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Brazil’s Sateré-Mawé move to reclaim ancestral lands

Ancestral land along the Mariaquã River is threatened by land invaders encouraged by Bolonsonaro's anti-indigenous rhetoric


  • The Andirá-Marau Indigenous Reserve in Brazil’s Amazonas state — in a remote part of the Amazon basin — covers 7,885 square kilometers (3,044 square miles), and is occupied by 13,350 Sateré-Mawé indigenous people who live sustainably off the rainforest.
  • However, an area of Sateré-Mawé ancestral land along the Mariaquã River lies outside the demarcated reserve. It was abandoned by the Sateré-Mawé due to an epidemic. The Indians have renewed their claim to the territory since 2002 but FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency, has not yet sorted the situation out.
  • But the Mariaquã lands are now in dispute, as illegal loggers and land grabbers invade and threaten the indigenous people living in the area around the village of Campo Branco. Dozens of outsiders have made land claims to CAR, Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry, and allegedly threatened the Indians if they don’t vacate.
  • Mongabay’s reporting team joined a small group of Sateré-Mawé as they travelled to Campo Branco to strengthen their indigenous land claim. The Sateré fear that President Bolsonaro’s pledge to pass a law allowing Brazilians with “official” land claims to use arms to evict indigenous “invaders” could be used against them.

In February, a Mongabay reporting team travelled to the Brazilian Amazon, spending time with the remote Sateré-Mawé, documenting their culture and long-time conflict with mining companies and land grabbers. This series looks at new threats imposed on the Sateré and indigenous groups across Brazil as they’re threatened by the ruralist-friendly policies of President Jair Bolsonaro. The trip was funded by the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund in association with the Pulitzer Center and Mongabay.

This is the third article in the series, researched and co-authored by LAB’s Sue Branford. The original article can be read here.

Video: Mongabay, 31 May 2019

FORTALEZA, Pará state, Brazil — It’s late night when the Sateré-Mawé warriors end their singing in the tiny indigenous village beside the Andirá River, on the border between Pará and Amazonas states in the Brazilian Amazon.

Their chanting gives way to the songs of the forest: amphibians, insects and primates — including the twilight roar of howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya). Then, little by little, the night sounds are supplanted by a dawn chorus and the village begins to wake up.

The warrior Benito Miquiles admits to us that he couldn’t sleep; his night-time hours having been filled with thoughts of the journey ahead, and with the intense pain he still feels from Waumat, the ant-stinging rite of passage he endured just hours before.

Yesterday, this young man put his hands in gloves filled with bullet ants (tucandeiras), that deliver one of the world’s most agonizing stings; this was Benito’s fifteenth repetition of a ritual that prepares a Sateré-Mawé man to become a tuxaua (leader).

However, he has another reason for coming to Fortaleza — the preservation of his threatened homeland.

Laying claim to lost lands

Benito’s family lives in Campo Branco village on the Mariaquã River. That area was inhabited for hundreds of years by a large group of Sateré-Mawé, but most left after a major epidemic in the middle of the 20th century. This region should have been included in the Andirá-Marau Indigenous Reserve when it was demarcated in 1986, but it was left out, probably as the result of an error by the indigenous agency, FUNAI.

Since 2002, the Sateré-Mawé have been asking FUNAI to correct this mistake in the boundaries of the reserve so this area is protected too. The local FUNAI office has informed its head office in Brasilia of the Sateré claim, but nothing has happened.

Recently, the situation turned critical with the arrival of invading loggers, miners and land thieves, along with an outsider who claims to “own” the area on which Campo Branco stands, and who has likely registered his claim officially with CAR (The Rural Environmental Register), the Brazilian government’s land registry.

Benito hopes to bring more of his people to Campo Branco to strengthen their presence and their ancestral claim. So he has come to Fortaleza seeking backing.

On the morning after the ritual, Benito tells his relatives about the growing attempts by land thieves to force his family out of Campo Branco. “We need help because we’re feeling very threatened,” he explains.

