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Amazonas: Brazil’s Indians under threat from land grabs


At the end of last year angry inhabitants of Humaitá  in the state of Amazonas invaded the Tenharim indigenous reserve, accusing them of kidnapping three non-indigenous men, a charge that the indians vehemently deny. Read more about this here. The article below, published by Pública and translated into English for LAB by Marianne Arake, gives the background to this conflict.

“Kill an indigenous man to get an indigenous woman”*

Violence against indigenous peoples is as old as the illegal occupation of public land. Indigenous peoples are claiming compensation for the damages and the deaths caused since the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway.  The history of the conflict in the municipality of Humaitá is intertwined with the history of the BR-230 – the Trans-Transamazon Highway Amazonian Highway. The highway cuts through Amazonas state and through territory occupied by indigenous populations. 4,223 kilometres in length it was opened in 1972 by the dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici. Now the Tenharim people want to reveal more details of this past, as they told Pública, on January 3rd. In Humaitá, the whites (non-indigenous people) are also familiar with what happened but they would rather remain anonymous when discussing the violence that occurred at the time. “Many men came to the region to work on the highway”, says one of the interviewees, “So, the ones who wanted a woman had to kill an indigenous man to get an indigenous woman”. Augustinho Tenharim tells us a lot more than that. He speaks in his own native language and his brothers Zelito and Aurélio translate for us. “There was a massacre here. There were 10,000 Tenharim once, and now we are just over 200. Some indigenous people worked as slaves on the construction of the highway and some were paid in food parcels. The workers would take indigenous women and return them after 15, 20, 30 days. And, for me, what is happening now is the same kind of thing”, he says, with regard to the hostility they have been suffering since the disappearance of three whites on December 16th. “It is a very critical moment and I fear for my grandchildren and relatives. I thought this was never going to happen again”, laments the old man. This historical record explains why the courts decided that they should be paid compensation and why, until this happens, the Indians are charging what whites are calling a ‘toll’ on the Transamazon Highway. “We will never brazil-humaitaget compensation for the lives we lost and for coming close to extinction”, says chief Aurélio Tenharim. Another important point highlighted by the Tenharim is that along  the entire length of the Transamazonian Highway, the only place where the forest is completely and visibly preserved is in the indigenous territory. “The government has never had any policies for the development of the indigenous peoples. We are the protectors of the Amazon”, he adds.  Anthropologist Edmund Peggion, a lecturer at UNESP (São Paulo State University) in Araraquara, studied the Tenharim for both his Masters and his Doctorate. He says that, in relation to the massacre which occurred during the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, there is no exaggeration at all in the testimonies of the Tenharim. Aurélio Tenharim also brought up the massacre during a public debate with the military commander for the Amazon region, general Eduardo Villas Bôas. The anthropologist also confirms that the original population of 10,000 Tenharim was decimated. The population, which had dropped to just over 100 at the time of the inauguration of the highway, increased to 180 in the 1980s, and from 1993 to 1996, when Peggion was doing his Masters, to 300. In 2002, Peggion was in put in charge of marking out the indigenous territory,and he is now one of the few voices to speak out and defend the Tenharim against the current rumours and accusations. The lecturer believes the Tenharim had nothing to do with the disappearance of the three men. “They would have taken responsibility for it”, he says. “We are warriors, we take responsibility for our actions and we had nothing to do with this disappearance”, said the message written by Angelisson Tenharim on December 27th, sent from the military quarters in Humaitá where he is being held. The anthropologist also rejects the argument that the Tenharim have been “assimilated” [to the culture and customs of whites]. “They have quite high self esteem”, he explains. “They follow traditional rituals and the majority are bilingual. They speak Portuguese and their own language with their parents and relatives. Given everything they went through, they are currently in a stable situation in terms of their culture and their numbers.” Peggion was taken by surprise and feels apprehensive with regards to the disappearance of the men. He sees a correlation between the hostility with which people reacted to the situation and the old paradox that marks the relationship between the indigenous population and the white men. “Either they are regarded as savages, when they are accused of avenging deaths, or they are portrayed as assimilated and therefore not as Indians at all.” In the latter case, he says, it is regarded as an injustice that they have been awarded land.”

