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Illegal agricultural project moves ahead on Brazilian Indigenous lands

  • Marked by a fine for illegal deforestation, Agro Xavante, an initiative created with the blessing of President Bolsonaro, moves ahead with leasing public lands and a failure to conduct prior consultation with the local population.
  • Called Indigenous Independence Project, the initiative determines that 80% of the net profits go to the rural producers, with the Xavante people receiving 20%.
  • The very essence of the project makes it unconstitutional because, according to the Brazilian Constitution, the Indigenous peoples enjoy the exclusive use of their territories, with the sole right to the exploitation of the natural resources contained therein.

Along the side of highway BR-070, a green and yellow sign reads “Indigenous Independence Project.” Next to it flies a fluttering Brazilian flag. A white Palio sedan with stickers advertising the project pulls onto a dirt road and continues unimpeded. Along the way, side roads display signs indicating the names of Indigenous villages. We follow the car for 30 minutes until we come to a boom barrier gate with a red stoplight.

A plaque indicates the entry of the Indigenous Independence Project and the institutional support from Funai, the country’s Indigenous affairs agency. Image by O Joio e O Trigo.

On the left is a recently built house. In front is an area of cultivated land. Although it looks like a farm, it is actually the Sangradouro Indigenous Territory, one of the nine lands reserved for the Xavante people.

We are in the producing area of the Agro Xavante project, a partnership between farmers allied with the Primavera do Leste Rural Union and the Xavante people of Sangradouro, with support from the National Indigenous Foundation (Funai) and the state government of Mato Grosso, in western Brazil. Our host is Gerson Wa rãiwe, president of the Indigenous Cooperative of Greater Sangradouro and Volta Grande. He is the one driving the cooperative’s Palio. Gerson wears a T-shirt of the organization: on the front, there is a crest; on the left, it has the Funai logo; and on the right, the Brazilian flag and the name “Agro Xavante.” On the back are the logos of several companies.

Gerson Wa rãiwe is the president of the Grande Sangradouro and Volta Grande Indigenous Cooperative. Image by Marcos Hermanson.

In one of the farm’s warehouses, there are machines, tractors, immense combine harvesters and bags of fertilizer. Each one of the Indigenous group’s four “partner” producers has a spot like this to store their equipment. “This one belongs to Nardes,” says Gerson, referring to José Otaviano Ribeiro Nardes, a soybean producer in the Primavera region and one of the project’s most enthusiastic supporters. The other farmers involved are Vitélio Furlan, Marciane Ferrari and Igor Fontinele de Alcântara.

To learn more about the Indigenous Independence initiative and its impact on the Xavante, a team from Brazilian outlet O Joio e O Trigo drives 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles) from June 9-18 to visit three Indigenous territories of this group in Mato Grosso and interview about 30 people.

This investigation results in the series “The partners of Rio das Mortes,” which explains the arguments in favor of and against the project, and what the consequences of this farming project have been for the Xavante.

The map shows the three Xavante Indigenous lands visited by the report team. Image by O Joio e O Trigo.

‘Bolsonaro asked for this project’

The first contracts between the farmers and the Indigenous people were signed in March 2020, but the project had already been promised to the farmers by the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in 2017, when, as a federal representative, he visited Primavera do Leste.

To shouts of “legend” and wrapped in a Brazilian flag, the congressman laid the groundwork for a direction that the opposition, journalists and political scientists failed to understand at the time — and Indigenous territories were in the direct path of this pilgrimage. “It was Bolsonaro’s idea. He asked for this project. And we bought into his idea. He told us: ‘If I’m elected president, my dream is Indigenous Independence,’” says José Nardes during a conversation at the Rural Union headquarters.

The active participation of the president of Funai, Marcelo Xavier, was also fundamental for the implementation of corn and soybean farms in the Indigenous territories. According to the producer, who says he was introduced to the Federal Police deputy by Bolsonaro, “the project was created within Funai, with the help of their employees” — information that was confirmed by public servants. Before that, he says, “the agricultural sector didn’t have access to [the agency]. Bolsonaro turned Funai around 100%.”