One by one, his relatives declare support. Some offer to go with Benito to the Mariaquã River to set up new surveillance villages. It could be a dangerous mission — the outsiders may well be armed with guns and they could feel emboldened to use them due to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-indigenous statements

Dico, the taciturn tuxaua of Fortaleza, says he’ll lend the expedition the community’s only motorized canoe. Érik Batista, who also took part in the previous night’s ritual, agrees to go, as do his father and younger brother. “All my life people have said that the Sateré once lived by the Mariaquã River,” he explains. “After putting my hand in the glove [with the bullet ants], I feel strong enough to take part in the expedition.”

The Sateré re-occupation of the Mariaquã River lands gets underway. Image: Matheus Manfredini.

Journey to Campo Branco

Mongabay travels with Benito and the other warriors. We leave Fortaleza by boat at 8am, heading down the Andirá River. Later, we stop at the village of Vila Nova, where a group of indigenous leaders exchange urgent updates regarding the most recent anti-indigenous policies of the Bolsonaro administration. We join Cândido, the head tuxaua who represents all the villages on the upper Andirá River, as well as other leaders, as they gather around a long table to discuss options for action.

Cândido’s wife prepares a drink made from the berries of guaraná, a climbing plant native to this part of the Amazon. She uses a stone to grate berry flakes into a water-filled gourd. Then she hands the gourd to her husband, who sips and passes it along. The Sateré-Mawé are known as “the guaraná people” because they domesticated this plant which has gained a central role in their culture; they consume it whenever the entire group meets to reach consensus. The debate itself is known as çapó.

According to anthropologist Gabriel Alvarez, who has studied the Sateré-Mawé, çapó is a ritual without music involving in-depth conversation. It is, he says, a non-coercive form of power. “An elder once told me that decisions reached during a çapó have to be followed, because they indicate what [the community] wants.”

The topic under discussion this day is the reoccupation of the ancestral lands beside the Mariaquã River.

Pouring the traditional guaraná drink consumed whenever a Sateré group meets to reach consensus. The debate itself is known as çapó. Image: Matheus Manfredini.

Jacó, the Vila Nova village tuxaua, tells everyone what his grandfather, Servo Miquiles, told him: that the Sateré fled the Mamuru and Mariaquã rivers to escape disease that had ravaged the people. Servo Miquiles, before he died, asked his grandson to initiate a movement for the return home. Jacó has visited the Mariaquã River watershed several times and knows precisely where his ancestors lived, having spotted vestiges of old forest clearings.

“Our parents and our grandparents lived there so the land is ours and we are going to reoccupy it, initially with 20 families,” declares tuxaua Cândido at the culmination of the çapó.

The ancestral lands the Sateré will be reoccupying near Campo Branco lie about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the village of Vila Nova (see map), but there is no longer a path between the Andirá and Mariaquã rivers. Instead, travellers must make a long detour by boat via the Amazon River. A few years ago, Jacó tried to open a land route through the forest but failed. He plans to have another go, next time with the help of GPS navigation.

A barge laden with logs heads downriver. The Sateré fear that their ancestral lands on the Mariaquã River, mistakenly left out of the Andirá-Marau Indigenous Reserve, could be logged over by invaders. Image: Matheus Manfredini.

Returning to the homeland

The Sateré-Mawé, have a practical reason for wanting to reoccupy the ancestral home: “Our population is growing and, here in the Andirá River, we have to travel ever further to hunt,” explains Adelino Batista from Bom Jardim, an Andirá River settlement.

This explanation could sound perplexing to non-Indians, as the 13,350 Sateré occupy a sprawling demarcated indigenous reserve covering 7,885 square kilometers (3,044 square miles). Indeed, President Bolsonaro repeatedly presses home this point: that indigenous people have “an enormous amount” of land and that some of it should be taken away to support industrial mining and agribusiness interests that feed into the nation’s tax structure and support Brazil’s economy.

But this is a mistaken perception according to ecologist Ricardo Scoles. “This idea that a few Indians have a lot of land [and more than they need] is a fallacy,” he says. “Indigenous areas in Brazil generally have a population density of less than one inhabitant per square kilometer. [Indigenous communities] have an excellent record in maintaining the environmental quality of their land, but to achieve this, they need vast areas so they can exploit their territory at a very low level of intensity.”

