8,100-square-mile indigenous reserve recognized in Brazilian Amazon

  • There are 462 government-declared Indigenous Lands (TIs) in Brazil, but of these only 8 percent have been demarcated, a boundary-marking process vital to preventing and to prosecuting illegal incursions by land grabbers, loggers, miners and other outsiders.
  • On 19 September the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI on the border of Pará and Amazonas state received Ministry of Justice approval for demarcation of its 2.1 million hectares (8,108 square miles). However, drastic budget cuts at FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, leaves the date at which the demarcation process will begin unknown.
  • At least 18 different indigenous groups live within the remote Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI, including four isolated uncontacted groups. In the 1960s, the Brazilian government removed many indigenous people forcibly from the region, transporting them in Air Force planes. Some returned, walking all the way back to their home territory.
  • Indigenous advocates, and indigenous people living in the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI, worry that the growing political strength of the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress will result in the abolishment of FUNAI and prevent the demarcation process from ever happening. But they remain hopeful.
At least 18 indigenous groups live within the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI. Pictured are some of the Kaxuyana people. Other indigenous groups that live in the territory include the Tunayana, Kahyana, Hixkariyana, Txikiyana, Xereu, Xowyana and Katuwena, as well as four isolated uncontacted groups. Image by Mario Vilela / FUNAI.

The Brazilian government has declared 462 traditionally occupied Indigenous Lands (TIs), but only 8 percent of these reserves have been demarcated, legally protecting them from land grabbers, loggers, ranchers, miners and farmers. Among the remaining 92 percent still fighting for recognition of their indigenous territory borders as guaranteed under the 1988 Constitution is the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI, in the heart of the Amazon.

In September, persistence and a bit of luck finally paid off, as the Ministry of Justice issued a decree officially establishing permanent land ownership, and giving a go-ahead for the demarcation of the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI – covering 2.1 million hectares (8,108 square miles) on the border between Pará and Amazonas states.

Fifteen years had passed since indigenous leaders first made their formal request for TI demarcation to FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency – a frustratingly lengthy approval period not untypical of that experienced by other indigenous territories.

Political conflicts during those years caused most of the delay, but the process had the help of the Federal Public Ministry of Pará, a government body of independent litigators, which intervened every time the FUNAI approval process stalled.

A remote Kaspakuru village along the banks of the Trombetas River. Image by Denise Fajardo / Iepé Institute.

Finally in May, FUNAI submitted its Circumstantial Identification and Delimitation Report (RCID), that finalized the TI’s legitimacy with the Justice Ministry. But the ministry’s final okay of demarcation might have been delayed far longer September had it not been for a chance meeting in July between Luis Donizete, executive coordinator of the Institute of Research and Indigenous Formation (Iepé), and Torquato Jardim, Minister of Justice, at a United Nations indigenous rights event in Geneva.

Donizete took the opportunity to ask Jardim if any TI declarations would be approved by the ministry in 2018. Jardim replied that the government had to clarify some issues with the Attorney General’s Office (AGU), as it was challenging the signing of indigenous declarations.

The Iepé coordinator argued that the recognition of the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI was not impacted by the AGU’s concerns, and asked the justice minister to receive a delegation of indigenous representatives to plead the group’s case. After analyzing the evidence, Jardim signed the decree on 19 September.

“There are no invasions, disputes or demonstrations against the demarcation of the TI that would justify the non-signing of the declaration. There are also no infrastructure project requests. This is a rare case in the Amazon region,” Angela Kaxuyana, a Kaxuyana-Tunayana leader told Mongabay.

One reason for the lack of conflicting land claims with outsiders is the remoteness of the Kaxuyana-Tunayana; waterfalls and other natural barriers block easy access. Still, there is rising commercial interest in the indigenous territory, said Denise Fajardo, an anthropologist at Iepé and a member of the technical group that carried out the identification and delimitation studies of the TI. “The mayor of Nhamundá [in Amazonas state], for instance, has been trying to co-opt indigenous leaders to explore [the possibility of] gravel [mining] in the southern portion of the TI.”

A Tunayana leader (left) and a Kahyana leader. A direct appeal by indigenous leaders to Brazilian Justice Minister Jardim helped move their request for TI demarcation forward this Summer. Image by Denise Fajardo / Iepé Institute.

Demarcation date left in limbo

The September ministerial declaration instructs FUNAI to move forward with the demarcation of the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI. However, with the agency’s budget cut by half by the Temer administration, no one can say when the process will begin.

“FUNAI is not demarcating any land today, the agency itself is in a vulnerable situation, which weakens our security as indigenous people,” said Kaxuyana, a representative of the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), the nation’s largest indigenous advocacy alliance. “The [continuing] existence of FUNAI depends on the current political scenario, and we fear that the bancada ruralista, [the politically powerful agribusiness lobby] with its goal to extinguish the agency, will end the land regularization process of the TIs.”

At least 18 different indigenous groups live within the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI, including four isolated uncontacted groups. While the reserve’s name refers only to the Kaxuyana and Tunayana, other peoples, including the Kahyana, Hixkariyana, Txikiyana, Xereu, Xowyana and Katuwena, have long been living in the region, said Fajardo – despite attempts to eject them by Brazilian authorities in the past.

“Many indigenous [groups] were forcibly removed from their lands in the late 1960s [under the Brazilian military dictatorship] and taken to other parts. Thirty years later, the Kaxuyana began to walk back along the Oiapoque River from Tumucumaque Mountains National Park, where they were living,” said Fajardo.

The Cachorro (Dog) River, a tributary of the Trombetas River, in Pará state. The region’s isolation and difficulty of access have largely protected it from illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers. Though recently interlopers have begun showing interest in exploiting the lands within the Kaxuyana-Tunayana TI. Image by Ruben Caixeta.

The anthropologist, who began her research work in Tumucumaque, in the extreme north of Pará state in the 1990s, recalls her surprise when she was told stories by families who had been transported away from their traditional homes on a Brazilian Air Force plane. “They felt foreign in the new place, and were told they would never go back to their homeland. But the dream of returning was great and touching, and eventually they started traveling back, finding some old relatives and the land virtually intact,” she said.

Angela Kaxuyana sees the TI demarcation declaration as an important milestone, especially in light of the socio-environmental legal setbacks posed by the Temer administration. The Justice Ministry’s September decision, she said, “made us gain strength and believe again that the state itself, and therefore the Brazilian nation, recognizes it has a debt to indigenous peoples.”

Correction: An extra zero was inadvertently added to the original title of this story, so that it incorrectly read “81,000-square-miles”. It has been corrected to read “8,100-square-miles.”

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A scene inside the indigenous Kaxuyana village of Chapéu. Image by Mario Vilela / FUNAI.

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