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Key Amazon grain route blocked by Indigenous protest over funding, Grainrail

  • The Kayapó Mekrãgnoti Indigenous people have been blockading the BR-163 highway since 17 August. The BR-163 is a primary route for soy and corn being moved from Brazil’s Amazon interior toward the Atlantic coast for export to China and the European Union.
  • The closure is in protest of potentially lost federal funding that the Kayapó Mekrãgnoti use in part to self-protect the Baú and Mekrãgnoti Indigenous Territories from invasion by land grabbers and illegal loggers. The reserve covers 11.3 million hectares (43,630 square miles) in Pará state.
  • A second source of conflict: GrainRail, a proposed 934 kilometer (580 mile) railroad, which would run parallel to the BR-163. The railway’s development has been approved by the Brazilian government without an internationally required Indigenous consultation, according to the Kayapó Mekrãgnoti people.
  • A federal judge has ordered police to remove the blockade, but a meeting is scheduled for today and expected to run late into the evening to seek a negotiated settlement. The Kayapó Mekrãgnoti are also demanding COVID-19 assistance. So far, 403 Indigenous people from the reserves have been infected and four have died, all elders.
The Kayapó Mekrãgnoti Indigenous blocakade of the BR 163 highways. Image courtesy of the Kabu Institute.

On 17 August about a hundred Kayapó Mekrãgnoti Indigenous people launched an anti-government protest, blockading the BR-163 highway — a vital Brazilian grain commodities shipment route connecting the Amazon’s primary agricultural production region with consumers around the world. As of 23 August, the resulting traffic jam extended more than 20 miles, with only ambulances allowed to pass.

According to a press release from the Kabu Institute, with which the Kayapó Mekrãgnoti are affiliated, the protest was triggered by reports that the Indigenous Component of the federal Basic Environmental Program (PBA-CI) may not be funded this year.

The program helps mitigate the impacts resulting from the recent paving of the complete BR-163 highway. The Kayapó use the money for various actions, including a project to protect their demarcated and officially recognized territory from illegal invasion; the reserve encompasses a vast forest area sandwiched between surging deforestation fronts, one of which offers easy access via the paved BR-163.

The Jair Bolsonaro administration, on coming to power in January 2019, elevated the completion of the highway’s paving to a high priority. The BR-163 is the principal route for transporting soy and other crops from the country’s primary agricultural production area in northern Mato Grosso state, to the ports of Itaituba and Santarém on the Tapajós River in Pará state, where the commodities are loaded onto bulk carriers for export via Brazil’s Atlantic coast to China and Europe.

Although the soy harvest is largely over by mid-August, a heavy flow of trucks carrying corn — planted in the interseason — has been blocked for a week now.

The Kayapó blockaded the highway near the Amazonian town of Novo Progresso — notorious for land theft and violence, which made international headlines on 10 August 2019 when land grabbers and landowners there organized the “Day of Fire”. The event, instigated by avid Bolsonaro supporters, coordinated the setting of fires in illegally cleared forest to demonstrate their political power and impunity from prosecution by the administration. Up to now, no one has been prosecuted for last year’s arson.

Kayapó Indigenous people blocking the BR-163 near Novo Progresso 20 August. Image courtesy of Mydjere Kayapo Mekrangnotire.

According to the UOL press agency, the National Transport Department (DNIT), which is responsible for the BR-163 and funds the PBA-CI, has expressed doubts whether it can fund the program this year — a loss greatly impacting Indigenous groups.

However, the Ministry of Infrastructure, responsible for the DNIT, denied that the DNIT was ending the program. It explained to the Correio Brazilense newspaper: “It is necessary to make it clear that the Department hasn’t stopped funding the PBA-C1. At the moment, we are discussing what actions should be continued. After ten years, the body is reassessing its actions to make them more effective.”

With the road blocked, judicial authorities quickly swung into action. Less than 12 hours after the Indigenous groups blockaded the highway, Sandra Maria Correia da Silva, a federal judge in Itaituba, backed a federal government request to send in police to evict the Kayapó Mekrãgnoti. She also determined that the Indians should pay a daily fine of R$10,000 (US $1,780) in the case of future obstructions.