The plan, however, in addition to creating tension among the Indigenous peoples, who split between proponents and critics of mechanized farming in the Sangradouro, has been involved in a series of illegalities and irregularities.

“Actually, it’s a kind of a tenant leasing arrangement, but they’re there working, the Indigenous people, that is. It’s the same thing as a tenant lease, but you can’t call it that because the people won’t let you,” says Agnaldo Santos, superintendent of Indigenous Affairs of Mato Grosso.

Agnaldo Santos, superintendent of Indigenous Affairs of Mato Grosso. Image by Marcos Hermanson.

The people, in this case, are the constitution: the very essence of the project makes it unconstitutional because, according to Article 231 of the Carta Magna, the Indigenous peoples enjoy the exclusive use of their territories, with the sole right to the exploitation of the riches of the land, the rivers and the lakes contained therein. At the same time, the Estatuto do Índio [Indigenous Statute], in article 18, says, “the Indigenous territories may not be the object of any lease agreements.”

Santos welcomes us on a June afternoon at the Paiaguás Palace, the seat of government in the state of Mato Grosso. He makes a point of taking us to a comfortable room in the Civil Office that is adorned with paintings representing different ethnic groups, and he repeatedly emphasizes his close relationship with the state’s first lady, Virgínia Mendes, and how the governor, Mauro Mendes, has made relations between the farmers and the Indigenous peoples a priority in his administration.

Despite confirming that this arrangement is a lease, the superintendent does not want to reveal the percentages each party receives, a recurring problem in conversations with proponents of Agro Xavante. In the end, we are able to discover through Funai records that 80% of the net profits go to the rural producers, with the Xavante receiving 20%. Initially, the division was even more unequal: the first proposal for cooperation sent to Funai offered one sack of soybeans to the Indigenous for each hectare — while one hectare may produce 80 sacks.

“The argument that it is a partnership is just a ruse, to deflect from the fact that it is a leasing arrangement. But the Constitution of 1988 says that the use of the lands is the exclusive right of the tribes. Therefore, this contract is null and void. This land is not open to exploitation, to cessation, to be put on the market because it belongs to the state and is designated for exclusive use,” explains lawyer Rafael Modesto dos Santos, the legal adviser to the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI).

According to the Estatuto da Terra, rural leasing is a contract in which the owner of a property temporarily cedes the right to use that property to a third party in exchange for payment of rent — where this payment may be made in cash or shares of the production.

In article 93, the same legal provision stipulates that “the contracting of leasing arrangements or partnerships for the exploitation of public lands is prohibited,” as is the case with the Indigenous territories, which are the property of the state.

In the fields inside the Sangrandouro Indigenous Land, there is a shed with tractors and harvesters. Image by Marcos Hermanson.

Support from Funai

“Take what I say, take my words to your father and tell him we are with him.” It’s April 2022. Eduardo Bolsonaro has come to Sangradouro before our report team, where he is received by Gerson. According to a video made available on the congressman’s YouTube channel, his purpose is to “show the real situation of the Brazilian Indigenous.” Without a shirt, painted with urucum and wearing a headdress, Gerson declares himself to be an Indigenous supporter of Bolsonaro. “He gave us opportunities, promoted our interests, we who are living on our lands. If this is how it’s going to be, let it be a model for all. … Brazil above everything, God above everyone.”

After his visit, the representative and son of Jair Bolsonaro produced a 23-minute video in which he showed “why, in the middle of these agricultural riches that carry Brazil on its shoulders, there are people that want to include (sic) the Indigenous and condemn them to live on an island of poverty. Let’s take a close look at this project.”

