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Brazil: Why land demarcation matters to indigenous people


This article was first published in Portuguese at “Autodemarcação no Tapajós” blog.

The so-called ‘demarcation’ (or marking out) of indigenous land is part of the administrative process in Brazil that leads to the official recognition of the territorial rights of indigenous populations. This process is conducted by the government, via FUNAI (the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples) and the Ministry of Justice.

The demarcation, which is a fundamental part of this bureaucratic process, means, in practice, clearing the border of the land being claimed and marking it out with posts, marks, milestones and boards, so that the territory is legally protected and it is made clear to all and sundry that the land is for the exclusive use of the indigenous people. However, in the vast majority of the cases in Brazil, these officially demarcated ‘indigenous lands’ only correspond to a fraction of the territory traditionally occupied by the indigenous people.


Territorial Rights of the Indigenous people today

Valter, Munduruku chief at Dace Watpu village, working on the Demarcation Mission

 Various economic and political interests prevent indigenous lands from being demarcated in Brazil. These include: large-scale mining projects, the increase in the number of so-called “ruralists” (politicians linked to the rural oligarchy) in the National Congress, the advance of agribusiness and the restarting of big infrastructure construction work under IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America) and PAC (Growth Acceleration Programme), of which a big part is financed by the Brazilian government. In practice, FUNAI no longer publish reports without the authorization of the Ministry of Justice and the President, or without consulting other potential stakeholders in the region. Indeed, FUNAI’s former president admitted that FUNAI is pressured by other interests in a video recorded by the Munduruku when they were talking to her (link needed). It is important to highlight, however, that this is irregular, since, according to the legislation, the identification of the land and the delimitation studies, as well as their publication, are the exclusive responsibility of FUNAI.

In addition, there have been attempts in the Brazilian Congress to stop indigenous peoples from getting their land demarcated. One — PEC 215, which would have transferred authority for the creation of indigenous land to Congress — was stopped just before Christmas 2014, as a result of national mobilisation. However, the PLP S/N, that will authorise companies to carry out activities in indigenous land, with the justification that these activities constitute a “relevant national interest”, is still making its way through Congress. Both projects were an attempt to worsen the living conditions of indigenous people so that their land would be put up for sale or become available for large infrastructure projects.

 This offensive has led to an increase in the number of land conflicts involving indigenous people, arbitrary arrests of indigenous leaders, evictions in areas occupied by indigenous group and even murder, as occurred in the village of Teles Pires (Munduruku land) and in the Buriti estate (Terena land), where two indigenous people were murdered during disastrous Federal Police interventions.

Situation in the Tapajós

The process of recognising territorial rights has been dragging on for years along the whole of the Tapajós river, leaving those populations vulnerable to invasions by miners and loggers, to infrastructure projects and to other forms of violation of the rights that the indigenous movement and their supporters have achieved through many years of struggle.

 Today, the situation is even more serious due to the interest of the Brazilian government and corporate capital in building the Tapajós hydroelectric complex and subsequently the Tapajós waterway, in order to reduce the cost of transporting grain for export. These projects represent a serious threat to the territories occupied by indigenous and traditional populations as well as peasant families in these areas. This situation is further exacerbated by the historical neglect of the state to provide for the basic needs of these populations, such as health and education.

1- Why have the indigenous groups opted for auto-demarcation (the initiative to demarcate their territories themselves)?

 The land demarcation action is a strategy in the indigenous process of resistance and the struggle to regain control over their territory, as well as being at the same time an initiative with a strong educational character, as it identifies the area of exclusive use and makes clear the resources in it and the problems with it, thus contributing to the process of managing the land. In practice, with the demarcation action, the indigenous groups have taken upon themselves the task of defining the territorial limits of their land and ensuring its possession.

 This resistance strategy has been used, usually successfully, by indigenous people in different contexts. For the Wajãpi in Amapá, the demarcation action initiated in 1994 with German support (more info here in Portuguese) was the conclusion of a ten-year recovery process of territory lost to mining. For the Tupinikin and Guarani peoples, in Aracruz, state of Espírito Santo, the demarcation process, initiated in 2006, was part of a struggle against the invasion promoted by Aracruz Cellulose of their territory, and also a way of pressuring the government to recognise their rights. For the Borari and Arapiuns people, along the river Maró (also in the Tapajós basin), the demarcation occurred in the midst of a conflict with loggers and it was effective in forcing FUNAI to recognize the indigenous land.

2) Auto-demarcation in the Tapajós

Daje Kapap Eypi territory

Here the indigenous people waited for 13 years for FUNAI to fulfill its duty and publish the report. Thirteen years of facing gold-mining, illegal logging and palm extraction, which destroyed their lands, their sacred places and their natural resources. Because of the refusal by the Brazilian government to recognise their territorial rights, mainly due to hydroelectric interests along the Tapajós river, the Munduruku began, in October 2014, to mark out themselves the Indigenous Land Sawré Muyubu, located next to Itaituba and within the area to be flooded for the São Luiz do Tapajós power station.

-Check out the video (in Portuguese) filmed by one of the Indians on his mobile phone, during a meeting with Maria Augusta Assirati, then president of Funai, recorded after a long journey to Brazil’s capital, Brasilia-

In this case, the process at Sawré Muybu has the two characteristics mentioned above – to recover invaded lands and to achieve territorial recognition – as well as having an educational role.

I spent a week in November 2013 as a volunteer, working on the demarcation of a stretch of 4.5km, making its way through the forest. As well as supporters like me, based in the region, other non-indigenous people helped this landmark mission, such as fisherman and people from other traditional communities, such as those from Montanha and Mangabal. During those days, I observed that the most abundant resource is the organisation and the motivation of the Munduruku and those who live in the region for generations. Material resources for continuing the work are scarce: there is no GPS and no transport for bringing in supporters to train the Munduruku in georeferencing and to help in other ways; and petrol and food are in short supply, which makes the work proceed slowly.

Felipe Garcia is a volunteer at the Munduruku Demarcation Mission / Translation by: Daniella Barsoumian

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