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Politicized Indigenous affairs agency puts Brazil’s uncontacted groups at risk

FUNAI removed protection of unratified indigenous lands, but Bolsonaro has still not concluded a single ratification during his term in office. Indigenous people have criticized the lack of demarcation. Image by Tiago Miotto/CIMI.

  • In January 2021, Funai, Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs, decided not to extend a Land Protection Order for the uncontacted Igarapé-Ipiaçava Indigenous group; following a public outcry and legal pressure, the land order was extended for six months.
  • Confidential documents leaked to advocacy group Survival International, which Mongabay had access to, show top Funai officials attempting to debunk a technical report that gathered evidence of uncontacted Indigenous presence in November 2021.
  • Leaked memos also show that Funai president Marcelo Xavier met with fellow Bolsonaro loyalist and senator Zequinha Marquinhos, who is openly against the Land Protection Order, to discuss the confidential report.
  • Funai has reportedly ignored another report of a previously unidentified isolated Indigenous group, Isolados da Marmoré Grande, in the state of Amazonas for more than five months, according to an investigation by Brazilian news agency O Joio e O Trigo.

Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs snubbed new evidence of uncontacted Indigenous groups found by two expeditions in the Amazon last year, heightening concerns about political interference in the government body and the growing threat to the survival of Indigenous groups in voluntary isolation.

Critics say it’s increasingly clear that the agency, known as Funai, is acting against the interests of isolated Indigenous groups. Documents leaked in January show an apparent political ruse to discredit evidence about the uncontacted Igarapé-Ipiaçava Indigenous people in Pará state. Another investigation revealed that Funai has ignored reports of a previously unknown isolated Indigenous group in Amazonas state. A now-overturned decision by the government body attempted to increase the burden of proof required for protecting uncontacted Indigenous groups.

Uncontacted tribes evidence
Photos of evidence found in the September expedition on the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous Reserve. A turtle shell and ceramic vase were the main findings that point to the uncontacted Indigenous presence in the region. Image credit: Funai.

“It’s a violation of the right to life. We’re not talking about human rights as a broad concept here, it’s their right to survival as human beings that is being denied,” Angela Kaxuyana, an executive member of the Brazilian Amazon Indigenous organization COIAB, told Mongabay.

“For us, the Indigenous peoples on the front lines, Funai’s line of action is completely at odds with our interests.”

Isolated groups actively avoid contact with the outside world and reside in remote areas, so collecting information about them is tricky. Most groups are identified through indirect evidence of human activity: artifacts, footprints, leftovers from hunting and fishing, as well as small clearings in the forest that usually can’t be seen from above.

A changing Funai

The Funai-led task force found a ceramic pot and a hand-hunted tortoise shell, among other evidence, in their September expedition in the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous Reserve in Pará. This adds to a decade-long collection of residual evidence pointing to the uncontacted Igarapé-Ipiaçava Indigenous group.

But top officials did not take kindly to the report. Funai president Marcelo Xavier, appointed by President Jair Bolsonaro, met with another Bolsonaro loyalist, Senator Zequinha Marinho, to discuss the technical report’s findings. According to a leaked internal memo shared with Mongabay, Xavier and Marinho describing the report as “ideologically fueled” and “worthless.”

A 2019 Greenpeace flight over the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous Reserve in the State of Pará captured forest fires and deforestation. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

For Marinho, who openly advocates for terminating the Land Protection Order, a temporary directive to protect uncontacted tribes’ territories from logging and invaders, the meeting was to discuss the property rights of 150 families who were relocated to the area where the reserve now stands. That relocation took place a year before the Land Protection Order was issued.

“The senator is fighting for land regularization in the state and defends the rural families relocated to those lands by the government,” Marinho’s team said in a statement, adding that the senator doesn’t believe the Igarapé-Ipiaçava Indigenous people exist.

“The goal is to secure private property on these lands for the invaders, and not the constitutionally guaranteed rights for Indigenous people,” said Leonardo Lenin, executive secretary of the Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Human Rights Observatory.

In Brazil, only 28 of 114 uncontacted Indigenous groups have been confirmed by Funai, but policies for all uncontacted groups, confirmed or not, are directed toward ensuring a life safe from death, disease and food shortages.

But under Bolsonaro’s self-declared “New Funai” — a version of the Indigenous affairs agency that refuses to recognize new Indigenous land but spends millions on industrial tractors — this is changing.

Uncontacted indigenous group in the Amazon photographed by authorities with the Brazilian Indian affairs agency FUNAI. Photo by Gleison Miranda-FUNAI.
Uncontacted indigenous group in the Amazon photographed by authorities with the Brazilian Indian affairs agency FUNAI. Photo by Gleison Miranda-FUNAI.

“It’s utterly shameful. They are stooping to new depths,” Fiona Watson, director of research and advocacy at Survival International, the Indigenous advocacy nonprofit that received Funai’s leaked internal documents, told Mongabay.

“Funai is under massive pressure and is caving in. People like the president [Xavier] are political appointees. Good, experienced people have left or have been sidelined or silenced. It is now totally in the hands of the agribusiness sector and those who are anti-Indigenous.”

Private property over Indigenous protection

According to monitoring by Instituto Socioambiental, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental and Indigenous rights, deforestation has skyrocketed in the Ituna-Itatá reserve since Bolsonaro took power at the start of 2019. Land clearing after 2019 accounts for 85% of all deforestation in the territory.

Okara Asurini, the Indigenous chief of the neighboring Koatinemo Indigenous Reserve, said he can already feel the effects.

“The impact is huge,” he told Mongabay. “I was on the Ituna-Itatá reserve last year and it’s significantly deforested and full of farms. We are having a huge issue with land grabbers and loggers moving into our territory too. We’re very preoccupied.”

But on the day the Land Protection Order expired, Funai did not renew it.

Cesar Augusto Martinez, Funai’s director of territorial protection, instead expressed his concern for private property in a confidential letter sent to Survival International by an anonymous whistleblower.

Uncontacted tribes evidence
Amazonas expedition shows vestiges of the previously unidentified Isolados da Mamoriá-Grande. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

“We are preserving the consecrated right to property in the area, which until now was absolutely restricted, without discarding the preservation of the supposed group’s expectation of original rights,” he wrote.

Following legal pressure and a public outcry, the decision was overturned on Feb. 1 and the Land Protection Order extended for an additional six months.

The criteria for confirming the presence of uncontacted peoples are changing according to external interests. The logic has been inverted,” Kaxuyana said.

In neighboring Amazonas state, a local Funai task force reported closely avoiding contact with a previously unidentified group dubbed Isolados da Mamoriá Grande after hearing voices nearby and encountering bows, baskets, pots and other objects in a non-Indigenous forested area. They forwarded their report with an urgent request to demarcate the region.

Again, Funai’s response fell short: the Amazonas discovery has been ignored entirely for five months, despite several attempts at getting through to the government body’s headquarters, according to an investigation by Brazilian news agency O Joio e O Trigo.

“The people ultimately being harmed are isolated Indigenous people, in the forest, who can’t defend themselves,” Lenin said.


Banner image: Indigenous people rally in 2020 criticizing the lack of demarcation of Indigenous lands. FUNAI removed protection of unratified indigenous lands, but Bolsonaro has still not concluded a single ratification during his term in office at the time. Image by Tiago Miotto/CIMI. 

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with Scott Wallace, a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut, National Geographic writer, and author of a New York Times best-selling book on the importance of protecting uncontacted indigenous groups in the Amazon. Listen here:

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