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Promise of full demarcation for isolated Amazon tribe rings hollow for some

A Kawahiva indigenous man fleetingly caught on film.

The last remaining Kawahiva people have become nomadic so as to be flee deeper into the forest when intruders arrive. Image by FUNAI.

  • The 23-year struggle to declare a territory for the isolated Kawahiva people of the Brazilian Amazon could finally conclude this year after the government announced the closing stages of the demarcation process will begin soon.
  • The physical demarcation will formally define the boundaries of the 412,000-hectare (1.02-million-acre) territory in Mato Grosso state, home to some 45-50 Kawahiva, which is a crucial step before a presidential declaration recognizing the Indigenous territory.
  • However, some Indigenous experts remain skeptical the territory will ever be fully demarcated in the face of ever-present delays and structural problems within the Indigenous affairs agency.
  • The territory sits within the “Arc of Deforestation” in the southern part of the Brazilian Amazon, which is slowly moving north as cattle ranchers, miners, loggers and soy growers clear forest for more land.

One of the final stages in demarcating the Amazonian territory of the isolated Kawahiva tribe is set to take place this year, Brazil’s Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has announced.

It’s taken nearly 23 years of work by Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, to mark off land for the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo territory in Mato Grosso state. But some Indigenous experts remain skeptical the territory will ever be demarcated in the face of constant delays and structural problems within Funai.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen,” Jair Candor, coordinator of the Funai unit that safeguards the Kawahiva, told Mongabay. “I don’t see any actions in favor of demarcation.”

Demarcation would grant the Indigenous territory formal recognition by the Brazilian government, and make it off-limits to loggers, miners, ranchers and development projects that could degrade the area’s resources. Indigenous rights advocates see the demarcation process as “essential” for the Kawahiva, a group of about 45-50 individuals who live in voluntary isolation from the rest of the world after reportedly facing a series of massacres by invaders over recent decades. They are the last survivors of the Kawahiva peoples, one of numerous groups who once occupied vast tracts of the Amazon Rainforest.

An abandoned Kawahiva camp.
An abandoned Kawahiva camp. Image by Funai.

On Aug. 8, 2023, the Supreme Federal Court ordered the government to “adopt all necessary measures” to fully protect territories that are home to isolated Indigenous peoples. The ruling gave officials 60 days to present an action plan for demarcation of these territories. This came after APIB, Brazil’s biggest association of Indigenous peoples, filed a complaint against the government’s failure to demarcate land, which they said constituted a violation of Brazil’s Constitution and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Details of this action plan, prepared by Funai’s department for isolated and recently contacted peoples, could not be provided for “confidentiality reasons,” according to the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. The next step of the process, physically demarcating the boundaries of the territory, is scheduled for this year.

Officials from some departments within Funai, like the territorial monitoring team and coordination units, told Mongabay they haven’t received a plan yet, though the 412,000-hectare (1.02-million-acre) tract of land is being continuously monitored by Candor’s team with additional support from the National Public Security Force.

A representative of the Funai team responsible for georeferencing and physically demarcating Indigenous lands, said the unit underwent restructuring in 2023 to be able to continue its work after being stalled for four years under the previous government of Jair Bolsonaro. As a result of the deliberate inaction under Bolsonaro, who vowed to not demarcate “one inch” of Indigenous land throughout his 2019-2022 presidency, “there are now more than 50 declared Indigenous lands awaiting georeferencing,” the Funai representative told Mongabay.

“It was not possible to carry out the physical demarcation of the Pardo River Kawahiva Indigenous Territory during this time,” they said.

However, the georeferencing and physical demarcation of the Kawahiva land is now considered a priority, the representative said. The paperwork is currently being prepared for a bidding process to hire a specialized company to help; the bidding is expected to go ahead in early 2024.

A road cutting through the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo territory.
A road cutting through the forest, marking the limit of the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo territory. Image by Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 BR).

An isolated group near an agribusiness frontier

The Kawahiva territory sits within the “Arc of Deforestation” in the southern part of the Brazilian Amazon, which is slowly moving north as cattle ranchers, miners, loggers and soy growers clear forest for more land. Also known as an “economic frontier” or “agribusiness frontier,” the arc region is also one of the most violent areas in the country.

In 2001, Funai began the long, bureaucratic process of setting up an Indigenous territory in this region in the northwest corner of Mato Grosso state, abutting on Rondônia state to its west and Amazonas state to its north. The Kawahiva territory is protected by temporary land protection orders to safeguard the lives and land rights of the uncontacted Indigenous peoples. These orders have been lifted and reinstated multiple times due to opposition from logging companies.

So far, the territory, conserved by the Kawahiva, is one of the green buffers in the northward expansion of deforestation.

The first few steps of the demarcation process have been completed, said Sarah Shenker, head of Survival International Brazil, which has been campaigning to demarcate the land. The process includes proving the existence of isolated peoples, a declaration of the land’s physical limits, and, finally, a presidential declaration. In 2016, Justice Minister Eugênio Aragão signed the decree granting permanent possession of the land to the Kawahiva, but that was just one step in the long demarcation process. Since then, Candor, his team and law enforcement have carried out several operations to evict non-Indigenous occupants from the area, said Laice Souza, Mato Grosso’s secretary of state for communication.

But the land is still frequently targeted by land grabbers and loggers who invade the territory through the neighboring Guariba-Roosevelt Extractive Reserve in Mato Grosso and the Guariba Extractive Reserve in Amazonas, causing deforestation and putting the existence of the isolated group at risk, according to APIB.

Although there was no deforestation on Kawahiva land in 2023, the Guariba-Roosevelt Extractive Reserve that borders the territory lost 1,885 hectares (4,657 acres), according to data presented to Mongabay by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.

