- The Piripkura Indigenous Territory in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state is home to two of the last three members of this once isolated tribe.
- The territory has long been the target of land grabbers and loggers, with the deforestation rate increasing in recent years on the back of policies that effectively whitewash illegal land grabs.
- The ordinance that designates the Piripkura Indigenous Territory as a protected area expires in September 2021, and its renewal beyond that date depends on the fate of the two Indigenous people still living there.
- Experts say the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, Funai, has not only failed to formalize and protect the territory, but even encouraged its illegal occupation and destruction.
Tamandua and Baita are two of the last three remaining members of the Piripkura Indigenous people in northwest Mato Grosso state, Brazil. They’re also survivors of a massacre, increasingly being closed in on since the 1980s by land grabbers, loggers and miners. They continue to resist in the face of this onslaught, knowing that the very fate of the land they call home depends on their own existence.
The protected status of the Piripkura Indigenous Territory, which spans 243,000 hectares (600,000 acres), is maintained by a periodically renewed use restriction ordinance issued by Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs. The deadline for the next renewal is September 2021, but there is no guarantee that the territory, which still awaits boundary demarcation, will be maintained beyond that date.
The escalation of illegal occupation and deforestation within the Indigenous land has worried experts and intensified tensions in the region. More than 360 hectares (890 acres) were deforested by clearcutting between August and September this year alone, indicating the presence of invaders, likely land grabbers.
A “normative instruction” from Funai, published in April and suspended by the Mato Grosso justice system in June, left loopholes for land grabbers to regularize, or stake a legitimate claim to, occupied areas within Indigenous lands that are in the process of demarcation, as is the case for Piripkura.
Three private properties, more than 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) in size, were certified inside the Indigenous territory while the normative instruction was in force. Other Indigenous lands were also affected elsewhere in Mato Grosso.
A bill now awaiting a vote before the Mato Grosso state legislature pushes in the same direction as the suspended Funai norm, effectively encouraging the ilegal occupation of Piripkura territory.
Since last year, there has been a cycle of invasion by people of “very violent” profile who have threatened even Funai employees, says Elias dos Santos Bigio, former general coordinator of Funai’s program for isolated and recently contacted Indigenous peoples.
“The invaders feel very authorized to do what they do, hence the anti-Indigenous context of the country,” says Bigio, who served with Funai from 2006-2011. Both Funai’s normative instruction and the bill under consideration in the Mato Grosso state legislature are “an insult to the Federal Constitution,” he says.
Bigio says land grabbers try to create an “irreversible fact” — the destruction of Indigenous land and illegal occupation based on false documents. The entire area surrounding the Indigenous territory has already been taken over by livestock ranchers, loggers and agribusiness.
Invasions increase in the territory
The Piripkura Indigenous Territory has experienced total deforestation of 10,000 hectares (nearly 25,000 acres). The situation escalated in 2018 and 2019, when the territory recorded more than a quarter of the deforestation of the past 10 years.
Recent data show an even greater acceleration of invasions: illegal deforestation recorded in August and September this year alone accounts for a larger area than all the deforestation of the previous two years. The fires ravaging the Amazon have also taken a toll: so far this year, 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) have been burned inside the territory, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database.
Bigio says this already “very critical” situation has become even more serious. He says the Piripkura were the victims of a massacre shortly before their first contact with the outside world in the 1980s. “We are seeing the privatization of public lands and the total violation of Indigenous rights,” Bigio says.
He also laments the fact that his old post at Funai, leading the outreach to isolated Indigenous communities, is now headed by an evangelical missionary, Ricardo Lopes Dias. “Indigenist politics says that this work is not the responsibility of any religious organization, and it must be the Brazilian state’s responsibility. This is a disrespect to the Indigenous people,” Bigio says.
The threats hanging over the Piripkura can also be seen in the neighboring state of Rondônia, in particular the area surrounding the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory. The area only recently registered the appearance of isolated Indigenous peoples, yet is also experiencing a permanent process of “Indigenous heritage seizure,” according to Bigio. That pressure, he says, is responsible for the death of veteran indigenist Rieli Franciscato, struck by an arrow from one of the isloated people he had dedicated his life to protecting.
In the case of the Piripkura Indigenous Territory, a complaint has been filed with the Federal Prosecutor of Mato Grosso and the Federal Police. Prosecutors say they have requested a hearing with Funai and the federal government and are awaiting a response.
In the complaint, prosecutor Ricardo Ardenghi cited “the situation of serious threat to which the isolated Indigenous Piripkura, who remain at risk of invasion and irregular exploitation of their territory, aggravated by Normative Instruction No. 9 issued by Funai, are under.” He also noted that “the region has been subject to significant environmental degradation.” The prosecutor’s office has since 2013 demanded that the federal government and Funai finalize the identification and boundary demarcation of the Piripkura Indigenous Territory.
Existence of the indigenous territory depends on the life of Tamandua and Baita
In reporting this story, Mongabay sought, via Funai, to interview Jair Candor, a leading expert on the remotest regions of Brazil, and one of the only outsiders to have made contact with Tamandua and Baita, the last of the Piripkura. However, Funai denied our request for an interview with Candor.
Candor has worked for more than 30 years at Funai and is responsible for the area inhabited by the Piripkura as coordinator of the Madeirinha-Juruena Ethno-environmental Protection Front in Mato Grosso. It was a Funai team led by Candor that made the first contact with Tamandua and Baita, in 1989. Since then, the two Piripkura men have lived in voluntary isolation. A third member of the tribe, Rita, married an Indigenous Karipuna man and lives outside the territory. All three had their story told in the documentary Piripkura, released in 2018.
Candor has been a critic of the federal government’s indigenist policies and of Funai’s actions. In an interview with Folha de São Paulo in January 2018, Candor said he saw no prospect of improvement and that “what the government wants today is to end Funai.” He said the only reason the agency continues to operate is because of the isolated Indigenous peoples; if anything were to befall them, “the international repercussion is very strong.”
In Candor’s view, the existence of the Piripkura Indigenous Territory is at an end. “I believe that when [Tamandua and Baita] die, and this is going to happen one day, this land tends to return to the hand of farmers,” he said.
At the end of 2018, Tamandua, who is in his 40s, was diagnosed with a cyst in his brain and had to be transferred to a hospital in São Paulo. He underwent surgery but had complications that landed him in intensive care. Baita, who is Tamandua’s uncle and is just over 50 years old, has also had to have medical treatment, for prostate problems. After their recovery, they both returned to their territory.
But even as they hold their ground, the pressure on the land is relentless. The rural land register, known as the CAR, shows 29 properties in the midst of the Piripkura Indigenous Territory, totaling 49,000 hectares (121,000 acres), or a fifth of the territory.
“This is the last frontier of the state of Mato Grosso,” says Tiago Moreira, an anthropologist and researcher at the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), which monitors this and other Indigenous areas. “This region of Mato Grosso is one of intense land conflicts and there is political pressure for the Piripkura Indigenous Territory not to be formally recognized. Invaders hope that one day the Indigenous people will disappear and this land can be occupied, squatted on and deforested.”
For now, the tireless work of people like Jair Candor and the resilience of Tamandua and Baita ensures this won’t happen soon.
Banner image of Tamandua and Baita in a still from the documentary film Piripkura (2018). Image courtesy of Bruno Jorge.