In Humaitá, indigenous origins fade away

The 2010 census identified 44,227 people in Humaitá – 883 in the Tenharim land of Marmelos and only 22 in the Tenharim land of Igarapé Preto. The majority of the population declared themselves of mixed race: 30,340 (68%), even though it is evident from their appearance that they are descended from Indians. Only 1,588 declared themselves indigenous and all of these live in households with a combined income of less than 10 times the mininum wage. The municipality of Humaitá started and grew around the Madeira River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon River. It is 3,240 kilometres long and its name — madeira means wood — comes from the fact that the river flows so fast that it carries trees and trunks with it as it flows. The main church, flanked by the mayor’s office and the local council chambers, is immediately opposite the river, as is the image of Humaitá’s patron saint, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The town’s waterfront underwent some improvements in 2012.  Next to the image of the saint, there is now a plaque with the names of President Dilma Roussef and Governor Omar Aziz. The town’s economy relies partly on fishermen and miners and partly on the civil service and  micro-businesses. There is an impressive number of small bars and grocery shops;  but, with no industry, there are very few employment opportunities. Motorcycles are the main means of transport, but recent police blitzes have had an effect on the traffic and today there are far fewer bikes and cars on the streets than there were at the end of last  year.  Tenharim indians charging a tollThere are no rich quarters in Humaitá. According to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 616 families earn half the minimum wage; 2,136 earn the minimum wage and 2,599 twice the minimum wage. The richest households – 283 families – have an income of ten times the minimum wage. They all co-habit the same space, in a town that lacks even basic sanitation. They spend their salaries either in Porto Velho or Manaus (205 km and 675 km away, respectively). They are not afraid to walk around wearing gold necklaces or bracelets, most of which will have been bought illegally. In Porto Velho, however, things are a little different: there Pública spoke with the wife of a military man, who was trying to sell 100 grams of gold. She recognised that she was engaging in an illegal activity and complained  that “the soldiers are really strict about this”. The military presence in the region is important. It was fundamental during the conflict between the residents and the indigenous people, as they protected the Tenharim against the violence. The highway out of Humaitá to Porto Velho, along which a bus service or passenger van is planned, is maintained by the Army. Some people claim that, without the presence of the 54th Battalion of the Rainforest Infantry, the current conflicts would have started a long time ago. It was only in 2012 that the Cooperative of Miners of the Amazon obtained permission to sell the gold that comes from the Andes down the rivers that flow into the Madeira. The indigenous people are not allowed to engage in mining activity, and indeed the current conflict has very little to do with mining; the main groups involved are cattle farmers and loggers, backed by local businessmen, some of them farmers themselves. This is not the first time that Humaitá has witnessed an uprising. There was a major unrest in the town in 1991, unrelated to the hostility felt towards the indigenous people. The then mayor uncovered and reported a corruption scheme; he named the people involved and suffered a backlash. He was ostracised and his car was torched in his garage, recalls logger Nelson Vanazzy. “People got carried away, just as is happening now, the mayor’s office was invaded, they burned things inside, but to be honest, I don’t think the people who did it intended that, they were just trying to destroy some sort of evidence”, he laughs.

