve, but the process has stalled under the Bolsonaro administration.

SANTARÉM, Brazil — The landscape near the indigenous Munduruku villages of Santarém, in Brazil’s Pará state, has changed much over the past 20 years. What was once an immense plain in the heart of the Amazon, the humid home to dense forests full of delicacies like açaí and pupunha palms, has been transformed into a green desert. The forest has been successively logged, thanks to the arrival of soybean farming.

In 2017, the municipality’s harvest was the largest in a decade, consolidating the takeover of what is called the Santarém Plain. The expansion of agribusiness has had grave consequences for the indigenous people living there.

They say their villages are constantly poisoned by pesticides, used on crops without any controls. “We can smell [the pesticides], it ruins our lunch,” Luciene Sousa, who lives in the village of Açaizal, told the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Catholic Church-affiliated organization, in November 2019. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is monitoring the situation, the spraying occurs less than 10 meters (33 feet) from the indigenous homes and farms.

The agency says that “necessary safety measures have not been adopted [by the farmers] in the [pesticide] spraying areas.” It also reports the silting of streams in the area, a current complaint of the indigenous people. The history of the Munduruku people is marked by delays in demarcating their reservation, land grabbing, and violent repression by farmers.

Land cleared by use for soybean farming in Munduruku territory. Image by Arthur Massuda/CIMI.

Clouds of pesticides, dry streams

Around 600 Munduruku live in four villages south of Lake Maicá, which is fed by the Amazon and Tapajós rivers. There, they grow traditional fruits like graviola (soursop), manage what is left of the açaí groves, and grow manioc — their main input for artisanal flour production. Still, there is pressure on the land due to the advance of soybean farming. “The land is becoming unfertile. They raise very few cashew or graviola trees anymore. The pesticides contaminate everything,” Gilson Rego, of the Pastoral Land Commission, another church-affiliated group, told Mongabay.

There are concerns about the unchecked use of pesticides. A study carried out in 2015 by researchers at the University of Brasilia showed high risk of exposure of the inhabitants to pesticides, especially those with glyphosate in their composition.

Headaches, queasiness and nausea are common within the community. And there are more serious cases — including respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses — from exposure to the pesticides. Their animals also suffer, including chickens that sometimes die from poisoning after eating soybeans from the neighboring farms.

Soybean field near the village of Açaizal. Image by Bárbara Dias/CIMI.

The onslaught of agribusiness is also a threat to the streams in the villages, leaving them damaged, if not dried up. “They [indigenous people] are digging artesian wells to survive, but it’s complicated because the water seems to be nearly all contaminated,” said Rego, who has been visiting the region for nearly 20 years.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office has noted the damage due to soybean farming near the villages. “Our investigation has observed that the farms with infrastructure associated with the open branches [dirt roads that cut through the area] have caused the stream in Açaizal to be full of silt,” told the prosecutor’s office to Mongabay.

It acknowledges that there are “no practices in place to control erosion from the grain fields located along the stream, or along the community’s access road.” Prosecutors have filed a lawsuit against the Pará state government and the municipality of Santarém because of the harm done to the indigenous people.

The State Attorney General’s Office refutes this. When contacted by Mongabay, it confirmed that there was “surveillance in areas deforested because of soybean farming,” but that “the state has emitted no authorization for execution of illegal actions within or near to this reserve.” The Santarém City Hall did not respond to requests for comment.

Stream contaminated by pesticides in Munduruku territory. Image by MPF/PA.

Fight for land in Santarém

 The arrival of agribusiness on the Santarém Plain is relatively recent. Farmers were attracted by the flat expanse and easy access for shipping via nearby highways and rivers.

The turning point was in 2003, when commodities giant Cargill opened a grain port in Santarém. “There was a political push to make [Santarém] into a soybean hub. In reality, what happened was a huge increase in land grabbing, which overran the people of the forest,” Rego said.

