Indigenous Pataxó demand land demarcation amid rising violence and murders

Indigenous Pataxó demand land demarcation amid rising violence and murders

  • The Pataxó Indigenous people in southern Brazil are experiencing a renewed wave of violence and orders to leave their communities after they began reoccupying part of their traditional lands last summer.
  • They are looking to see if and how the new administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva can curb violence, mitigate land conflicts and demarcate their lands while standing up to powerful economic interests in the region, as state and local authorities are connected to the recent murders and violence.
  • Without formal demarcation, agribusiness, ranching, eucalyptus and real estate development continue to encroach on their lands, which are in a legal limbo.
  • The new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has created a crisis desk to help deal with the escalating violence after two more Indigenous youth were killed in early 2023, but the Pataxó leaders say little has changed and they live in a state of constant threats and tension.

PRADO, Bahia — Eliane de Oliveira Conceição heard the roar of gunfire before she could see who was firing. In the early hours of daylight, she could make out three vehicles that slowly approached the farm and opened fire indiscriminately. She darted for a place to hide. Several feet away, her 14-year-old son, Gustavo Conceição da Silva, took cover behind a concrete wall, but the bullets pierced the barrier and killed him. It wasn’t until one of the rounds ricocheted off a steel gate back at the assailants that they retreated, speeding off as quickly as they had arrived.

“That’s when they finally backed off because they came to kill us all,” she said.

The farm where this attack occurred in September lies in one of around two dozen plots of land that members of her Indigenous group, the Pataxó, have reclaimed from wealthy ranchers in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Last week, a state judge filed repossession orders against three of these reoccupations that will effectively evict the Pataxó, intensifying the violence that has been escalating against Indigenous people in the south of Bahia, which has claimed the lives of three Pataxó youth.

The crisis the Pataxó are facing adds to growing pressure on President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples to demarcate Indigenous lands and solidify protections for Indigenous people in Brazil. Whether or not the new ministry can curb violence and mitigate the land conflicts will be a test in standing up to powerful moneyed interests that pervade regional politics, as state and local authorities have been connected to recent murders and violence in the region.

Eliane de Oliveira Conceição, the mother of the first Pataxó to be killed in the most recent wave of violence against the Pataxó, says she believes justice will not be served until Pataxó lands are formally demarcated. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.
Eliane de Oliveira Conceição holds the only remaining picture of her son, Gustavo.
Eliane de Oliveira Conceição holds the only remaining picture of her son, Gustavo, who was killed in September in an attack on the farm that he had helped reoccupy. He holds a sign in this picture that says, “The Pataxó ask for help.” Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

The Pataxó were among the first Indigenous people to encounter the Portuguese and have since been dispossessed of all but a few small remaining areas of their ancestral land. The state-run company, Brasil Holanda de Industria S.A., cleared thousands of hectares of native Atlantic forest, one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions where the Pataxó lived, effectively evicting them and giving much of the cleared land to cattle ranchers and farmers. The state then declared one of the remaining swaths of Atlantic Forest that the Pataxó occupied as a national park, forcing them to resettle. They have been awaiting formal demarcation of the two largest Indigenous territories, Barra Velha do Monte Pascoal and Comexatiba, in the south of Bahia where Conceição da Silva lived.

Although the federal agency responsible for demarcating Indigenous territories, the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (Funai) has already declared both as Indigenous territories, which grants them certain constitutional rights, several additional steps have to happen for the land to be officially handed over to the Pataxó in a legally binding way.

Now, real estate developments, multinational agribusiness and farmers continue to encroach on their land.

A cow grazes on pasture overlapping the Comexatiba Indigenous Territory with Mount Pascoal in the background.
A cow grazes on pasture overlapping the Comexatiba Indigenous Territory with Mount Pascoal in the background. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

“Land-grabbing and the tourism industry are the biggest threats to the Pataxó,” Paulo Lugon Arantes, an international consultant for the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), told Mongabay. The Pataxó territories overlap not only with eucalyptus plantations sold to multinational companies, cattle, pepper and other crops, but also with multimillion-dollar beachfront properties in one of the last relatively pristine coastal areas in Bahia.