The Kayapó Mekrãgnoti responded by saying they would resist. On 20 August one of their leaders, Mydjere Mekrãgnotire, told the UOL press agency: “What happens will be the responsibility of the federal government … If they send in the Federal Police, the Civil Police, the Armed Forces, blood will flow on this paved road. Blood of the federal police, of the non-Indigenous and of us, the Kayapó. For this not to happen, the federal government must come and talk to us.”

Between 7-10 July, Greenpeace Brazil flew over Mato Grosso state capturing images of Amazon fires. Nearly all the major fires this year were likely set, with arson used as a tool of illegal deforestation. The fires also led to a BR 163 closure. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

On 21 August the judge revoked her earlier decision, opting for a virtual meeting to be held late on Monday 24 August between federal government representatives, Indigenous leaders, the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), which is a body of independent public litigators, and the Indigenous agency FUNAI.

The Mekrãgnoti are one of the subgroups of the Kayapó nation, which also includes the Xikrin, the Gorotire and the Mekranoti. They live in the Xingu river basin in one of the world’s largest areas of protected tropical forest. It covers 11.3 million hectares (43,630 square miles), an area larger than the U.S. state of Virginia. It boasts great biodiversity, including four species of crocodilians: the Jacaré-tinga (Caiman crocodilus), Jacaré-açu (Melanosuchus niger), Jacaré-coroa (Paleosuchus trigonatus) and Jacaré-paguá (Paleosuchus palpebrosus), plus the recently discovered Tiger Pleco fish (Panaqolus tankei).

The Kayapó Mekrãgnoti today are composed of 297 families, distributed in 12 villages in the Baú and Mekrãgnoti Indigenous Territories. Along with their demand for resources, the Indigenous protestors are also calling for help to combat COVID-19. According to the Kabu Institute, “They only have one doctor to treat those with COVID-19, which has reached their villages, and the rapid tests needed to check who is infected only arrived in June. The official figures show that 403 Indigenous people have been infected and four have died, all elders.”

Another source of conflict concerns Ferrogrão (GrainRail), a proposed 934 kilometer (580 mile) railroad, which is to run parallel to the BR-163, from northern Mato Grosso to the port of Miritituba on the Tapajós River, and should relieve pressure on the highway.

Map of the BR 163 highway and proposed Ferrogrão (Grainrail) showing proximity to indigenous reserves. Deforestation is indicated in red. The railway would route commodities from Mato Grosso state to the Tapajós River, where the cargo would be loaded onto ships to be carried down the Amazon River to the Atlantic coast for export. Map by Mauricio Torres.

According to the NGO, the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), the National Agency for Land Transport (ANTT), an official body, guaranteed that the railway would not go ahead without a “Free, Prior and Informed consultation” with the Kayapó, as guaranteed under the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which Brazil has signed.

But in June of this year the government included the railway in its plan for future expenditure, submitted to the Federal Court of Auditors, without carrying out the promised consultation.

As they face a largely unresponsive and hostile Bolsonaro administration, the Kayapó Mekrãgnoti recognize the importance of international public opinion. That is likely why they published a press release containing a carefully worded argument in English justifying their blockade to the world. In it, they stated:

We Kayapo have created an effective system of territorial monitoring and border control to protect the integrity of more than 9 million hectares (23 million acres) of our forest on which we, Brazil and the world, relies for climate mitigation and other important ecosystem services. We advocate for protection of our forest home and risk our lives to denounce illegal activity on our land including the biggest deforesters in the country. Satellite imagery proves how effective we have been.

But in this era of increasing threat and lawlessness, we need help to continue protecting this world treasure. The government has crippled the federal authorities responsible for enforcing Indigenous rights… and all but declared a free-for-all on Indigenous lands by goldminers, loggers, land grabbers and others.…

The Bolsonaro government seeks to weaken Indigenous rights, open our ratified territories to industry and in short, ensure the death of Indigenous peoples, their cultures and the pristine forest ecosystems upon which our cultures are based.”

The Kayapó Mekrãgnoti aren’t the only block to Brazil’s commodity flow. Traffic was also halted farther south on the BR-163 on 20 August. The private company administering that stretch of road stopped traffic as a safety measure due to the smoke from this year’s Amazon fires — most set illegally, many of them by land grabbers.

Banner Image: A Kayapó elder stands defiantly near the centerline of the BR-163 highway. Image courtesy of Tommaso Protti / Amazônia Real.

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