Politics and business: the recipe of the elite

Business and politics walk hand in hand in Humaitá: it is very common for people with money to become politicians. The current mayor of Humaitá, Dedei Lôbo, is in his second term and he is also a farmer. He owns cattle, everyone in town knows that and yet he has not declared any livestock in his return to the Electoral Justice. He failed to declare his assets in 2008, when he ran for office for the first time. At that time he declared he was a schoolteacher with assets totalling R$77,000 (£20,000). He also failed to declare his livestock in 2012; this time his assets R$561,000, an increase of 729%. Pública tried several times, unsuccessfully, to obtain an interview with him. The mayor of Apuí, Admilson Nogueira (DEM), who according to the Tenharim is one of the main instigators of the violence in Humaitá, has declared ownership of three plots of rural land in 2012, valued at R$200,000, and brazil-humaitia-admilson-nogueira-images40 head of cattle, totalling $R400,000. In 2008 the total of his assets was R$138,000. The Tenharim also mention town councillor Irmão Dirlan (DEM) as one of the leaders in the uprising in Humaitá. We tried to contact several politicians in their houses during the Christmas period but we were informed that they were away, some of them on their farms. The lawyer who represents the families of the men who disappeared, Carlos Terrinha also stood in the  town councillor elections in 2012 as a candidate for PDT, but didn’t win. He represents many loggers. Aurélio Tenharim tells us that he doesn’t know of any local politicians who support the indigenous people, and that since the end of the year he has only received two phone calls from members of parliament, one from state representative Sidney Leite (Pros-AM) and one from federal representative Padre Ton (PT-RO), who is also the coordinator of the Parliamentary Body for the Support of Indigenous Peoples. The others have only contacted the Tenharim through their press officers. The Tenharim are very critical of the current government. “Dilma’s term has had the highest number of indigenous deaths since the military dictatorship”, says Amarildo Tenharim. “When the indigenous people protest, she sends in the National Guard or the Military Police (PF). The PF kills indigenous people. Our autonomy in health was scrapped. All these bad things have happened since she’s been in office; she doesn’t have any dialogue with the indigenous organisations. Politicians representing rural landowners were received in her office in Brasília 20 days after she took office. We have never been allowed in”, he says. According to the chief, politicians perceive the indigenous people as a barrier to the development of the country, Amarildo mentions the PEC 215, a constitutional amendment currently being debated in Congress, which transfers to members of parliament, including the infamous rural bloc, responsibility for the demarcation of new indigenous territory. “Our constitution should be for all of us”, he says. “People say we have many privileges, but in reality there are only two articles in the constitution that protect us. And the Rural Bloc want to scrap article 232.” This article recognise the indigenous peoples, their communities and organisations as legal entities that are allowed to go to court to defend their rights and interests. In Humaitá, former town councillor Cição – who was interviewed together with Tonico, in the hotel – owns 195 hectares of rural land. He was a town councillor from 1997 to 2000, when he resigned. “To be elected you have to buy your votes”, he says. His farm is located in Santo Antonio do Matupi, a Manicoré district with direct links to Humaitá, at km 180 of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. There he rears cattle and plants cassava. His land was originally a settlement owned by the National Institute for Agriculture Reform (INCRA) for plots of land no bigger than 60 hectares. Cição defends the Rural Bloc and says that the farmers are the ones who feed the country. “There are only 900,000 indigenous people in Brazil and they are humiliating the rest of Brazilians by remaining savages.” The Tenharim accuse him of being one of the instigators of hostilities against the indigenous people in the area. Cição warns defiantly, “If a white gets killed, we’ll retaliate.”

One third of illegal occupations 

A 2001 report presented by the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) responsible for investigating the illegal occupation of public land in Amazonas state, shows that, out of the 157 million hectares owned by the state, 55 million were illegally occupied. The registry offices in Humaitá, Manicoré and Canutama were identified as “regularly registering illegal plots of land”. In Manicoré 682,000 hectares were ‘cancelled’ (registered), around 12% of the area. In Canutama, next to Porto Velho, 8.8 million hectares were cancelled, or 368% (sic!) of the area. This illegal occupation constitutes a sort of virtual parallel territory, where one plot of land overlaps another. The coordinator of the advance unit of INCRA in Humaitá, Maria Terezinha Leite, tells us that Santo Antonio do Matupi, one the hotspots during the Humaitá crisis, was initially a settlement and then it became a municipality. It is located on the left of the Trans-Amazonian Highway en route to Apuí. The occupation of this area, totalling 34,534 hectares, is completely illegal. The original settlers steadily moved away from their plots. It is unknown exactly how many there were, but Maria Luiza estimates that, out of 527 plots, only 50 – 10% – are still in the hands of the original beneficiaries. By law, the settlement areas cannot be sold but this is not respected. “Some of the plots have had five different owners,” she says. And it is the job of INCRA to notify all the current “owners” and tell them to leave. However, only 20 owners have been notified, and only because they happened to be at INCRA’s office for other reasons. INCRA simply does not have the infrastructure needed to carry out the correct procedures. More specifically, they lack the necessary security. The eviction orders in Matupi would require support from the federal police, because the workers fear for their safety. “It is impossible to serve an eviction order informing a person that he or she needs to vacate the property within 15 or 30 days without the presence of the police. The 20 people who received their notifications simply decided not to take any action. And nothing happened. “In this case, the responsibility lies with the Division of Settlements in Manaus,” she says. Maria has been the coordinator of the unit for the last ten years. She shows us a map of a settlement surrounded by land belonging to the Federal Union. However, this district is growing and the people  want to become a municipality. The area only started being surveyed in 2010, she tells us, and before that occupation was chaotic. In 2005, in Catanuma, there was a big problem with illegal land occupation, with people grabbing plots of 1,000 hectares or more. However, the federal police intervened in time and successfully curbed the occupations. The majority of people came from Rondonia. In her doctorate thesis, the researcher Viviane Vidal da Silva concluded that INCRA’s settlement was the main cause of the region’s deforestation. She discovered that each plot in the settlement had been responsible for 20% deforestation, the maximum allowed, and that the main reason was the change from agriculture to livestock. The Tenhari claim that “the 180” (km 180) even boasts a clandestine landing strip and that nobody does anything about it. The same scenario can be found at km 160 of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. A few days before the interview with Terezinha, our reporter was approached by a lobbyist who identified himself as a journalist. He said he had been operating in the area for last three decades and he was currently working to regularise plots of land. He told us a lot of stories and repeated many rumours. A couple of days later he decided to come clean about how he operates. “I dress quite nicely, put a suit on and everything. I go to INCRA’s offices and if the person says there is nothing he or she can do about it, I insist, invite him or her for a beer after work. Then I hand over some money and the land is regularised. There is no government here.” Or maybe there is. We saw a giant plaque in In Santo Antônio do Matupi, advertising road works and improvements in the town, totalling $R13.7 million (£3.4 million). It had the logo of the Amazonas state government and was financed by Banco do Brasil. 