An operation carried out by the Federal Police in 2004 found that public land in the region had been illegally sold. The scheme involved more than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres, about half the size of Jamaica) sold without title, including land belonging to indigenous groups and Afro-Brazilian quilombola communities, as well as also land destined for agrarian reform.

The case is still dragging on and hundreds of fraudulent requests for legal documentation remain. “The region is mostly public and federal land and has been locked up. All requests for land legalization have been suspended,” the prosecutor’s office said. Some of the supposed landowners have come forward to have a say in the demarcation of reservation land.

The broad, flat land of the Santarém Plain has drawn the soybean industry — and with it, a spate of illegal land sales. Image by Arthur Massuda/CIMI.

Well-known soybean producers carry clout in the Santarém Rural Workers’ Association (SIRSAN), like ex-president Adriano Maraschin and current fiscal council member Metri Nicolau Filho. There are also politicians, like ex-federal congressman Francisco Alves de Aguiar, today president of CEASA, the Pará state wholesale food supply center. None of them responded to inquiries from Mongabay.

SIRSAN is the main defender of farmers’ rights in the region, frequently conflicting with forest communities. Indigenous people accuse the organization of enabling their repression. The situation has become so tense that even a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was threatened and chased in 2018 by soybean farmers in two pickup trucks. When sought out, the association did not manifest itself.

“SIRSAN has the right to stand up for its members, but that doesn’t give it the right to get in the way of the field work [of defining boundaries of the reservation], nor to refer to indigenous people in a racist manner, which is a crime,” the Federal Prosecutor’s Office said. It added that “the demarcation, together with regularization of land documentation for the area, is the most important measure in confronting the conflicts.”

When questioned, Funai, the federal agency in charge of indigenous affairs, confirmed that it carries out studies to identify the boundaries of the reservation, but did not mention other measures.

The Munduruku have been waiting for the demarcation of an indigenous reserve on the Santarém Plain for 12 years. The process has been blocked since Jair Bolsonaro became president in January 2019. Image by MPF/PA.

Demarcations stopped under Bolsonaro

 The Munduruku have been fighting an uphill battle to regain possession of their land in Santarém for the past 12 years. In 2018, Funai promised to deliver the studies for demarcation of the Santarém Plain Indigenous Territory by Dec. 3, 2020. But between September and December 2019, the organization failed to comply with three judicial orders to resume field work, the first step in the demarcation process.

The current president of Funai, Marcelo Xavier, also switched out the members of the group tasked with mapping the boundaries of the proposed reserve. The Pará Federal Justice Department called the measure “an offense to the principle of legality” and said the Funai leadership had “presented no motive” for the change.

It’s not just the Munduruku who have been subject to Xavier’s whims. Since January 2019, four other working groups in Funai saw their members transferred out. The measures have made it impossible to meet deadlines for demarcation of the Aracá-Padauiri reserve in Amazonas state, the Cambirela reserve in Santa Catarina, the Serrote dos Campos reserve in Pernambuco, and the Tuxá de Surubabel reserve in Bahia.

Funai defended the changes, telling Mongabay that “it was an administrative management move whose validity is defined in the Constitution and by law.” Critics say the changes are part of the tactics used by the current administration to slow down the demarcation process for new reserves.

In January this year, Sérgio Moro, at the time the minister of justice and public security, blocked the demarcation processes for 17 other reserves by effectively questioning their merit. Moro deferred to a controversial “time frame” provision conceived by the previous administration of Michel Temer, which states that only areas occupied by indigenous people since before 1988 can be recognized. The provision has been harshly criticized as a setback for indigenous peoples.

Funai falls under the authority of the justice ministry. Moro, who shot into the national spotlight as the judge overseeing the sweeping Operation Car Wash corruption probe from 2014, resigned from Bolsonaro’s cabinet in April, citing undue interference by the president in the justice ministry.

Banner image of Graciene Munduruku on her traditional farm by Tiago Miotto/CIMI.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on April 8, 2020.