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Grassroots efforts and an Emmy-winning film help Indigenous fight in Brazil

A framed photo of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau

A framed photo of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, murdered in 2020. Ari received death threats from land invaders before he was killed, yet the question of who murdered him and why remains unanswered. Image © Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

  • The 2022 documentary “The Territory” won an Emmy award this January, shining a light on the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous people and the invasions, conflicts and threats from land grabbers in their territory in the Brazilian Amazon from 2018 to 2021.
  • After years of increasing invasions and deforestation in the protected area, experts say the situation has slowly improved in the past three years, and both Indigenous and government officials in the region “feel a little safer.”
  • Grassroots surveillance efforts, increased visibility of the problems, and a more effective federal crackdown against invaders have helped tackle illegal land occupiers and allowed the Indigenous populations to take their land back.
  • Despite the security improvements, however, the territory still struggles against invasions and deforestation within the region, experts say.

Brazil’s Indigenous peoples have come under systemic attacks for five centuries, a crisis that worsened from 2019 to 2022 under the government of Jair Bolsonaro. These hostilities were encapsulated in the Emmy-winning documentary The Territory (O Território), which unveiled the challenges one Indigenous land and its population faced from land grabbers from 2018 to 2021.

The film, which won the award for “exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking” this January, documents an Indigenous group’s fight against conflicts and threats from invaders in the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Territory, an area covering more than 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of the Amazon Rainforest in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. The territory is home to nine Indigenous groups, including the Jupaú (also known as the Uru-eu-wau-wau), the Oro Win, the Amondawa, and the Cabixi, as well as five communities that have not had contact with non-Indigenous people.

Today, the situation in the region has improved, experts say, adding that although threats still exist, the territory has become safer and deforestation has dropped thanks to increasing visibility, local action, and a change in the federal government.

The security improvements in the territory are the result of relentless grassroots efforts to defend the land and bring visibility to the issues playing out there. The film helped amplify these efforts before an international audience, bringing attention not just to the Uru-eu-wau-wau land but to Indigenous territories in general across Brazil.

“The Territory” (“O Território”) won the Emmy for “exceptional merit In documentary filmmaking” in January.
“The Territory” (“O Território”) won the Emmy for “exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking” in January. From left: Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau, an Indigenous leader featured in the documentary; Txai Suruí, an Indigenous activist and executive producer of the documentary; and Ivandeide Bandeira, also known as Neidinha, an Indigenous activist featured in the documentary. Image courtesy of the Kanindé Ethno-Environmental Defense Association.

“It managed to draw attention to the serious situation both in the state of Rondônia and with the federal government and other agencies,” Ivandeide Bandeira, also known as Neidinha, an Indigenous activist who was featured in the documentary, told Mongabay. “We currently have the presence of the National Force [a joint military and civil police unit] in the Burareiro region, where the film was made.”

The Uru-eu-wau-wau land has suffered from land-grabbing invasions since the 1980s, which intensified in 2016. That year, illegal deforestation soared by 248% from the year before, amounting to 547 hectares (1,352 acres), according to data from Brazil’s space agency, INPE. A federal government official familiar with the issue and who asked to remain anonymous told Mongabay that it was around this time that an outpost of Funai, the national agency for Indigenous affairs, in the north of the territory was taken over by land grabbers. “[They] broke into the base, looted it, vandalized it, and occupied it,” the official said.

The outpost, built in 2013 and known as Barreira II, wasn’t in use at the time by Funai, which has long struggled with a lack of personnel and funding. It became a key entry point for invaders into the Indigenous territory, who then started to spread throughout the land.

“It was war,” the official added, referring to the conflict that ensued between the invaders and the Indigenous inhabitants, and “deforestation rocketed” under the pressure of illegal logging and mining.

In 2020, the situation began to improve. “The data is undeniable regarding the reduction in deforestation and invasions, and the increase in population security,” Amanda Villa, an Indigenous affairs adviser at the Observatory of Human Rights of Uncontacted and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI) and researcher at the Amerindian Studies Center at the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay. “Funai and Indigenous people seem to feel a little safer to carry out their work in the territory.”

Funai base in UEWW land
The Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous patrol team and Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, reclaimed an abandoned Funai outpost in June 2022, helping prevent land invasions within the territory. The outpost’s location was a key entry point for land grabbers. Image © Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau.

