- In the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Territory in Brazil’s Maranhão state, the Ka’apor people have taken the defense of their land into their own hands following years of neglect and corruption by the state.
- They have created a self-defense force to retake logging sites and access roads from illegal loggers, and established a network of settlements at each site to make their gains permanent.
- The strategy has paid off: in the first three years of the effort, from 2013-2016, the Ka’apor burned 105 logging trucks and closed 14 access roads, and managed to reduce the deforestation rate in their reserve significantly.
- But the illegal loggers, part of criminal organizations linked to local politicians, have reacted with violence against the Ka’apor, resulting in attacks on villages and the murder of five Indigenous people.
In the Brazilian Amazon, the Indigenous peoples are as diverse as they are numerous. But one thing they all have in common is that they face relentless pressure from outsiders driven by a desire to exploit the natural resources on their lands.
Amid government inaction, the Ka’apor have taken matters into their own hands, creating an autonomous Indigenous territory that doesn’t require the presence of the state. Pioneers in the strategy of self-defense, they’ve inspired other Indigenous groups in the region. But while the Ka’apor people have succeeded in repelling the “aggressors,” they continue to live under the constant threat of violence while the authorities charged with protecting them do nothing.
The name Ka’apor means “people of the forest” in their language, so the rainforest is core to their very identity. Without one, the other simply wouldn’t exist. For decades, the region’s environment and its original inhabitants have suffered the consequences of illegal logging, mining, and agricultural expansion, often orchestrated by well-financed and politically connected criminal organizations. To the Ka’apor, the forest is like a life-giving relative; to the invaders, it’s money. Now, simply leaving their home means risking their life.
After leaving their ancestral lands some 150 years ago, the Ka’apor embarked on a journey of hundreds of kilometers on foot in an attempt to distance themselves from an expanding settler society pushing deeper into the interior of the former Portuguese colony. They eventually settled in what is now one of the last remaining tracts of rainforest in the state of Maranhão, the poorest in Brazil.
Their isolation was only temporary; by the 1900s, outsiders were once again encroaching on their territory. The combination of guns, germs and steel devastated the Indigenous population. The government’s Indigenous affairs agency of the time thought it best to “pacify” the Ka’apor by imposing on them the Portuguese language, settler customs and, consequently, diseases like measles. By 1975, their population had fallen to less than 500.
While the population has since recovered, to about 1,800 today, the people and their forest remain under constant threat. Today, more than 76% of the original Amazon rainforest in Maranhão has disappeared. Nearly a quarter of what remains, some 531,000 hectares (1.3 million acres), belongs to the Ka’apor of the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Territory, officially recognized by the government in 1982.
Seen from high above, the reserve is an island of deep green in a sea of cattle pasture. While the Brazilian Amazon has lost about 20% of its original forest cover over the past 50 years, in the Alto Turiaçu reserve the figure is less than 10%, thanks largely to the actions of the Indigenous inhabitants.
Throwing out Funai
More than a decade ago, the Ka’apor had become increasingly concerned about the growing danger of outside influence on their land and culture. They also became increasingly skeptical of the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, known as Funai by its Portuguese acronym. The agency, which has historically maintained posts within Indigenous territories throughout Brazil, was seen as being complicit in the sale of timber logged illegally within Ka’apor territory.
In 2013, things came to a head when the community of Gurupiuna inside the reserve was attacked by loggers. While the men were away, the armed invaders descended on the village, beating the women and children. Frustrated with the government’s inability or unwillingness to protect them, the Ka’apor decided to take matters into their own hands.
They did away with the one-chief system imposed by Funai and revived the traditional council of chiefs, or Tuxa ta Pame, consecrating a pact between the leaders of their various communities. Decisions would now be taken collectively within a decentralized, more democratic system.
One leader, who asked to remain anonymous due to repeated threats to their safety, said that “Funai didn’t do their duty, whether it was with education, health care or our language. They should be protecting us, not dividing us.”
The council kicked Funai out of the reserve and set up their own education program prioritizing the Ka’apor language over Portuguese. The next year, in 2014, they created the Ka’apor Training and Knowledge Center (Jumu’e ha renda Keruhu), an Indigenous-run program to train and educate future leaders while preserving the ways of their ancestors.
In response to the threat of illegal invasions, the council formed the Ka’apor Self-Defense Guard (Ka’a usak ha), companies of Ka’apor warriors who seek out and expel invaders — by force, if necessary. Often armed with only clubs, bows and arrows, they do what the government could not. But getting rid of trespassers, they understood, required a permanent solution.
Frontline defense posts
“We kept pushing loggers out but they kept coming back,” the Ka’apor leader told Mongabay. So the strategy of setting up “protection areas” was created, the first being inaugurated in 2013.
Previously accustomed to living deep within the forest, the Ka’apor had to adapt by moving entire families and communities to the borders of their territory to live in “self-sustaining agroforestry communities.” Built on the site of reclaimed logging camps or access roads, these settlements form a string of lookouts and defense posts against any further incursions into their territory.
On Jan. 18 of this year, the 11th protection area was created in a heavily deforested corner of the Alto Turiaçu reserve. Loggers had reportedly been active in the area as recently as two weeks before the Ka’apor took back control. While there was fresh evidence of their activity, the area is now back in the hands of the people of the forest.
The strategy is bearing fruit: between 2013 and 2016 the Ka’apor burned 105 trucks and closed 14 logging roads, practically halting the advance of the illegal loggers. According to data from Global Forest Watch, tree cover loss dropped from 2,700 hectares (6,670 acres) in 2018 to 600 hectares (1,480 acres) by 2020 — a decline of nearly 350%.