The revolt of the loggers

It was also in Santo Antônio do Matupi that a revolt of loggers took place in 2011. A police action that resulted in the apprehension of two tractors, two pick-up trucks, a motorbike and 160 cubic metres of wood illegally extracted from Sepoti, a Tenharim village, was the catalyst for this conflict. It involved the loggers, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) inspectors and military police from the Environmental Police Batallion. They also confiscated guns and ammunition. During the conflict the loggers surrounded the IBAMA inspectors and confronted the police in an attempt to prevent their tractors from beinmg handed over to the indigenous people. After some negotiations they were taken to Apuí, but while they were being transported – via the Trans-Amazonian Highway – around 200 people blocked the road and demanded the tractors be left in Matupi. In the end, they were left at the headquarters of the Association of Rural Producers of Santo Antônio do Matupi. In 2009, during a meeting at the Municipal Town Hall of Humaitá, Nelson Vanazzi represented the loggers, who were temporarily prevented by a court order from extracting wood. The politicians present on the day brainstormed on how to deal with the situation, such as blocking roads and waterways, as a way of bringing attention to the problem. Nelson Vanazzi says that he has never extracted any wood from indigenous lands. This practice started to happen, “beyond km 180” – that is, beyond Santo Antônio do Macupi in Manicoré. Ivanildo Tenharim confirms that this problem is relatively recent. The problem is, he says, that “they ran out of trees to extract outside our territory, so now they come to our land to take the wood. “ A logger’s word brazil-humaita-nelson-venazziLogger Nelson Vanazzi is a controversial character; he was even arrested by the federal police during the logging boom. He received us in his office; on his desk, a copy of the bible and a notepad from Madecunha, a logging company based in Manaus. He told us, smiling nervously, that he was able to witness the conflicts over the Christmas period from the second floor of his house on the Trans-Amazonian avenue. Pública was later informed by Hildeberto Ferreira de Macedo, the coordinator of the 10th Notary Office, that every two-storey house in Humaitá contravenes planning regulations, perhaps even the house that belongs to the deputy-mayor. He declared owning a two-storey house to the Electoral Justice in 2008. Nelson Vanazzi’s property is 600 m2, 256 m2 of constructed area. The R$665,000 (£165,000) property was declared to the Electoral Justice in 2012, when he ran for the town council for the PT. Nelson, who was a town councillor from 1989-1992 for the PT and a deputy-mayor from 1997-2000 for the PRP, told us about a “worldwide environmental dictatorship”, that gets in the way of working in the forest and rearing cattle. He was originally an accountant from Paraná, where he owned 16 acres of land. In 1978 he moved to Amazonas  state to plant soya beans. He then started a tractor dealership and at one point he was handling 300 tons of wood a day. He told us that he once had 220 people working for him and at another time, 804 salaries to pay. He said that one day, he was visited by a team of 27 inspectors, carrying 13 machine guns, in an operation carried out by the federal police. He was placed under arrest for environmental crimes for a few days, but he attributes this to “bad luck”. He said it was the end of the year and his lawyer’s appeal was turned down. “Most of the land around here belongs to the federal government. It’s impossible to obtain an environmental licence to work on land that is not registered anywhere; the land is not yours,” he says. He said that when he first arrived at the Transamazonian Highway, he bought a plot of land of 6 km by 8 km where he cut wood with a chain saw. Him and his brother owned 6,000 hectares, when the late indianist Apoenã Rodrigues was fighting for the expansion of the indigenous territory. “We, 18 to 20 families, had to leave”. Vanazzi has had malaria 14 times. And he has bought more properties. He proudly told us that he owns 370,000 trees, spread over 1,007 hectares. “We are the second biggest reforestation project in the Amazon.” He spent a good part of our interview describing the trees, fruits and seeds native to the region in detail. “Jenipapo is a wonder. Jack fruit, chestnut, palm oil.” And what about an environmental licence, we ask? “I don’t have one, because the organisations in charge have no idea how to regularise our situation. And,” he adds, “Açai buyers are worse than loggers, because no one at all is monitoring what they are doing.” He has a strong opinion about the Tenharim. “Do they have to live in their indigenous villages for the rest of their lives? I can’t decide if it’s a revolution or a step backwards to take them away from their villages. Wouldn’t it be easier to give them some cows, instead of letting them hunt their deers or tapirs?” In his office, he points to an old INCRA map hanging on a shabby blue wall.  The map shows National Forests, known as Flonas, and the occupied plots of land. “If we had a Flona Humaitá”, he exclaims, “this could become a great logging centre!”. Nelson has other businesses including the only legal land settlement in Humaitá, the Boa Vista. It belongs to a real estate developer from Curitiba and Vanazzi is its legal representative. He has just bought 6,590 hectares of land from the owners of a rubber plantation, on the banks of the Madeira River. He then showed us a document issued by the Amazonas state government in 1908. He complained that his indigenous neighbours have occupied part of his land and says he has authorised 130 families to occupy the rest of the land, under a lease agreement where they are not required to pay for anything as long as they preserve the forest area. Vanazzi hopes he will be given this land, even though INCRA in Humaitá warns him that most documents issued by Amazonas state government are irregular.