A year earlier, in April of 2021, Funai’s Xavier was in the region for a Field Day to commemorate the beginning of the rice harvest in the territory — normally, the first harvest in an area that will be dedicated to soybeans and corn is of rice, planted and harvested to prepare the soil. Officially, the event should be one of supervision and monitoring the results of the harvest, but we are unable to find any documentation in the records to indicate that this actually occurred.

On that occasion, wearing a T-shirt of the cooperative, Xavier states: “This innovative project strengthens ethno-development and receives support from Funai and other partners. We hope that the initiative can be spread across all of Brazil. Indigenous people have every right to control their history, and they don’t cease to be Indigenous because they want to seek better living conditions.”

On the right, the president of Funai, Marcelo Xavier, while visiting Sangradouro. Image by Mário Vilela/Funai.

The support for the project by the president of Funai was provided by going over the agency’s lower-level public servants and local coordinators. The negotiations between the cooperative and the local farmers were handled directly by officials in Brasília — while local public servants were kept in the dark.

The Estatuto da Funai (Funai Statute) provides that the agency’s local bases are responsible for “actions for promoting economic ethno-development.” In other words, the matter should first be handled by the Regional Xavante Coordination (CR Xavante), the local headquarters of the agency, in Barra do Garças, but what occurred was precisely the opposite.

Internal Funai documents show that the local employees found out about the existence of the farm only after it was already under development. This discovery happened during an inspection in December 2020, when a public servant from the regional coordination office observed that about a thousand hectares of the Cerrado in Sangradouro had been deforested.

At this time, the technical area initiated a series of questions to their superiors that were rarely answered — and when they became too numerous, they responded with evasive answers.

The Terms for Technical Agricultural Cooperation signed between the farmers and the Indigenous cooperative created to establish the project, the Cooigrandesan, were only sent to the Funai Regional Coordination in February of 2021, two months after the document had been signed.

Previously, from May through December of 2020, it had already passed through the office of the agency’s presidency, the office of General Coordination of Promotion of Ethno-development and the Federal Specialized Attorney’s office — an arm of the attorney general’s office within Funai.

Furthermore, public servants from Funai in Brasília met personally with farmers and Indigenous people involved in Indigenous Independence and helped them by making adjustments to the original terms of the “technical agricultural partnership” — a neologism created to make the project legally viable — that was signed in March 2020, in order to make the documents less vulnerable in the event of a legal challenge.

With the help of Ethno-development Coordination, the terms became more favorable. Instead of deforesting 11,000 hectares (27,182 acres) as originally planned, the area was reduced to a thousand. It was also suggested that the terms include a note that the area to be cultivated “had already been anthropized,” which the public servants of Barra do Garças showed to be false. According to satellite images, only 300 hectares (741 acres) had suffered from human action before the planting of crops.

‘We cannot remain frozen in time’

Gerson insists that the plantation occupies 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres), but, according to maps from the research group Territorial Environment and Collective Action, coordinated by Professor Magno Silvestri of the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT), the deforested area totals 1,475 hectares (3,645 acres), with incursions into the surrounding jungle that indicate the intention to expand the plantation.

“We cannot remain frozen in time while our neighbors develop,” Gerson says calmly during an interview of more than two hours conducted in one of the villages of the Sangradouro.

Satellite image shows the plantations of the Agro Xavante project in the Sangradouro Indigenous Land. Source: Magno Silvestri/Environment, Territory and Collective Actions Research Group from the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT).

According to the reporters’ documents, in October 2021, the cooperative sent a request to Ibama, the federal environmental protection agency, asking to increase the area for cultivation to 6,000 hectares (14,826 acres). “But it has been tied up there. I should go to Brasília next week to find another way to get Ibama to approve it. Because the Indigenous people want to work,” says José Nardes.

One month after this conversation, on July 27, Ibama was in Sangradouro and fined the four farmers for illegal deforestation — nearly 1,500 hectares (3,707 acres) were cut down, 500 hectares more than the official information on record for Agro Xavante.