This sharp decrease corresponds with an increase in the number of protection areas and the Ka’apor’s expanded monitoring of their territory. In some of the first areas retaken, residents have even observed the return of wildlife in the absence of heavy machinery and the sound of chainsaws.
Threats and murders
The aggressors, for their part, have not gone quietly into the night. Since 2015, five Ka’apor have been killed and many more threatened in what leaders claim are acts of revenge for protecting the land, rivers and forest. Brazil is still among the most dangerous countries in the world for land defenders.
With the establishment of each new protection area came an act of reprisal. Eusébio Ka’apor, a chief, was ambushed and murdered by gunmen in 2015. The next year, a member of the Self-Defense Guard, Sairá Ka’apor, was stabbed to death in the nearby logging settlement of Betel, in the municipality of Araguanã. In 2019, Kwaxipuru Ka’apor was beaten to death and, in 2021, Jurandir Ka’apor was shot and killed by loggers.
Mongabay spoke with several Ka’apor who had survived targeted acts of violence. One man had a bullet graze his scalp, while another had been shot in the back. A third had been thrown off a fleeing logging truck and was run over by another truck following behind. He suffered brain damage and spent weeks recovering but has since returned to his duties with the Self-Defense Guard.
While setting up the latest protection area, a Ka’apor leader and a supporter said they were surrounded and threatened by suspected gunmen in the town of Santa Luzia do Paruá. They fled to the civil police station for safety, only to find it shut. They only made it back to their territory after alerting the Maranhense Society for Human Rights (SMDH) and the Protection Program for Human Rights Defenders (PPDDH), which alerted the State Public Safety Secretariat, which arranged a police escort hours later.
In February, Ka’apor leaders reported that Indigenous people traveling by road outside the Alto Turiaçu reserve were being stopped by unknown men and threatened. They suspect the men are looking for Ka’apor leaders, four of whom are ostensibly under the protection of the PPDDH, a state agency, but who, according to them, receive little to no protection.
As in the rest of the country, threats and violence against Indigenous people go largely unpunished, as the perpetrators are often connected to powerful business interests or criminal organizations that often enjoy the protection of corrupt public officials and law enforcement. To date, no one has been found guilty of any of the crimes mentioned above. In some cases, police haven’t even opened an investigation.
While these issues long preceded him, the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president meant plans to open up Indigenous territories to resource exploitation now have support at the very highest level of government. A number of local public officials, many of them members of Bolsonaro’s right-wing party or his coalition in Congress, are suspected of involvement in illegal activity on Indigenous territory.
In December 2021, at an entrance to Ka’apor territory near the non-Indigenous settlement of Tancredo Neves in the municipality of Nova Olinda do Maranhão, Self-Defense Guards approached a group of loggers. After questioning, the men reportedly named the mayor of the nearby municipality of Araguanã, Flávio Amorim, in a deal to provide them with trucks. In another instance, local councilman Bené do Tancredo was said to be found with loggers, where he reportedly told the Ka’apor that “everyone works illegally in this town.”
In October 2021, Júnior Garimpeiro, the mayor of the nearby town of Centro Novo do Maranhão, was arrested for illegal mining and toxic chemical dumping after a Federal Police operation in the region. Released in December, he has reportedly been seen entering the Alto Turiaçu reserve by way of the Gurupi River on hunting expeditions and potentially prospecting for minerals, both illegal activities. According to the Ka’apor, in March 2021, Garimpeiro arrived in a truck with armed gunmen and threatened leaders in the community of Gurupiuna.
One example of how local corruption goes national is Josimar Maranhãozinho, two-time mayor of the neighboring town of Maranhãozinho. In 2014, he was accused of orchestrating an illegal logging operation in Ka’apor territory, but the charges were dismissed. Today, he’s a federal congressman — albeit one who is currently under investigation after being caught embezzling public funds.
Mining companies have also continued to advance, with four gold exploration requests illegally being made within the limits of the Alto Turiaçu reserve. Three of these were submitted by MCT Mineração Ltda, a company based in Centro Novo do Maranhão and which is the subject of several ongoing civil suits related to environmental crimes. The fourth mining application was made by Vale, Brazil’s biggest miner and No. 5 in the world. At home, Vale is notorious for two catastrophic collapses of mine tailings dams in the state of Minas Gerais in 2015 and 2019, among other incidents. All four mining requests are currently pending. Mining in Indigenous territories is banned under Brazil’s Constitution, but a bill introduced into Congress by Bolsonaro, known as PL 191/2020, would make it legal.
To this day, local, state and federal governments refuse to recognize any initiatives being taken by the Ka’apor within their own territory. Mongabay reached out to Funai as well as both the federal and state secretariats of public safety, requesting comment on recent reports of threats being made against the Ka’apor and any information regarding ongoing investigations into the above-mentioned crimes. We received no response from any of those contacted as of the time this article was published.
More than three years into the Bolsonaro presidency marked by its anti-Indigenous rhetoric, and with no change in the long-standing inaction of the authorities, the culture of impunity threatens to get even worse, making future violence even more likely. According to a supporter who works closely with the Ka’apor council of chiefs and who has received multiple death threats, “We live under permanent pressure. Even though we are doing the right thing, we have nobody on our side. We live under tension from everyone and everything just for defending the forest and its people.”
Banner image of a Ka’apor woman and her child on a fishing expedition in a newly occupied and heavily deforested area of their Indigenous territory in the Brazilian state of Maranhão. Image by Andrew Johnson.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: How Indigenous and local communities are fighting to gain title to their territories, listen here: