CAMPO NOVO DE RONDONIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Ten days after Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office, dozens of men entered protected indigenous land in a remote corner of the Amazon, hacking a pathway beneath the jungle canopy.
Inspired by Bolsonaro’s vow to open more native territory to commercial development, the men, armed with machetes, chainsaws and firearms, had come to stake their claims.
A tense stand-off ensued with members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe, who captured the January confrontation on a cellphone video viewed by Reuters. The trespassers threatened to set fire to their villages to drive them out, tribal members said. Tribesmen readied poison-tipped arrows in their bows.
The invaders retreated. But a bullet-riddled sign at the entrance to their sprawling reservation now serves as their calling card.
The placard is emblazoned with the acronym FUNAI, a federal agency charged with protecting indigenous land rights that is widely loathed by agricultural interests.
“It was a warning that they are coming back,” Awip Puré Uru-eu-wau-wau, a 19-year-old tribal member, told Reuters a few weeks after the encounter in the northwestern state of Rondonia.
The confrontation is part of a surge of threats and illegal incursions that tribes and indigenous rights groups say have accompanied Bolsonaro’s rise to power.
Land invasions have increased 150 percent since he was elected in late October, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a Brazilian advocacy group.
On the night of Bolsonaro’s victory, a health post and a school were firebombed on Pankararu lands in northeastern Pernambuco state, CIMI reported. In midwestern Mato Grosso do Sul, the group said, convoys of farmers fired shots at the Guaraní Kaiowá community to intimidate the tribe.
Brazil is home to about 850,000 indigenous people representing roughly 300 tribes. Their vast reservations, accounting for about 13 percent of Brazil’s territory, have long been a source of conflict with outsiders looking to tap their natural riches.
Bolsonaro has railed against what he sees as excessive federal protections for these minorities. He compared natives on reservations to animals living in zoos, suggesting they would be better off assimilating and enjoying a cut of profits that could come from opening their holdings to farming, logging and mining. He has dismissed reservations as an impediment to agribusiness, one of his top supporters.
“If I become president, there won’t be one square centimetre of land designated for indigenous reservations,” he said at a 2017 campaign stop in the farm state of Mato Grosso.
Indigenous advocates say such rhetoric has stoked long-simmering resentment, putting native lives at risk.
“His campaign speeches ... became a license to invade indigenous lands,” said Ivaneide Bandeira, head of the ethno-environmental defence NGO Kanindé.
One of Bolsonaro’s first acts as president was to strip FUNAI of its role in setting reservation boundaries, passing that authority to the Agriculture Ministry, which is dominated by rural interests.
The official now in charge of land issues is Nabhan Garcia, a right-wing farming organizer who has fought reservations for decades.
“The amount of reservation land is monstrous and it’s in the hands of very few Indians today,” Garcia said in an interview with Reuters.
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The Uru-eu-wau-wau were decimated by illness when farmers arrived in the 1970s with the opening of a road through Rondonia.
Today, their 150 survivors live on a reservation covering 1.9 million hectares near the border with Bolivia. It is an area larger than the U.S state of Connecticut.
While some tribal members wear jeans and use cellular phones bought with government welfare payments and sales of Brazil nuts and cassava flour, they live largely as their ancestors did, hunting tapirs and wild boar.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau have faced invasions by illegal loggers and farmers before. But January’s trespassers were different: They painted numbers on trees spaced out in precise intervals of 60 hectares (148 acres), a sign they were staking out plots for sale to future settlers.
The tribe called an emergency assembly of its six villages in late January. Chiefs and warriors painted their bodies, put on headdresses of macaw fathers and performed a war dance. They wrote a letter pleading for government protection, warning they would resort to their bows and arrows if forced to.
“We need this land and its forest trees standing to survive as a people,” Tangae Uru-eu-wau-wau, a village leader, told Reuters.
The assembly was attended by FUNAI’s new boss Franklimberg Ribeiro, a retired army general of Amazon Indian descent. He assured the Uru-eu-wau-wau his agency would protect their land.
“We will take action to stop these invasions,” Ribeiro told Reuters after meeting the tribal chiefs.
But weeks later, no one has been punished and the Uru-eu-wau-wau fear the worst.
The tribe shared their cellphone images with Brazil’s Federal Police, who caught one suspect trespassing on their land. But a judge refused to issue an arrest warrant.
Authorities said they are still looking for David Elias da Silva, a local farmer they allege led the January invasion.
Reuters visited his home just outside the reservation. His wife Suely declined to disclose his whereabouts. She said he was innocent and blamed tribesmen for the unrest.
“The Indians don’t work. They don’t do anything. And that is the cause of all this trouble,” she said.
Conflicts with illegal miners and loggers have intensified in the Amazon region states of Pará and Maranhão, FUNAI said. With law enforcement stretched thin, some tribes have formed armed militias to protect their lands.
Court fights are brewing too. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution guarantees tribes rights to their ancestral lands.
The Brazilian Socialist Party, the PSB, on Jan. 31 filed a case with the Supreme Court challenging Bolsonaro’s decision to give the Agriculture Ministry authority to determine reservation boundaries. The high court has yet to rule.
Bolsonaro’s plan to assimilate Brazil’s indigenous people is a reversal of federal policy protecting their habitat, languages and customs, according to Cleber Buzzatto, the executive secretary of CIMI, the advocacy group. He fears the changes could lead to ethnocide.
Ethnographer Sydney Possuelo, a leading authority on isolated tribes, is worried too.
In December, he was in the Javari Valley reservation in the far west of Brazil, a region home to the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world. Locals told Possuelo they had seen several hundred armed “white” men in boats enter the reservation on the Javari River, where they poached fish and turtles, cut down trees and prospected for minerals.
One night, some of them opened fire on the small FUNAI station built on the reservation. They were repelled by four policemen who happened to be there on an annual visit. FUNAI agents who spoke to Reuters confirmed the attack. No arrests were made.
“The situation of Brazil’s indigenous people has never been very good. But in 42 years working in the Amazon, this is the most dangerous moment I’ve seen,” Possuelo said by telephone.
“Loggers, miners, hunters, fishermen who invade reservations think the president is on their side now,” he said.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Ueslei Marcelino; Additional reporting by Jake Spring in Brasilia; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marla Dickerson