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In Brazil’s Amazon, land grabbers scramble to claim disputed Indigenous reserve

  • The Apyterewa Indigenous Territory has been under federal protection since 2007, but in recent years has become one of the most deforested reserves in Brazil, as loggers, ranchers and miners have invaded and razed swaths of forest.
  • As President Jair Bolsonaro prepares to leave office, land grabbers are rushing to “deforest while there is still time,” advocates say, with forest clearing in Apyterewa on track to hit new highs this year.
  • The surge in invasions has aggravated a decades-long tussle for land between Indigenous people and settlers, who first started trickling into Apyterewa in the 1980s and have since built villages, schools and churches within the reserve.
  • The Parakanã people say the outsiders, new and old, are polluting their water sources, depleting forest resources, and threatening their traditional way of life.

APYTEREWA INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, Brazil — Deep in the Apyterewa reserve, Tye Parakanã waves a hand toward the lush rainforest flanking his village. In the distance, a faint cloud of smoke rises above the emerald canopy of the Brazilian Amazon.

“You see this forest here? Behind it, it’s all ranches,” the 35-year-old Indigenous leader says as our motorboat sputters to a halt at the doorstep of his village, perched on the banks of the Xingu River. “The loggers, the miners — they’re inside our territory. They’ve cut down our forests, they’ve spoiled our river.”

Tye Parakanã, an Indigenous leader, travels along the Xingu River towards his village in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory in São Félix do Xingu, Pará. Tye says his community is feeling the pressure as invaders encroach on their territory. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Nestled in the Amazonian state of Pará, Apyterewa stretches 773,820 hectares (1.9 million acres) across the municipality of São Félix do Xingu, in Brazil’s cattle-ranching heartland. It’s part of the Xingu Basin, a mosaic of 46 reserves that together make up an ecological corridor treasured by conservationists — and considered a crucial buffer against the advance of deforestation.

Apyterewa was demarcated in 2007, with the federal government earmarking it exclusively for the use of the Parakanã Indigenous people, who have lived in this slice of rainforest for generations. Still, despite its protected status, Apyterewa has come under attack in recent years, with swaths of its forests razed at breakneck speed.

Teenagers play soccer and chase each other in the main village in the Apyterewa Indigenous reserve, located in São Félix do Xingu, in the Brazilian state of Pará. The territory has been demarcated since 2007 but it has increasingly come under pressure as land-grabbers, loggers and ranchers invade slices of it and raze the rainforest. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Some 30,347 hectares (74,989 acres) of land were cleared in Apyterewa between January 2019 — when Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, took office — and September 2022. That’s according to figures from Rede Xingu+, a network of environmental and Indigenous groups monitoring deforestation in the Xingu Basin. Deforestation in the reserve is on course to hit a record in 2022, with 8,189 hectares (20,235 acres) razed just in the first nine months of the year.

“We’ve seen this absurd rise in deforestation,” says Thaise Rodrigues, an analyst at the Instituto Socioambiental, a nonprofit that defends environmental diversity and the rights of Indigenous people. “There’s no doubt in my mind that, at the moment, Apyterewa is the most deforested Indigenous land in the Amazon.”

In all, the reserve lost about 8% of its tree cover between 2007 and 2021, according to data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch. And there are signs the destruction has picked up pace in recent months: satellites registered 324,529 highest-confidence deforestation alerts between Aug. 10 and Dec. 10, representing a jump of nearly 82% over the same period last year.

Much of the deforestation is being driven by land speculation as loggers, cattle ranchers and wildcat gold miners descend on the territory, hoping their illegal land claims will be recognized in the future, environmentalists say.

This scramble to invade has intensified as Bolsonaro, an advocate for opening up Indigenous lands to commercial exploitation, prepares to leave office on Jan. 1, after narrowly losing this year’s election to leftist challenger Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former two-term president who has promised to crack down on deforestation.

“We’ve really seen this rush to deforest while there’s still time,” Rodrigues says.

Razed forest just outside the Apyterewa Indigenous reserve, in São Félix do Xingu, Pará. Deforestation in the reserve has sky-rocketed in recent years, with 30,347 hectares of land cleared in between January 2019 and September 2022. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

In Apyterewa, these fresh invasions are aggravating a decades-old tussle over land between the Parakanã and invaders who have long sought to lay claim to slices of the reserve. The roughly 900 Indigenous residents who live here say the influx of outsiders is threatening the forest resources they rely on, putting their traditional way of life at risk.

“We’re asking for help,” Tye says. “Because, for us, our forest is everything. It’s where we fish, it’s where we hunt. And they’re destroying it.”

History of invasion

Outsiders first began trickling into Apyterewa in the 1980s, with a plentiful stock of mahogany trees luring illegal loggers into the dense, old-growth rainforest.

These loggers carved illicit roads into the jungle, paving the way for wildcat miners who descended on the region in the 1990s in a frenzied search for gold. Over time, some settled here or sold their plots to newcomers, who razed ever-larger swaths of jungle to build villages, plant crops and convert forest to pastures.