“We experience a lot of violence from the agribusiness on our land,” Mãdy Pataxó, a leader who has helped reoccupy several farms, told Mongabay when we visited the Comexatiba Indigenous Territory in February. “This irregular urbanization process has been killing our people — drug trafficking, drugs, rape, robbery, law violations, thief, violence, heavy mortality. This has been disqualifying and mischaracterizing our territory.”

President Lula’s administration has stated that it will work to defend Indigenous people’s rights and has made important steps toward that promise. He created the country’s first Ministry of Indigenous Peoples under the helm of Sonia Guajajara, who in January established a crisis desk to deal with the increased violence toward the Pataxó. But the strategy required to address this crisis differs from other crises the new ministry is also dealing with, like the Yanomami who have been poisoned by illicit mining in a remote territory.

A Pataxó woman draws ritual markings on her face using her phone.
A Pataxó woman draws ritual markings on her face using her phone. For decades, the Pataxó have been the target of a disinformation campaign that has tried to paint them as “inauthentic” Indigenous. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

Lula administration put to the test

Defending against these aggressions boils down to having legal grounds for claiming the land belongs to them. “What we need is this: demarcation and security and that the federal government direct its gaze towards us,” said Chief Mãdy Pataxó, a key leader involved in the land recovery efforts.

Demarcation is the key demand from Indigenous people on Lula’s government across Brazil. With it, many of the existing legal challenges faced by the Pataxó would be halted or even reversed.

“Local judges have been giving eviction orders to the Pataxó, but once demarcated, they will be required to give eviction orders against the invaders,” says Lugon Arantes. “It will be a consolidated victory. Won’t be easy, but victory will be irreversible.”

While the two southernmost Pataxó territories have had their boundaries determined and have been identified as Indigenous, they still hang in legal limbo. For the Comexatibá Territory, Funai still has to respond to the objections made by farmers and business owners in 2015 before the formal demarcation process can progress. But Barra Velha do Monte Pascoal has gone through all legal hurdles and awaits the final document that would give full control of the territory to the Pataxó: a declaratory ordinance signed by President Lula.

Chief Patiburi Pataxó stands on the beach of the reclaimed Quero-Ver community.
Chief Patiburi Pataxó stands on the beach of the reclaimed Quero-Ver community. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

According to Chief Patiburi Pataxó, leader of Quero-Ver village in the Barra Velha Territory, that letter could be coming out at any time — potentially in a matter of weeks.

This has not prevented a state judge in Bahia from ordering the repossession of Quero-Ver and two other Indigenous reoccupations in mid-March, siding with farmers and ordering the Pataxó communities to leave their land again. The Pataxó people and the Union Public Defender’s Office have appealed to the courts against the rulings, which they fear could further intensify the violence in the region.

According to Lethicia Reis, a lawyer at CIMI who represents one of the communities, that decision violates a concept enshrined in the Brazilian constitution called Indigenato, which recognizes the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to use their ancestral lands and the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court.

Former President Jair Bolsonaro attempted to undermine many of those rights and stalled the demarcation of Indigenous territories by refusing to formalize any new Indigenous land, labeling their protection a barrier to economic growth. Around a third of the 722 Indigenous territories in Brazil hang in a middle ground without official recognition by the state, leaving them susceptible to land-grabbing, agricultural development and real estate speculation.

A Pataxó youth walks by a freshly painted sign on a piece of reoccupied land.
A Pataxó youth walks by a freshly painted sign on a piece of reoccupied land. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

With little sign of advancement throughout the years, the Pataxó have turned to a different tactic; last summer they began occupying and reappropriating areas from which they were historically expelled.

