- On Oct. 2, federal agencies descended upon the Native Apyterewa and Trincheira Bacajá territories in the state of Pará in an attempt to remove non-Indigenous people from the land.
- Human rights activists praise the move as Indigenous communities within these lands continue to struggle against soaring levels of deforestation and decades-old conflicts with outsiders.
- Insiders say that federal agencies are temporarily relocating Indigenous people to villages far from invader settlements to ensure their safety.
- The Parakanã people from the Apyterewa Territory lament that local authorities in Pará are rallying in Brazil’s capital Brasília to suspend operations and allow the illegal invaders to remain on the land.
The Brazilian government has launched a long-awaited operation to remove thousands of non-Indigenous invaders illegally occupying two ancestral territories in the Amazon Rainforest, in what human rights defenders hail as a victory for protecting Native communities.
The operation began Oct. 2 in the Apyterewa and Trincheira Bacajá territories in the state of Pará with the goal of returning the exclusive rights to the land to the 2,500 Indigenous people who live there. Among the ethnicities inhabiting the region are the Parakanã, Mebêngôkre Kayapó and Xikrin people, as well as reports of uncontacted and recently contacted groups.
The illegal invaders, many of whom have lived on the land for decades, “pose a threat to the Indigenous people and the forest, which has already had part of the vegetation destroyed, and encourages the exploration of illegal activities,” according to a government statement. Around 1,600 families live illegally in the region, many of whom are involved in cattle ranching and mining, causing soaring levels of deforestation and water pollution.
A source close to the Parakanã, who requested not to be identified for security reasons, told Mongabay that federal agencies, including Brazil’s Indigenous body Funai, are protecting Indigenous villages in the Apyterewa Territory that are situated close to invader settlements by temporarily relocating them to other traditional communities. Funai is also advising Indigenous leaders not to travel to certain areas while the operation continues, the source said.
Funai did not reply to Mongabay’s request for comment.
The government’s goal is to remove invaders “peacefully and voluntarily.” Its statement didn’t say whether the process has been conflict-free so far, although Funai reported it repaired a bridge that was deliberately burned to prevent removal teams from accessing an illegal farm on the territory.
The Parakanã people expressed their “broad and unrestricted support” of the federal action through a statement from the Tato’a Indigenous Association, which represents them. “We, the Parakanã people, have been waiting decades for the compliance of removing invaders from our territories, which is fundamental to guarantee our right to exclusive enjoyment of it and vital to ensure the future of current and later generations,” they wrote.
They added that they are strongly against any attempt to stop the operation. Local authorities in Pará are trying to suspend the removal of invaders, specifically the state’s governor, Helder Barbalho; the mayor of São Félix do Xingu municipality, João Cleber de Souza Torres; and state deputy Francisco Torres de Paula Filho (commonly known as Torrinho). They have all defended the rights of the illegal occupants in the past. Both Torres and Torrinho have been previously accused of land-grabbing, according to reports from Intercept Brasil.
Previous endeavors to remove invaders have been conducted in the past but were aborted. An operation in January 2011 ended three months later when a court decision guaranteed the permanence of non-Indigenous people in the Apyterewa land. Since the territory was ratified in 2007, more than 120 injunctions have tried to prevent the removal of non-Indigenous people from the land. In 2015, the Supreme Court demanded the expulsion of invaders from the Apyterewa land, which started in 2016 but was unsuccessful due to strong ruralist pressure.
The latest operation was again ordered by the Supreme Court and is expected to last 90 days, with a consolidation period afterward aimed at preventing the invaders’ return.
According to the Federal Public Ministry, the invaders who occupied the land until the end of 2001 will be entitled to receive compensation “because when they settled in the place they did not know it was Indigenous land.” Those who occupied the land from 2002 onwards will not be entitled to compensation. Anyone found guilty of committing environmental crimes, such as deforestation, will be subject to fines issued by Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA.
Decades of invasions
Both the Apyterewa and the Trincheira Bacajá lands, demarcated in 2007 and 1996, respectively, have long suffered from invasions, stripping the original people of their freedom in their ancestral territories, depleting their hunting areas, and exposing them to violence and conflicts with outsiders.
“The pressure suffered by the Trincheira Bacajá Indigenous Territory is unprecedented,” Luisa Molina, anthropologist and researcher at the Instituto Socioambiental, told Mongabay. The number of invasions has soared in the region since 2019, she added, with deforestation increasing by 95% in 2019 compared with the year before, leaving almost 4,000 hectares (9,884 acres) cleared.
“The Indigenous people [in the Trincheira Bacajá Territory] informed the [relevant federal agencies] of the existence of a scheme for selling lots of Indigenous land via WhatsApp,” Molina said. “Leadership is threatened and the territory, where it was previously possible to travel with peace of mind, is now permeated by areas of great insecurity.”
According to research center Fiocruz, 80% of the Apyterewa Indigenous land is occupied by non-Indigenous people who operate as loggers, miners and squatters in the region. With the advance of invaders, the Parakanãs’ territory is gradually shrinking, with access to just 25% of their land. Since 2007, the territory has lost 106,000 hectares (261,931 acres) of forest due to logging, mining and ranching, according to data from the country’s space research center INPE.
The territory has had the highest levels of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest for the past four years, during the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, which historically acted against Indigenous rights. Reports from Intercept Brasil have found that the invaders, who outnumber the Indigenous people (about 1,000 illegal settlers to 730 Native occupants), have built 210 houses, churches, shops, a school and a gas station. In May this year, IBAMA tore down 20 encampments within the Apyterewa Indigenous land, however, reports say that invaders continue to construct houses within the territory.
This month, IBAMA detected 1,125 hectares (2,780 acres) of deforestation, suspected to be caused by pesticides sprayed from the air, according to Folha de São Paulo newspaper, adding that it’s considered one of the “most aggressive and harmful methods.”
Since the operation began, federal agencies acting within the two Indigenous territories have seized 9,700 items, including firearms, heavy machinery, illegal native wood, and marijuana, and they have applied 1.8 million reais ($354,735) worth of fines to violators. Three people have also been arrested in the past week.
This is the second large raid to remove invaders from Indigenous territories since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office on Jan. 1. The first one focused on the ejection of illegal miners in the Yanomami land where, after four months of work, the number of illegal mining alerts zeroed, although conflicts between federal forces, miners and Indigenous individuals have left at least 15 people dead.
Banner image: Since the operation began, federal agencies have made several arrests and seized thousands of illegal items within the invaders’ settlements including firearms, drugs, and wood. Image courtesy of Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
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