In responding to a request from these reporters to comment on the sanction, Éverton Pereira Aguiar Araújo, an attorney for the Federal Attorney General’s office (MPF, in Portuguese) in Barra do Garças (MT), says through a press release: “It was recently reported that IBAMA fined private parties for deforestation in the Indigenous Land. The MPF in Barra do Garças/MT has still not received any notification from IBAMA. When this occurs, the case will be analyzed according to the rules governing this Republic.”


We drive a few kilometers farther along highway BR-070. Farther away from the central village of Sangradouro, we begin to hear voices of opposition. Paulo Domingos, the chief of the village Tso’repré de Sangradouro, reports that he worked at Funai for 26 years. “This is a trick, an illusion,” the 57-year-old chief tells us. “The white man is just like the devil, and the devil is evil. He tempts the simple and humble man to get us to destroy the Cerrado.”

We speak with him one afternoon at the door of his home, while children warm themselves in front of a fire and a group of Indigenous people play soccer in a sand pitch located in the middle of the village.

Among other problems, Domingos admits that he is concerned about the division of the profits stipulated in the “partnership” contracts and with the discord that the project has been causing in the community of Sangradouro.

“Agro Xavante, in reality, for those who understand it, for those who are well-read, is a scheme of the waradzu (white man). It is an ingenuous name. Leasing is not authorized under the law, the Constitution of 1988, article 231,” argues the chief. “It does not authorize the white man to exploit indigenous lands, entering into leasing agreements.”

Prior consultation

Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, to which Brazil is a signatory, determines that Indigenous peoples “must be consulted whenever the possibility of leasing their lands or any other transmission of their rights over these lands to parties outside of their community is considered.”

According to documents that O Joio e O Trigo was able to access, the cooperative registered the minutes of a meeting with Funai that was held in June of 2019, which included the participation of 55 chiefs of the Sangradouro Indigenous Lands, where the leaders approved the project.

Written by hand and registered in a legal records office, the minutes affirm that “on the 15th day of June of 2019, the Indigenous community of Sangradouro met for the prior consultation of the mechanized farm Agro-Xavante [and] the chiefs and communities present approved a mechanized farm on the old farmsteads.”

“Food is needed to survive, sing, perform ceremonies and rituals, and to maintain the millennial culture while keeping up with globalized economic development,” the document adds. And it calls for the carrying out of “social studies” to ensure that the cultivation is done “legally without harming the environment.”

The minutes were registered at Funai in Barra do Garças a few days after the meeting was held and did not include details about the project — the area that would be used, the types of cultivation that would be implemented and the division of the profits. It didn’t even mention that the farming would be done in partnership with farmers from the region.

Chief Paulo, from the village of Tso’repré, was there among the signatories. In the interview with O Joio e O Trigo, he says, “Some of the people who led the meeting said that it would all work out … many of the people there didn’t understand exactly what a leasing contract was.”

“These words made it difficult for us, for everyone involved, the difficult vocabulary of the waradzu [white man], and we believed,” he says. “So, [this was] how they were led to accept.”

“This is a trick, an illusion,” says chief Paulo Domingos about the farming project. Image by Marcos Hermanson.

The Indigenist scholar Maria Augusta Assirati, ex-president of Funai, explains that the prior consultation process should be made more cautiously, observing the deliberative methods of each indigenous tribe and ensuring that there is a general understanding among the community in that location in regard to the project that is to be implemented.

“It doesn’t involve just a meeting,” she says. “We believe that a properly carried out prior consultation requires the realization of various meetings, conversations and activities, sometimes with different segments of the community at different times.”

“To me, an activity like this one seems to divide opinions a little, and this aspect has an impact in and of itself,” Assirati says. “Therefore, the process should be carried out cautiously, carefully, respecting the time needed to think and let the idea mature before a decision is made regarding the activity.”

