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When invaders moved onto their land, Brazil’s Karipuna people pushed back

  • Brazil’s Karipuna Indigenous people joined forces with civil society groups and took their grievances to international forums to fight back against illegal invasions of their territory.
  • The international outcry and evidence unearthed led to law enforcement operations that saw deforestation drop by 49% this year inside the Karipuna Indigenous Territory in the state of Rondônia.
  • Proponents say the model developed by the Karipuna could be replicated by other Indigenous groups throughout the Brazilian Amazon who continue to face off against illegal loggers, miners, ranchers and land grabbers.
  • The Karipuna people were nearly wiped out by disease and conflict following their first contact with outsiders in the 1970s; today the community numbers about 70 people.

The Karipuna Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon, home to a tribe that was nearly wiped out, became a sanctuary for the survivors when it was ratified in 1998. Today, however, the territory, in the state of Rondônia, faces a reality common to Indigenous reserves throughout the Amazon: it is under threat from logging companies, cattle ranchers, and land grabbers.

But the Karipuna are pushing back. Under an institutional agreement between the tribe’s Karipuna leaders, the Catholic-Church-affiliated Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), and Greenpeace, they have set up a system to monitor, organize and provide precise information to the Brazilian authorities about criminal activities inside the territory.

This initiative provided the basis for law enforcement operations carried out in 2018 and 2019 to dismantle criminal organizations working in the region. Along with statements of support from the U.N. and the Vatican, these efforts have resulted in a sharp drop in deforestation.

Between August 2019 and July 2020, illegal clearing of native vegetation inside the reservation declined by 49% from the same period a yearl earlier, amounting to 580 hectares (1,430 acres) of deforestation. The peak period for deforestation was between 2017 and 2018, when more than 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) were cleared, making the Karipuna Indigenous Territory one of the most deforested in Brazil. The last invaders, however, still remain to be kicked off the land.

“The Karipuna [reservation] is a clear example of what is happening in the Amazon,” says Danicley de Aguiar from Greenpeace. “This is not isolated clear-cutting or theft of natural resources. The invasions are spiraling out of control and taking over the territory. And ending this means more than just command and control.”

He says the defense mounted by the Karipuna could set the precedent for ending the operations of criminal organizations inside Indigenous reserves elsewhere in the Amazon. “IBAMA can’t do it alone,” Aguiar says, referring to the federal environmental protection agency. “The Federal Police have to be involved to investigate in order to reach the organized crime behind the land-grabbing process. As long as people think they won’t go to jail, they will continue to move in on the land.”

Launched in June 2019, Operation SOS Karipuna involved eight federal and state law enforcement institutions and resulted in 15 arrest warrants and 34 search and seizure warrants aside from the seizure of assets of those investigated, which were valued at more than 46 million reais ($9 million).

Among the offenses uncovered in the investigations were fraud, illegal theft of timber, possession of stolen goods, invasion of federal lands, illegal deforestation, money laundering, tax crimes, constitutional violations, and participation in a criminal organization.

Aguiar says this model of cracking down can be replicated. “It’s not an isolated case that can’t be reproduced — to the contrary. It’s a case to be used all over the Amazon. The Karipuna showed us that when state agencies work together, they can put an end to these criminal networks.”

A deforested area along the border of the Karipuna Indigenous Territory in the state of Rondônia in September 2020. Image by Christian Braga/Greenpeace Brasil.

Taking the case international

Tribal leader Adriano Karipuna says his people have long lived with constant death threats from loggers, who encroached within 1 kilometer, just over half a mile, from their village. He says this made it impossible for his people to move freely on their own land and live their traditional life, which includes fishing, hunting, gathering and farming.

So Adriano brought the matter before the rest of the world to prod the Brazilian authorities into action. In 2018, he spoke at the 17th Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York.

In 2019, he spoke at a parallel event during the 41st Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Switzerland. He also brought his tribe’s grievances to the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, organized by the Vatican.