“There’s a history of illegal occupation in Apyterewa,” Rodrigues says. “And this stimulates more invasions.”

In Paredão, one of the oldest settlements in Apyterewa, the traces of occupation are everywhere. As our truck bounces along the muddy dirt road, we pass charred stretches of forest and illegal mines, known as garimpos, flanked by murky pools of wastewater, tainted yellow by mercury. A hand-painted sign points the way to an evangelical church some 10 kilometers (6 miles) down the road.

In Paredão, one of the oldest settlements in Apyterewa, the traces of occupation are everywhere. A hand-painted sign points the way to an evangelical church some 10 kilometers down the road. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.
Illegal mines, known as garimpos, dot the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory. Even though the territory has been demarcated since 2007, outsiders have invaded Apyterewa, where the soil is rich in mineral deposits. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Dorcas Cruz, a 55-year-old cocoa farmer, was among those who bought a slice of land here more than two decades ago. She insists that, when her family arrived in Paredão in 2000, the reserve — and its limits — was being studied but had not yet been demarcated.

The Cruz family settled on an 850-hectare (2,100-acre) plot of land, deforesting a slice of forest to build a home and plant crops. “It was just bush here, nothing else,” she recalls. “We cleared all this ourselves.”

But in 2011, in one of several high-profile crackdowns on illegal occupants, enforcement agents tore down and torched her family’s home. Still, with nowhere to go, Cruz returned soon after the raid was over.

“We lived in a tent for three years, right over there,” she says, gesturing to a spot in the courtyard in front of the elegant ranch she now calls home. “It took my husband two years just to cut down the timber for our new house.”

Dorcas Cruz, a cocoa farmer, was among those who bought 850-hectares of land in Paredão over two decades ago. She insists that, when her family arrived in 2000, Apyterewa had not yet been demarcated. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.
Dorcas Cruz holds a fruit from one of her many cocoa trees. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Cruz, like most other settlers here, refuses to leave the land her family occupies without compensation for her home and the more than 17,000 cocoa trees she says she has planted since arriving here in 2000.

“We are not land grabbers, we are not bandits. We are pioneers,” she says defiantly. “This was not Indigenous land when we arrived.”

Legally, people like Cruz have no right to remain in Apyterewa, says federal prosecutor Rafael Martins da Silva. “There hasn’t been a single legal decision allowing these occupants to be here,” he says. “What we have is a scenario of illegality.”

But cases like hers have posed a major challenge for authorities as they grapple with the prospect of removing the hundreds of families who claim they settled here in “good faith,” long before the Apyterewa reserve was established.

Complicating matters, some “good faith” residents have advanced deeper into the forest in the years since arriving, expanding the areas they occupy. And other settlers arrived long after demarcation, setting up new villages with the intention of illegally claiming slices of the reserve, according to Silva.

An illegal gold mine in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

“There’s a certain degree of confusion about who is here in good faith and who is here in bad faith,” he says. “And it’s difficult to evict people from land they have occupied for decades, without causing complete social chaos.”

Failure to evict

Over the years, authorities have repeatedly tried to remove intruders from Apyterewa, with little success.

In 2006 and 2011, military-led raids managed to expel some of the invaders and relocate others to a small rural settlement nearby, created by the federal government. But many, like Cruz, came back as soon as the agents were gone.

Dorcas Cruz, one of the settlers illegally occupying a slice of land in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory, poses in front of her wooden ranch. Authorities destroyed her house in 2011, in an attempt to evict the community, but Cruz and her family came back and rebuilt in the same spot. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

In 2016, it seemed as if the Parakanã had finally won the battle for land rights when a court ordered the expulsion of all non-Indigenous settlers as a condition for the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which lies some 300 km (186 mi) from Apyterewa along the Xingu River.

Under the government of Dilma Rousseff, in office from 2011 to 2016, police began to remove some of the roughly 2,000 families illegally occupying the land. But the process soon ground to a halt amid legal challenges by the settlers. In the years since, successive governments have largely abandoned plans to evict the families who remain within the reserve.

“The government has a legal obligation to remove these occupants,” says Eduardo Barnes, Indigenous policy specialist at The Nature Conservancy. “But it’s been years and it still hasn’t complied with this court decision.”

An area of rainforest recently cleared just outside the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory. Deforestation is advancing across the Brazilian Amazon, as rainforest gives way to cattle pastures, soy plantations and illegal mines. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

One major challenge has been determining which long-time settlers are entitled to compensation and how much they should receive. And a key question remains where authorities will relocate the thousands of people illegally occupying the reserve to, says one source at Funai, the federal agency tasked with protecting the interests of Indigenous people.

“We will have to evict people — there is no other way,” says the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. “But you can’t leave people on the street. They’ll only come back.”

Out-of-control invasions

As evictions have lagged, newcomers have continued to pour into Apyterewa, building new communities and moving deeper into the reserve. Indigenous rights defenders say it may soon become impossible to remove the settlers, both old and new, as their occupations become more consolidated.