In June, 180 Pataxó retook the Santa Barbara farm dominated by eucalyptus monoculture, the first of several reoccupations that ushered in a wave of brutal violence against their communities. In August, gunmen opened fire on one of their schools in Barra Velha. The following month, the ambush that resulted in Gustavo’s murder occurred in Comexatiba, and just days later, armed assailants attacked the Pataxó community of Aldeia Nova. On Dec. 27th, gunmen invaded the community of Quero-ver, near Corumbau. In January, two other Pataxó youth were killed, gunned down on a highway while driving back to a reoccupation site in the Barra Velha Territory. Their deaths happened just a matter of weeks after assassins had invaded another nearby community in the territory.

Gustavo Conceição da Silva was the first of three Pataxó youth to be killed in a period of five months. A month before his murder, Conceição da Silva posted a photo on social media with a sign that read: “The Pataxó ask for help.” It is the only picture that de Oliveira Conceição still has of her son.

“They threw away a part of me, a part of our tribe,” Oliveira Conceição told Mongabay. “Every day that passes, we get more fervent with the will to not lose anyone again. I feel like screaming so that people hear the Indigenous cause. That they know Indigenous people have rights.”

Agriculture, ranching, and eucalyptus plantations occupy much of the TI Comexatiba
Agriculture, ranching, and eucalyptus plantations occupy much of the TI Comexatiba. By one estimate, eucalyptus covers 800,000 hectares of land in Bahia, much of it destined for the international pulp and paper market. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

The Pataxó have sought help through multiple channels to end the immediate violence against them and speed up the demarcation process. The Indigenous Federation of the Pataxó and Tupinambá Nations of the Extreme South of Bahia (Finpat), requested in writing that authorities provide security for the Indigenous people. Last fall, Mãdy Pataxó traveled to Europe with a delegation that visited various human rights and racial equity bodies of the U.N., asking for international support. In January, the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and several other organizations requested action from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) demanding the protection of the Pataxó people. That same month, the new minister of Indigenous peoples, Sonia Guajajara, created a crisis office to monitor the Pataxo situation in addition to the one dedicated to the humanitarian crisis of the Yanomami people in the Amazon.

But the Pataxó say that on the ground, little has changed, and most still live in fear of perpetual attacks and violence.

Some of the violence can be attributed to the hangover from the previous president. “We are still feeling the echo of the Bolsonaro government, where attacks against Indigenous people were structurally encouraged,” CIMI’s Lugon Arantes said.

Other measures face road blocks by state officials, Indigenous organizations told Mongabay.

“Because of the escalation of violence in Bahia, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples asked the national force to be sent there to protect them,” said Edson Krenak, Brazil’s program director for Cultural Survival. But the state governor, who has the ultimate say, has not allowed for the national force to come in.

Mãdy Pataxó.
Mãdy Pataxó says he has received repeated, anonymous death threats for his involvement in the land reoccupations, claiming there is a bounty on his head of more than $30,000. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

State and local authorities have been connected to the recent murders. Three MPs were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Conceição da Silva’s death in October. And on Jan. 30, Laércio Maia Santos, suspected of killing two Indigenous Pataxó youth in Itabela as they were returning to a reoccupation in the Barra Velha Indigenous Territory, presented himself to the police in Teixeira de Freitas. He is a Military Police soldier who provided private security services in the region.

Ultimately, the Pataxó and experts say that formal demarcation is the only lasting solution to what for many Pataxó seems like never-ending waves of violence.

Just this weekend, Chief Patiburi Pataxó and several other members of the Quero-Ver village were harassed by a group of men brandishing guns and threatening them when they left to get food.

“We need action, we want to know what we are going to do,” Chief Patiburi told Mongabay in a voice message. “Our people don’t sleep anymore; our people don’t eat anymore; we’re scared to even take a moment to drink. The situation is not good.”

Banner image: Chief Patiburi Pataxó stands on the beach of the reclaimed Quero-Ver community. Image by Hanna Wallis for Mongabay.

See related:

Murders of 2 Pataxó leaders prompt Ministry of Indigenous Peoples to launch crisis office

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