- Leaders of the Karipuna Indigenous group in Brazil are suing the government for what they say is complicity in the continued invasion and theft of their land.
- Findings by Greenpeace and the Catholic Church-affiliated Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) show 31 land claims overlapping onto the Karipuna Indigenous Reserve, while 7% of the area has already been deforested or destroyed.
- The Karipuna Indigenous, who rebuilt their population to around 60 in the last few decades from just eight members who survived mass deaths by disease that followed their forced contact with the outside world in the 1970s, are seeking damages of $8.2 million, the right to permanent protection, and the cancellation of all outsider land claims to their territory.
- Land grabbing has been fueled by the political rhetoric and action of President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies, who are seeking to drastically reduce protected areas in the Amazon and weaken environmental protections, activists and experts say.
Leaders of the Karipuna Indigenous people are suing the Brazilian government for its allegedly complicity in failing to stop illegal logging, invasions and land grabbing in their territory. The unprecedented lawsuit was filed May 4 and names the federal government and the state government of Rondônia as respondents.
The Karipuna are seeking 44 million reais ($8.2 million) in damages, as well as the right to permanent protection and the cancellation of all outsider land claims on their reserve, which was demarcated 1998.
“We decided to dig deeper after so many [unsuccessful] reports to the authorities in the last years. We wanted to know what was really going on,” André Karipuna, one of the group’s chiefs, told Mongabay from his remote village in the heart of Rondônia. “We found that the state government was allowing people to declare plots on the Rural Environmental Registry. This is why we think the invasions aren’t stopping.”
Under Brazilian law, citizens can stake a claim to land under the 2012 registry, better known by its Portuguese acronym, CAR, which was designed to make it easier to pinpoint responsibility for deforestation and other environmental crimes. Environmental organization representatives, lawyers and regional experts told Mongabay the system is being abused by land grabbers to start a paper trail for land invaded inside Indigenous reserves and conservation units.
Karipuna leaders are using information gathered from yearly overflights and GPS mapping done in partnership with Greenpeace and CIMI since 2017. Their findings reveal the extent of the encroachment within the Karipuna Indigenous Reserve: 31 plots registered on the CAR between 2015 and 2019 overlap onto the Indigenous territory; 7% of the 153-million-hectare (378-million-acre) territory has already been deforested or destroyed.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous rhetoric and recent political efforts to dismantle protected areas in the Amazon have emboldened land grabbers in the region, according to activists and experts. The Bolsonaro administration is openly pushing to allow mining and agribusiness within Indigenous reserves, which is prohibited under the Constitution, and conservations units.
Last year, Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry (MPF) revealed that 7,609 CAR-registered plots in the Amazon overlapped Indigenous areas, 1,345 of them in Rondônia alone. In April this year, Rondônia state legislators voted to reduce the size of two large protected areas by 90% and 65% after years of unchecked deforestation and land grabbing had turned the ostensibly protected areas into a quilt of illegal cattle pastures.
The Karipuna and their allies are increasingly wary that they may be next in line. “There is still no cattle inside their territory, but we’ve already identified areas up to 500 hectares [1,240 acres] which have been planted with grass, so it’s prepared for cattle moving in,” said Oliver Salge, international project leader of Greenpeace Brazil’s All Eyes on the Amazon coalition project. “It’s a question of time until when the cattle will be moved in.”
Mario Jonas Guterres, the lawyer representing the Karipuna leaders, said this is the first time that Indigenous leaders have taken legal matters into their own hands and sued the state for failing to meet their constitutional obligations to protect Indigenous lands, including filing for compensation for environmental, material and moral damages.
“They are claiming their right to defend their territory in a court of law,” Guterres told Mongabay. “If a bank is robbed, the police arrive within minutes. With Indigenous people, their land is invaded and destroyed, then they report it to the federal police, and an investigation runs for two or three years, while things on the ground keep happening.”
Brothers André and Adriano Karipuna, among the few adults of their people, have taken a systematic approach to fighting back against the invasions. They’ve constantly monitored the damage to their reserve, using drone flights and GPS tracking, and reported incidents and pressured public authorities. But Adriano Karipuna told Mongabay that his people are afraid to walk within their own territory or travel from their village to the nearest towns. “There could be an ambush,” he said.
Brazil has witnessed an explosion in violence and land invasions against Indigenous peoples in the last three years. In 2020, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) recorded 178 land invasions on Indigenous territories, up from 9 the year before, according to preliminary data. According to CIMI, at least 18 people were murdered in land conflicts last year.
The Karipuna today number around 60 individuals, a far cry from the thousands reported to have lived in dozens of settlements along the Amazon River in the 19th century. Mass deaths by diseases such as the measles followed their forced contact with the outside world in the 1970s, leaving the Karipuna at one point down to just eight individuals. Of those eight original survivors, only two are still alive.
The risk of the Karipuna being wiped out “is imminent,” Salge said. “That’s why the Karipuna have decided to take up the fight for their land, their culture and their survival.”
Adriano Karipuna said that if the lawsuit is successful, it could set a precedent. “I’m hopeful [that] this case would serve as jurisprudence for other Indigenous peoples in the same situation,” he said.
Brazil’s attorney general told Mongabay via email that the federal government and the federal agency for Indigenous affairs (Funai) have not yet been notified about the lawsuit. The Rondônia state government did not reply to a request for comment.
Banner image: Deforested areas in the Karipuna Indigenous Territory, identified during overflights in September 2020. Image by Christian Braga/Greenpeace.
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