Jacó provides a good example of Sateré determination not to over-exploit their lands. He is the tuxaua of one the villages currently best served by healthcare, transport and education services, but he has decided to move with his family to the Mariaquã River which has no amenities but has abundant wild life. He will have to start with the gruelling work of clearing a rough stretch of forest to establish a home site. It’s a daunting task, yet neither he nor his family seems intimidated. In fact, as Jacó, his wife and granddaughter set off on their journey, they seem excited at the idea of beginning a new life.

Jacó, the leader of Vila Nova village. Jacó’s grandfather, Servo Miquiles, asked his grandson to initiate a movement for the return home to the Mariaquã River. Image: Matheus Manfredini.

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The river journey to the Mariaquã River watershed requires three days. First, we travel north from Vila Nova to Parintins, a port on the Amazon River. We make this leg of the journey in a commercial vessel, carrying at least three times more passengers than official capacity permits. The vessel tows the motorized canoe lent to the Indians by the tuxaua Dico.

Once in Parintins, the Indians set off in their motorized canoe, while we follow with a rental. The second canoe is very much older, with a rough-running engine that we worry might give up the ghost during the trip, leaving us stranded. Our assigned river pilot also fails to appear. But we decide to press ahead. The better boat is called the “Bom Socorro,” Good Help. A positive sign, we think.

Leaving Parintins, we travel south up the Mamuru River. Along it, we see time and again what will happen to the Sateré ancestral lands unless they gain control over them — huge barges laden with gigantic logs pass by.

A pilot who regularly travels this river tells us he often sees three or four tree-loaded barges leaving the river banks each night. “The loggers go into the area, fill the barges up with logs and act as if they have the right to do this. It’s this that the Indians want to avoid, but you can be certain that the loggers will not give up easily,” he warns, refusing to tell us his name for security reasons.

After dark, we reach a Sateré village on the Mamuru River; it is located outside the demarcated indigenous reserve. The indigenous community readily offer us a hut where we can sling our hammocks and set up small oil lamps. We leave the next morning at daybreak, and just after midday, turn our boats into the Mariaquã River.

An aerial view of a typical Sateré-Mawé village in the Brazilian Amazon. Image: Matheus Manfredini.

Arrival at Campo Branco and the trouble with CAR

Reaching Campo Branco village, we are welcomed by Benito’s father Bernardino, a jovial tuxaua.

Turning more somber, he tells us that some time ago a white man, introducing himself as the “owner of the land,” showed up at his home, offering compensation if everyone would leave. The outsider resorted to an old trick commonly used during the colonial period: first, he offered a bottle of cachaça (sugarcane rum) and then placed a wad of cash on the table.

Bernardino turned down the offer; after that the threats began.

According to Sérgio Butel, a FUNAI employee based in Parintins, an unnamed man from the south of Brazil came to his government office and asked FUNAI to remove the Indians, producing a map that proved, the man said, that he was “the real owner.”

“It took us by surprise,” says Butel. “We told him that the Sateré had long ago asked for this area to be included in their territory and that the FUNAI office in Brasilia was dealing with their demand.”

Mongabay consulted official records to see if the outsider had any basis for his claims. We couldn’t locate the relevant land registration entries in the local real estate office, but were able to access data within CAR, Brazil’s official land registry, where landowners themselves state how much land they own. There is no independent verification of the claims.

There we found a major discrepancy between what we’d seen on the ground and what CAR showed. While we’d seen a rainforest occupied by Sateré-Mawé, the CAR website showed an area of 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) divided into 36 individual plots, each with an “owner.” This mapped area, that was supposedly already in the hands of outside inhabitants, overlaid Bernardino’s village.

Such discrepancies are common in the Brazilian Amazon, where indigenous groups and traditional peoples have long dwelt on land without deeds, and where outsiders often manipulate the land registry system to gain control.

The ultimate objective behind CAR is admirable: it seeks to assemble comprehensive ownership information on all the country’s rural properties, with landowners obliged by law to fill in the forms accurately. But frequently, there are abuses.