A bonfire, a conversation round and a defense of the Cerrado

Twenty-five barefoot, shirtless youths, wearing only Bermuda shorts. Straight black hair and bangs. They move in a circle with their arms interlaced, chanting words and songs. It’s almost 7 p.m., and a pink sky surrounds the circular village of Etenheritipá in the Pimentel Barbosa Indigenous Land. Outside of the voices of the men who participate in the rite of passage to adulthood, the only sound that can be heard is the barking of a dog. The rite occurs thrice a day — at nightfall, the middle of the night and at dawn. The participants circulate throughout the village and finish the ritual in front of the chief’s house.

Minutes later, other men sit in a circle under a full moon. It’s the Warã, which signifies the circle of adult men in the Xavante language. This is where they discuss issues of concern to the village. It’s dark, and just the fire of the Warã illuminates the participants. Chief Jurandir Siridiwê rises and, in Xavante language, explains the reason for the reporters’ visit to the other men, and he asks us to introduce ourselves to the residents of Pimentel Barbosa.

In the Warã, the circle of adult men, village affairs are discussed. Image by Marcos Hermanson.

The road that gives access to the village is made of dirt and sand. Traveling over the 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) that separate the Indigenous lands from the city of Canarana is not an easy task. The car slides, and there are potholes and tree limbs in the middle of the road. Here, it is apparent that the Cerrado is better preserved than it is in most of the villages of Sangradouro, situated about 550 kilometers (342 miles) away. The forest is denser, and the trees are taller.

In addition to deforestation and monoculture, the Agro Xavante project has brought misunderstandings to the villages. From the conversations and interviews we conduct in Pimentel Barbosa, for example, it is clear that, at least there, the agricultural project is not welcome.

Jurandir relates that Marcelo Xavier was in the villages and was received graciously, but the residents of the communities do not want a mechanized agricultural project like the one that was created in Sangradouro. “He [Xavier] was chosen by the ruralists, so we understand their mechanism for opening up this dialogue: to manipulate or trick the Indigenous people. The agribusinessmen don’t have any more places to plant. They are being prevented from deforesting, and this central power is leading Bolsonaro to mess with the Indigenous land,” he says.

Regarding the Xavante that agreed to the project, the chief says: “We always say: ‘OK, if you want to become waradzu that’s fine. But it isn’t just yours, this territory belongs to all of us,” he explains. “In Sangradouro, a small group thinks they are going to make money, that they will acquire their own things, but they forget that they aren’t just individuals, that this is a collective.”

Seated on a bench near a community school, Jurandir smokes a pipe while he talks to a group of women from the community. Under a blistering sun, Ernestina, Lidiane, Joana, Claudete, Glória and Mislene stand up and, in Xavante, give their opinions about the agro projects on Indigenous lands. “What I can say about the [Cerrado] is that I love it because it is here that everything in our lives happens. I won’t let mechanized farming happen. And not all of the Xavantes want to be called Agro Xavante. This is unacceptable,” says Joana.

Some of the women are wearing colorful blouses and long, flowered skirts; others are in shorts and red tops and have their whole bodies painted with red urucum paint. For the young woman named Mislene, “The is our life, where our food is; we can’t let mechanized farming happen,” she says. Augustina, an older woman, says: “Those people in Sangradouro just want to keep asking, without doing anything, but I won’t let my land be deforested. Mechanized farming is not the option for me, let’s not let it happen,” she states.

Women who live in the Etenheritipá village. Image by Tatiana Merlino.

Surrounded by large soybean farms, the Xavante territories have been suffering over recent decades with a decline in hunting and fishing and with contamination of rivers from pesticides used in neighboring farms. The project’s defenders argue that production within the Indigenous land helps eliminate problems plaguing the Indigenous, such as hunger and malnutrition.

“If we have a good area for cultivation, why shouldn’t we exploit it? Because, instead of begging from outsiders, we’ll be working. This is what often makes us lose respect outside, in the city. This is really bad for our image. The land has a lot of areas. Out there, the media is saying, ‘they’re going to deforest everything.’ No, we’re not deforesting, we’re just using. We want to use 1% of our area to meet the demand,” says Gerson, the cooperative’s president.