South of the Amazon: the new kid on the block?

The region has also witnessed conflicts involving gold miners. In June 2012, 20 people were arrested at Km180 by IBAMA and by the  military police of the Environmental Police Battalion. It was named “Operation Sovereignty” and the miners were caught trying to extract gold from an area known as the ‘Garimpo (gold mine) of Km180″. Two months before, in Boca do Acre (in Amazonas state), also an agricultural and cattle farming frontier region, 40 policemen and 40 hired gunmen evicted 105 families from the Macapá rubber plantation, who were claiming that they were taking back the land that they once occupied. The area totalled 5,202 hectares. Federal deputy Janete Capiberibe (PSDB-AP) was the person who denounced what was going on. The president of the Association of Rubber Extractors, one of those evicted, told us that they had not been allowed to take anything with them and that “for months the children cried with hunger and we had to sleep on the floor with the dogs”. In Lábria, also in Amazonas state, seven people have been killed since 2007 in retaliation for reporting environmental and land ownership crimes. According to Janete Capiberibe, similar crimes have occurred in Manicoré and in Humaitá. Civil servants from both towns were threatened and prevented from registering plots of land belonging to farm workers and river communities. This shows how much stronger the state needs to be in that region. About a year and a half before the recent conflicts in Humaitá, Janete unsuccessfully tried to call a public meeting to discuss the conflicts in the south of Amazonas state. She was relying on the participation of Gilberto Carvalho, Maria do Rosário and José Eduardo Cardozo, as well as the president of INCRA, the president of IBAMA and the Secretary of Public Security for  Amazonas state. But the attempt failed and the tensions still persist in the whole region, not only in Humaitá. On January 2, IBAMA’s headquarters were open, but there was only a security guard present. The general manager was on holiday. The deputy manager was in Porto Velho. In fact, everyone in the office had gone to Porto Velho. We could see a confiscated tractor and confiscated wood in the patio. The original article in Portuguese  can be accessed here.

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