“The repercussions in Brazil were few. After reactions came from abroad, everything changed,” Adriano says.

The Karipuna were nearly wiped out after first coming into contact with outsiders in the 1970s, scores of them dying from disease and conflict. Today, there are around 70 Karipuna, fewer than half of whom live in the village in the reservation, about 200 km (120 mi) from the state capital Porto Velho.

As part of the effort to defend the Karipuna land from invaders, CIMI and Greenpeace conducted flyovers to identify patches of deforestation. They also organized expeditions on the ground, covering up to 150 km (90 mi) to map invasion points.

Map of the Karipuna Indigenous Territory with hotspots indicative of forest fires. The white spots refer to 2019 and the yellow spots to 2020. Image by Apoika/CIMI/Greenpeace.

Legitimization by the state

Adriano Karipuna holds the Brazilian government fully responsible for the crimes occurring today. He says the federal government encourages land grabbers with promises to reduce the extent of Indigenous lands and hand them over to the invaders.

“We demand that the state be responsible. President Jair Bolsonaro is racist and ethnophobic,” he says. “The state partakes in this crime when, instead of protecting Indigenous territories like it should, it hands them over to invaders. And a good share of the products extracted from the forest is sold here inside Brazil.”

At the 2020 BRICS summit in November, Bolsonaro promised to “expose” the nations that buy illegal wood from Brazil, ignoring the fact that 80% of the wood extracted from the Amazon is sold domestically. Also, investigations long ago named the destinations for wood exports of illegal origin. And the Bolsonaro administration, in turn, loosened laws making the illegal extraction and exportation of wood easier. Ultimately, Bolsonaro backed off from his promise.

Laura Manso, the CIMI coordinator in Rondônia, says the hateful rhetoric on the part of the federal government — which has branded Indigenous people, environmentalists and traditional communities as “barriers to development” — legitimizes the actions of the invaders.

“They became more aggressive. The death threats to the Karipuna leaders are constant,” Manso says. “During the expeditions, we didn’t sleep because we were afraid that they would come at any time and kill everyone in the village. The invaders were legitimized and supported by this discourse of intolerance and prejudice.”

An illegal bridge providing access into the Karipuna Indigenous Territory, identified during a flyover in September 2020. Image by Christian Braga/Greenpeace Brasil.

Ratified, but not out of reach

Ratification by the Brazilian government is the final phase in the demarcation of an Indigenous territory. It means that all the requirements have been completed for official recognition of the people as the traditional inhabitants of that land. This process, however, can take decades to complete. And tribes have to deal with enormous bureaucratic and political barriers to become definitively recognized.

There are 487 ratified and reserved Indigenous territories in Brazil today. Another 237 are in different stages of the demarcation process. The Karipuna Indigenous Territory was ratified 22 years ago, in 1998. Yet the fact that the invasions and land grabbing continue to plague a territory that is supposed to enjoy the highest degree of protection underscores the institutional fragility facing other areas awaiting ratification.

Ranchers have filed more than 90 claims to land overlapping the Karipuna reservation, according to Brazil’s national rural land registry, or CAR. This high number indicates confidence among the invaders that under the current political climate, they will be granted possession in the future.

“It’s impossible that legal certainty only serves as an argument for rural landowners,” says Greenpeace’s Aguiar. “The Indigenous people who fulfill all the requirements and put out a huge effort that takes decades, when they think they are protected, have to face land grabbers like this. If the government tolerates this in a ratified territory, imagine how it is in others. This can’t be allowed.”

The Karipunas’ experience in fighting back is an example of the urgent action that other tribes can take to end the historical persecution of the Indigenous peoples living throughout the Amazon. It shows that all that is needed is articulation and political will.

Banner image of Karipuna leader Adriano Karipuna, by David Azevedo/Greenpeace Brasil.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Dec. 10, 2020.

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