After spending nine days circulating around three Indigenous territories of the Xavante, we cannot be sure which opinion is the most prevalent. In the Sangradouro Indigenous Lands, in Abelhinha village, for example, some people oppose the project. Berenice Eresani Toptira, a resident of Sangradouro, says, “this project that Bolsonaro suggested to us as if it were something new. This isn’t good for us. This project will destroy everything. Our lives aren’t only ours; it is the life of the Cerrado too. This worries me.”

Since the beginning of Indigenous Independence, the Xavante Warã Association has declared itself against the project. In May of last year, it issued a release condemning the “political use that the federal government is submitting the A’uwé Xavante people to as a laboratory for its ‘indigenist’ anti-policy, establishing agricultural cooperatives that work in partnership with agribusiness inside the Indigenous lands of Sangradouro/MT.” For them, “to the contrary of what their name pretends to transmit, the project is not about independence or autonomy for the A’Uwe Xavante people.”


Read the MPF release in its entirety

Regarding the Indigenous Independence Project of Sangradouro Indigenous Land [IL].

In regard to the Sangradouro Indigenous Land, the MPF submitted public civil suit nº 001016-89.2019.4.01.3605 seeking condemnation of the plaintiffs to fulfill the obligation of providing the indigenous peoples of the IL with the proper policies for the promotion of territorial and environmental management, consistent with the implementation of a project of territorial and environmental management, the strengthening of indigenous management practices, sustainable use and conservation of natural resources, and social inclusion of indigenous peoples, consolidating the contribution of the Indigenous Territories as areas that are essential for the conservation of biological and cultural diversity in Brazilian forest biomes.

Moreover, with this action, the MPF seeks the ordering of the implementation of the goals established in Objectives 1013 of the Federal Multi-year Plan for the years of 2016 through 2019, notably (i) Provide the indigenous families of the Sangradouro Indigenous Land, within 45 days, with ethno-development  projects aimed at food and nutritional security and the generation of income; (ii) Execute or support projects for environmental recuperation and conservation in the Sangradouro indigenous lands, within 90 days,; (iii) Support the development of a Territorial and Environmental Plan – PGTA, within 45 days, and the implementation of integrated actions in the Sangradouro IL and; (iv) promote and support, within 30 days, initiatives toward qualification of public policies and actions in family agriculture, guaranteeing services and specifics.

The suit is still going through the courts and has not yet come to judgment. This way, the MPF fulfilled its institutional duty by attempting to get the Judicial Branch to force the Executive Branch to ensure ethno-development in the Sangradouro Indigenous lands.

The indigenous people of the IT Sangradouro formed the Indigenous Cooperative of Sangradouro and Volta Grande – COOIGRANDESAN and are developing the “Indigenous Independence Project” in partnership with the Rural Union of Primavera do Leste and the General Coordination of Promotion of Ethno-development of FUNAI.

The self-determination of peoples is of a bi-vectorial nature in that it isn’t up to third parties to choose the path that an indigenous community should take with their priorities or with whom they should relate or form partnerships. The MPF is an agency of supervision and control, and acts by identifying legitimate actions, something that hasn’t happened until this point.

It was recently reported that IBAMA fined individuals for deforestation of IL. The MPF in Barra do Garças/MT still hasn’t received any communication from IBAMA, and when it does it will analyze the case in accordance with the rules that govern the Republic. As always, the MPF in Barra do Garças/MT limits itself to compliance with International Treaties, the Constitution and the Law. The same prosecutor who worked on the suit to close BR-158 along the stretch that intercepts the IT Maraiwatese is leading Operation Res Capta. Thus, the MPF takes on illicit actions regardless of their origin.

Banner image: The Brazilian flag flutters in front of the Agro Xavante project farm, in the Sangradouro Indigenous Land. Image by Marcos Hermanson.

This story was first published in Portuguese on O Joio e o Trigo.