The deforestation rate reached a peak in 2019 at 1,076 hectares (2,659 acres), dropping to 333 hectares (823 acres) in 2020, similar to pre-2016 levels.

Many factors contributed to this change. The Jupaú Association, a surveillance team of Indigenous people featured in the documentary, created a group of “forest guardians” who monitored the land extensively, expelling invaders and filing numerous complaints to the Federal Public Ministry and other government bodies. At the same time, the Federal Police started to conduct operations in the region in 2021. The territory “started to have a lot more systematic work to protect the area,” the federal government official said.

In June 2022, the Jupaú Indigenous surveillance team reactivated the Barreira II outpost and maintained it alongside staff from Funai. Controlling the outpost and monitoring this area was key to preventing the invaders’ entry into the territory. Brazil’s changing political situation also helped. The end of the Bolsonaro administration in 2022 and the return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president in 2023 meant the end of the previous government’s anti-Indigenous agenda and impunity for environmental crimes. Instead, Lula created a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples — the first in Brazil’s history — revived the process of demarcating Indigenous lands that had been frozen under Bolsonaro, and cracked down on land grabbers and deforestation in the Amazon.

“The general perception is that there still are [invasions and deforestation in the territory], but without the air of legitimacy,” Villa said, adding that there’s no longer a sense of impunity that perpetrators once enjoyed under the Bolsonaro administration.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Territory lies in the heart of the state of Rondônia in the western Amazon.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Territory lies in the heart of the state of Rondônia in the western Amazon. For decades, the land has suffered heavy deforestation driven by agricultural expansion, especially cattle ranching and soybean farming, and mining.

Deforestation graph since 2000.

Killings and ongoing threats

Two killings occurred during the making of the documentary that gave the Indigenous territory more visibility: that of Rieli Franciscato, a coordinator of Funai’s Ethno-Environmental Protection Front, who was reportedly killed by an arrow from an uncontacted Indigenous person while working in the territory, and that of Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, both in 2020.

“The area started getting a lot more attention that it didn’t have before, when it was forgotten and abandoned,” the federal government official said.

Mongabay reported in 2022 that two years after Ari’s killing, no one had been arrested and no suspect had been named. A month later, the Federal Police announced they’d arrested a suspect, but ruled out that the murder was related to Ari being Indigenous or to his work in defense of the environment, as originally presumed. Instead, they said the suspect and Ari knew each other and the murder was the result of animosity between the two men. As a result, the case was dropped as a federal crime and transferred to the state court.

Land defense remains a dangerous occupation in Brazil. Data from the Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) found that from 1985 to 2021, there were 2,028 recorded deaths as a result of land conflicts, mostly in the Amazon. Of these cases, about 90% never went to trial.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous patrol team monitors their land for invaders.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous patrol team monitors their land for invaders. Land grabbers burn the forest within the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory to create illegal cattle pasture. Image © Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau.

Although the situation is improving, invasions and land grabbing continue in the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory, despite the growing international spotlight, and the threats to the Indigenous population remain. Neidinha, her daughter, Txai Suruí, and five other Indigenous people were ambushed in 2023, leading the government to send in the National Force. “The dangerous situation intensified,” Neidinha said.

In May and June last year, the Federal Police launched three operations to investigate the presence of illegal mining and inspect logging companies linked to wood illegally leaving the territory. The three operations yielded a total of 8 million reais ($1.6 million) worth of wood, logging equipment and mining machinery, and resulted in at least two logging companies having their operations suspended.

In June last year, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security authorized the deployment of the National Force to the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Territory for 90 days. It came after the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office requested in February the protection of the area due to complaints of environmental crimes and invasions on the land.

While the struggles in the Uru-eu-wau-wau land continue, the documentary marks the beginning of Indigenous people themselves broadcasting the realities within their territories, bringing international visibility to the threats and challenges they face. The activists and filmmakers of The Territory are currently building a training center inside the Uru-eu-wau-wau land to hold courses and workshops on cinema, videos and related topics, Neidinha said. “We will have Indigenous people making their own films,” she said.

The Territory is available for streaming on Disney+.


Banner image: A framed photo of Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, who was killed in 2020. Ari was part of the territory’s surveillance team and regularly received death threats from land grabbers. However, the Federal Police ruled out his killing as being related to his land defense work. Image © Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau.

In Brazil, an Indigenous land defender’s unsolved killing is the deadly norm

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