The system has been widely praised, but Ione Nakamura, head of Agrarian Legal Prosecution for Pará state, points to a serious shortcoming: “[CAR] is an instrument by which the landowners themselves make the declarations, and often their claims are superimposed on land effectively and historically occupied by traditional populations who, because they don’t have access to the necessary technology and technical assistance, don’t produce information for the state’s official [land recording] systems.” To correct the problem, she says, “We need to create public policies to make traditional populations visible, above all with respect to CAR.”

The Sateré-Mawé at Campo Branco have been caught in precisely the predicament described by Nakamura. And theirs is far from an isolated case: unofficial data suggests that nearly 500 indigenous groups are asking FUNAI to redraw the boundaries of their territories, though not all of these have problems with CAR.

It is FUNAI’s responsibility to carry out the process of revision, but with so many requests, and such a small staff and budget, the indigenous agency has to prioritize. The first two criteria it applies are: how long has the group been demanding recognition of their right to land? And is the group in a position of social vulnerability? The Sateré-Mawé score well on both counts: they’ve been demanding protection since 2002, and they are in a desperate situation of near total abandonment. As Bernardino explains: “We don’t have a school, or access to transport, or a public health service.”

He adds: “We are also exposed to the violent tactics of those who wish to grab our land.”

The risk of violence has likely increased since President Jair Bolsonaro made provocative remarks in April, pledging to pass a bill permitting “landowners” to shoot anyone “invading” properties.

FUNAI’s failure to recognize existing Sateré settlements and their long-term ancestral claims on the Mariaquã River lands means that, if Bolsonaro’s plan becomes law, CAR-recognized “owners” may feel empowered to label indigenous inhabitants as “invaders” and legally use guns to evict them.

Sonia making farinha in a Sateré-Mawé village in the Brazilian Amazon. The Sateré practice a largely traditional lifestyle, relying on the forest for survival. Image: Matheus Manfredini.

Thriving in the present moment

For now, the Sateré inhabiting Campo Branco aren’t thinking of future risks, but rather are revelling in the abundance of wildlife in their new home. Largely untouched by the encroaching economic frontier — with its illegal logging camps, cattle ranches and soy plantations — the waters of the Mariaquã River are bursting with life, including caiman, piranha, electric fish (the poraquê [Electrophorus electricus] which can deliver a 500-volt discharge, enough to kill an adult), and much else.

Upon our arrival, Bernardino, his family and all of us visitors gorge on fish, game (including monkey meat), yams, pumpkins, manioc flour and a drink made from açaí berries.

As they eat, the Sateré plan their trip for the next day to the abandoned village of São Roque. With the rainy season now ending, they intend to clear a patch of forest there and plant it with subsistence crops. It’s a way of carving out a new life for Benito, Bernardino and their relatives. Underlying these homesteading activities is a very sincere wish to protect the rainforest that plays such a key role in sustaining their lives.

The following morning, we receive a pleasant surprise. Pedro, Érik’s father, who had been reluctant to speak to us earlier, sang us a song that he’d learnt from his grandmother. It spoke of the bountiful waters of the Mariaquã River — a fitting farewell to the Mongabay team. Later, we made our way down the river, back to Parintins, even as the Sateré made their way up river to reclaim their homeland.

The Sateré’s journey aboard the Bom Socorro was hopefully more successful than ours. Justifying our earlier forebodings, the engine on our older, smaller boat broke down, and we were left adrift in the Amazon — literally up the river without a paddle. For five hours we baked under the tropical sun, unable to go to the riverside because of strong winds which forced us into a large lake. While we waited, a sound reached us across the immense river — the incessant whine of chain saws. We tried to block out the disturbing noise by recalling and singing Pedro’s lullaby, a symbol of resistance.

At last, we were rescued by a fisherman and towed to safety. The safety of the Sateré remains less certain.

Bernardino’s youngest child. The Campo Branco village tuxaua (leader), believes that the Sateré need their Mariaquã ancestral lands to sustainably support a growing population. Image: Matheus Manfredini.

Banner image: Bernardino, the Campo Branco village tuxaua (leader). He has so far resisted threats from outsiders who have demanded he leave the Sateré’s ancestral lands on the Mariaquã River. Image: Matheus Manfredini.