With enforcement agencies gutted of staff and resources under Bolsonaro, the government presence in Apyterewa has faded, making it easier to invade the reserve, advocates say. Last year, emboldened settlers fired shots and set a bridge on fire near a Funai base, cutting off access for agents tasked with monitoring the reserve.

“There is no control over who comes in,” Barnes says. “And the population in these settlements keeps growing, searching for new natural resources. So the pressure on the Parakanã’s territory continues to intensify.”

Much of the destruction within Apyterewa is driven by cattle ranching, advocates say. Ranching is an engine of economic growth in São Félix do Xingu, the municipality boasting Brazil’s largest herd of cattle. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

As the destruction advances, Parakanã leaders say it’s depleting the forest resources that sustain them. With the jungle around their villages disappearing, hunting for wild game has become more difficult. Important dietary staples, like the Brazil nut, are vanishing as loggers raze centuries-old trees for timber.

The Parakanã have responded by setting up new villages in strategic locations in a bid to bar the invaders from advancing further into the reserve.

Indigenous chief Taturarua Parakanã says his community is fighting to keep the wildcat miners from inching closer to Ka’até, a new village he set up last year in a region of Apyterewa where land grabbing has exploded.

“Where we are, we can hear the motor of the garimpo running all night,” he says. “We’re afraid, we can’t sleep at night. We can’t drink the water anymore. The fish are dying, the piranha, the alligators — everything is dying.”

Taturarua Parakanã, a chief — or cacique — of a new village recently set up in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory, in São Félix do Xingu in the Brazilian state of Pará. The Indigenous leader says his community set up the new outpost in an effort to bar invaders from encroaching on the territory. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Taturarua says he’s faced death threats from farmers and miners seeking to lay claim to the area. But he, along with about a dozen others, is standing firm.

“There are so many land grabbers trying to take over our territory. But I won’t let them,” he says. “We are there to stop them from invading.”

And despite these efforts to stave off invasions, Indigenous residents have struggled to halt the frenzied encroachment of their land.

“The Parakanã don’t have enough people to occupy the whole territory,” the Funai agent says. “So unless we evict everyone and the Indigenous set up villages at every entrance, people are going to keep invading.”

A Parakanã man casts a fishing net in the Xingu River, in the Apyterewa Indigenous reserve. The Indigenous community says illegal mining on their territory is polluting the river and putting their traditional way of life at risk. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Uncertainty ahead

The future of Apyterewa was thrown into question in 2020 when Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court opened the door to negotiations between the Indigenous community and illegal settlers over a possible reduction of the reserve’s boundaries.

The controversial negotiations were met with enthusiasm by local authorities in São Félix do Xingu, who have long sided with those illegally occupying the reserve. Meanwhile, federal officials from Brasília, the capital, traveled nearly 1,600 km (1,000 mi) to mediate a meeting between the settlers and the Parakanã.

Funai’s president, Marcelo Xavier, also threw his support behind shrinking the Apyterewa reserve, drawing sharp criticism from Indigenous rights groups that warned the unprecedented move would open the door to attacks on other demarcated reserves.

The Parakanã initially told the Supreme Court that they had agreed to give up 392,000 hectares (969,000 acres) of their territory to the settlers. But community leaders later backtracked, saying they were pressured or tricked into the preliminary agreement.

The Apyterewa Indigenous Territory sits on the banks of the Xingu River, in Brazil’s ranching heartland. Although the Parakanã Indigenous people have exclusive rights to the territory, invasions have surged in recent years. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Some Indigenous residents told Mongabay they were informally offered 400 million reais ($75 million) to give up more than 50% of their land, although the official documentation submitted to authorities makes no mention of a financial agreement.

After months of unsuccessful talks, a judge archived the negotiation process and, in March 2022, the court lifted a temporary suspension on evictions. But there is currently no deadline to remove the outsiders, according to Silva, the federal prosecutor, who notes the process is expected to move ahead slowly.

“For the moment, we’re trying to stop further invasions,” he says. “And we’re opening a dialogue with those who are illegally occupying the land, trying to make them understand that an exit is necessary and inevitable.”

Still, the settlers have not given up hope. Cruz says her community has asked Funai to review its original analysis of the reserve, arguing that Apyterewa’s limits were drawn far beyond the area that traditionally belonged to the Parakanã people.

Dorcas Cruz, one of the settlers illegally occupying a slice of land in Apyterewa Indigenous Territory, poses with what she says is a Funai-issued appraisal of the land she is occupying. She refuses to leave without compensation for her home and the 17,000 cocoa trees she has planted. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

The Parakanã, meanwhile, say they’ve abandoned plans to strike a deal with the intruders and are now demanding that authorities remove all the settlers from Apyterewa, protecting their right to their ancestral lands.

“There is no way to divide our territory anymore,” Taturarua says. “We want them out, and we want our land back.”

 

Banner image: Apyterewa has lost about 8% of its tree cover between 2007 and 2021, despite being earmarked for the exclusive use of the Parakanã Indigenous people. Most of the forest ends up converted into cattle ranches or illegal mines. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

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