“The area around Kawahiva land have been invaded very quickly,” Candor said. “We are concerned that these people will move into the Indigenous land soon.”

Jair Candor
Jair Candor is head of the Funai department that protects the Kawahiva. Image by Sarah Shenker / Survival International.

For Indigenous peoples living in isolation, one of the greatest dangers of contact with outsiders is their vulnerability to diseases common among the general population, according to Luciana Keller Tavares, Indigenous adviser at the Observatory of Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI).

“Whether through violence or disease, the presence of invaders in the territory is an imminent threat of genocide to Indigenous peoples in isolation,” she said.

After repeated attacks extending over decades by loggers, gold miners and ranchers, the Kawahiva people were frequently displaced and have since become nomadic so as to be flee deeper into the forest when intruders arrive. Candor said this has become a survival strategy to avoid contact with an encroaching industrial society.

André Manfredini, manager of the Boa Fé ranch that borders the Kawahiva Indigenous land on the Amazonas side, told Mongabay illegal miners and loggers have also been invading his property.

“We fully support the creation of the Kawahiva Indigenous territory because regularization of the reserve helps protect our property as well; it is good for both sides,” he said.

According to APIB, the situation has been made worse by the opening of a road in 2021, 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the Kawahiva territory, that connects the Guariba-Roosevelt and Guariba extractive reserves. This road was authorized in 2021 by municipal authorities in Mato Grosso and Amazonas. However, because the zones are marked as conservation areas, APIB said authorization should have come from the state and not the municipalities, effectively making the opening of the road illegal.

According to Souza, the Mato Grosso’s communications secretary, the state government “has never encouraged any illegal act and reinforces that it combats all crimes with zero tolerance.”

A sign discovered by Funai’s Ethno-Environmental Protection Front at the entrance to the Kawahiva territory that reads: “We don’t want to kill innocent, remove children.”
A sign discovered by Funai’s Ethno-Environmental Protection Front at the entrance to the Kawahiva territory that reads: “We don’t want to kill innocent, remove children.” Image by Funai.

Barriers in the way

Although some experts blame the Bolsonaro administration for stalling the demarcation process for the Kawahiva people, others also say the current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, hasn’t done enough to clear the way.

“Since 2016, when the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo Indigenous Territory had its declaratory ordinance issued, there has been no progress in land regularization,” Keller Tavares said. “The Lula government continues in the same vein as previous governments with regard to land regularization in the Kawahiva territory.”

In 2023, Lula signed declarations for eight Indigenous lands across the country, marking the first completed demarcations in six years. But that still leaves 765 Indigenous territories still stuck at various stages of the demarcation process.

According to Ministry of Indigenous Peoples data, Funai’s agents operate in 72 Indigenous lands in Brazil, covering a combined area of 77.2 million hectares (191 million acres), with not enough staff to handle the protection of all these lands, including the Kawahiva territory. Funai’s 11 Ethno-Environmental Protection Fronts (FPE), which protect and promote the rights of Brazil’s 114 recorded isolated peoples, have only 115 permanent employees. According to the ministry, these numbers imply that each FPE employee is responsible for the protection of around 670,000 hectares (1.66 million acres) of Indigenous lands — an area more than four times the size of the city of São Paulo.

In a technical note published by Funai in May, the agency said it’s “at the minimum limit of its operating capacity” and “the workforce of the decentralized units is below the minimum necessary for proper functioning.”

“The absence of budgetary and human resources, among a set of political-economic factors, is an outstanding reason to explain this historical institutional deficit,” the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples told Mongabay. “The preparation of a schedule for the resolution of this historic demand will only be possible with a real increase in the budget, with trained human resources, with the creation of new FPEs — demands that will only be resolved in a scenario of technical readjustment.”

In January 2023, Funai president Joenia Wapichana said in an interview that the agency was “in a state of deprivation,” as it had been given less than 90,000 reais ($18,400) to demarcate and protect Indigenous territories that year. It’s “an insufficient budget, totally precarious for the size of the obligation FUNAI must uphold by law,” she said.

Another issue is political pressure coming from big names in Mato Grosso’s agribusiness sector who have tried to stop the continuation of the Kawahiva demarcation process, Keller Tavares of OPI told Mongabay. In 2012, the state’s governor, Silval Barbosa, and the president of the state legislature, José Geraldo Riva, approached the justice minister to make the claim that there were no Indigenous Kawahiva peoples in the territory.

Before he was arrested in 2015 for money laundering and embezzlement of public funds, Riva owned a ranch inside the Kawahiva territory and was allegedly acquiring land from logging companies inside the territory. It was also revealed that the state environmental agency had licensed management plans to Riva’s family members in areas surrounding the territory. Barbosa was also arrested in 2015 and later convicted on charges of extorting bribes in exchange for issuing tax incentives.

“Currently, these political forces may be weaker, but they still have interests in rural property ownership in the region,” Ricardo Carvalho, an Indigenous rights campaigner and project coordinator with activist group Operation Native Amazon (OPAN), told Mongabay. “What worries me most at the moment is the advance on the surrounding Indigenous land. As far as I know, so far, nothing has been effective.”


Banner image: The last remaining Kawahiva people have become nomadic so as to be flee deeper into the forest when intruders arrive. Image by Funai.

The coveted legacy of the ‘Man of the Hole’ and his cultivated Amazon forest

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Scott Wallace, journalism professor at the University of Connecticut and National Geographic writer speaks about his New York Times best-selling book on the importance of protecting uncontacted Indigenous groups in the Amazon. Listen here:

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