To Rob an Indian, Erase His Tribe

In Brazil, tribal land is protected by strong federal laws. When loggers sought to strip trees from indigenous land in Para state, they found a brutally simple legal expedient for removing this barrier.

“This hurts as badly as if they were tearing out our guts,” says Apolonildo de Souza Costa, better known as Rosí, placing his hand over his stomach and describing how he feels as he watches logging boats carrying piles of timber down the rivers that bathe the Maró Indian Land, in the northwest of the state of Pará. The other 239 Borari and Arapium Indians who live on this land feel equally in their stomachs the impact of deforestation; hunger is the first effect of environmental degradation, a consequence of the exodus of game animals and of the difficulty it brings in gathering fruits.

Like many other indigenous peoples who were persecuted and converted by Jesuit missions in that region, Rosí has no “Indian name”. Colonization taught his ancestors to hide their identities. But the look on his face now shows how things are changing, and Rosí proudly introduces himself as a “Borari warrior-vigilante”. The formal evidence for the indigenous identity of those who live in the Maró Land is laid out in a 250 page long identification study done by Funai [the National Indian Foundation, the Brazilian federal agency overseeing indigenous populations]. But the most conclusive evidence about their identity is not written on paper; it lies in the bold action of the “warrior-vigilantes”.

The group takes huge risks as they try to combat illegal logging within their land. Once a month, they leave their homes and spend days searching the 42 thousand hectares of the Maró land for invaders. When they find invaders, usually hidden in illegal sawmills, the Indians contact Funai and wait at the site for a team of inspectors to arrive.
Loggers do not react with immediate violence; that reaction comes later on. Second-chief Odair José Souza Alves, also known as Dadá Borari, first received money offers, threats; he has been persecuted and violently attacked. “First they offered me 30 thousand reais (roughly ten thousand dollars). The logger opened a suitcase in front of me and showed me the money”, says Dadá.

The threats came right after that, and the violence soon followed, until, on June 2007, Dadá was kidnapped in the town of Santarém (the nearest town to the Maró Land). He was held in captivity for over seven hours. “They tied my arms and legs to a couple of trees and started beating me”, he recalls. An investigation about the case was opened, but the culprits were never found. Since Dadá continued to receive threats, he was included in the Human Rights Advocate Protection Program of the Federal Secretary for Human Rights. He’s had military policemen escort him for seven years now. When he talks about the violence, the chief’s firm beliefs become more apparent. “Until I breathe my last breath, I am not leaving here. The threats make me stronger”.


Photo: Ana Aranha/Reporter Brasil.

Over the last few years, the vigilante groups have become more active against loggers. They’ve learned with the Funai how to work a GPS and how to gather data for inspection reports. Therefore, they can register and file formal complaints against the wrongdoings they encounter within their land. The pressure exerted by the group was so great that it ignited a delicate judicial battle between state and federal entities.

With the evidence gathered by the Borari and the Arapium, the entities that support the cause of the Indians found out that the Pará State Secretary for Sustainability and the Environment had actually authorized logging operations within the Indian Land. The map below, made by an NGO called Fase Amazônia, shows at least ten different areas within the Maró Land where the state government has authorized logging operations.

The Indians then called Ibama (Brazil’s Federal Environmental Agency) for help, and the agency identified and embargoed existing logging projects in the area. Trees were being extracted from the land, and the wood produced there had all the legal certifications, when they shouldn’t. In some cases, loggers had received authorizations to work there as compensation after they were driven out of another Indian land in the south of the state. Pará’s District Attorney’s Office questions the legality of such authorizations, and has filed a lawsuit demanding that the sawmills be removed from the area.

According to the State of Pará Secretary for Sustainability and the Environment, the authorizations were only given because the boundaries of this stretch of Indian land have never been officially fixed: “The limits for the area have been marked, but its boundaries haven’t been officially fixed as an Indian Land. Commercial activities such as logging by law cannot happen within an Indian Land”. The demarcation of the Maró Indian Land is a slow process that started in Brazil’s Ministry of Justice back in 2011, when an identification and delimitation report was published. According to the Funai, the process is “still under analysis within the Ministry of Justice”.

Amidst the dispute, The Borari and Arapium have convinced the Ibama and the State’s District Attorney’s Office to thoroughly investigate their territory. In 2014, inspectors managed to close down sawmills and to embargo logging operations in the area.

Two weeks later however, in an act that was interpreted as a response to Ibama’s and the DA’s Office operation, Santarém Federal Judge Airton Portela issued a controversial ruling: he determined the “inexistence” of the Borari and Arapium identities. Using such terms as “fake Indians” and “alleged rituals”, the judge questioned the anthropological expert’s report made by Funai, and demanded that the federal entity cancel the process of demarcation of the reservation, thereby allowing commercial operations to flourish within the Indian land.

When Repórter Brasil questioned the State Secretary for the Environment about the authorizations given to loggers, the state agency cited the judge’s ruling: “there is a judicial dispute going on about the existence of the Maró Indian Land. The federal judicial system has deemed this Indian land non-existent”.

The judge’s arguments left anthropologists and pro-Indian activists outraged, because it denies the Indians of their right to self-denomination. That was the case of Jane Felipe Beltrão, vice-president of the Brazilian Anthropology Association: “As soon as I found out about this, I contacted the defense lawyer of this case and offered my help. This act goes against pour Constitution, which garantees to our indigenous peoples the right to present themselves as such”, states the anthropologist. She was one of the experts that signed a report in the appeal case moved by the Federal Attorney’s Office, which managed to overturn the sentence of the Santarém judge.

The final sentence about this case can either be an important landmark for Indian rights in Brazil, or it could open a dangerous precedent. Because the judge uses the miscegenation of cultures as an argument to deny the existence of indigenous identities. He states, for example, that the habit of drinking xibé (na Indian beverage made from cassava flour) would be “unfit” to characterize an identity because the same habit has already been incorporated by the population of the state of Pará. Along the same lines, Christian practices introduced by missionaries also serve as arguments against the recognition of these populations.


Photo: Ana Aranha/ Reporter Brasil. Arapium and Borari girls playing and singing songs in Portuguese and in Nheengatu, their native language.

Taking this argument to an extreme, one could say that every single indigenous population that has influenced or has been influenced by other cultures would then lose their rights to have a reservation.

“The judge is gravely mistaken when he sees culture as something hermetic”, says Jane. She explains that all indigenous populations of the Tapajós river basin have suffered a severe process of persecution and cultural repression from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The Indians thart were not enslaved by the colonist either died in battle or fled to other regions, and many of them were conducted to missions (communities that were subject to the catechization of missionaries). In the missions, according to an identification report issued by Funai, the Indians were taught to “demonize” (term extracted from the historical records) their native language, food habits, rituals and political organization.

“It was an attempt to homogenize them, to make them not be Indians anymore. For a long time, they’ve been forced to hide their identities in order to survive. With the new Brazilian Constitution of 1988 the Indians finally got their rights”, Jane explains. The will of the Borari and Arapium to affirm their identity reveals that the time to hide is long gone.

To those who still have doubts over what could define an indigenous identity in the 21st Century, chief Dadá leaves an invitation: “I would like to invite those that question my ethnicity to come to my village to meet me, to be taught by us. Being an Indian today is not what it was two hundred years ago. The fact that I wear a t-shirt, have a cell phone, a computer, and live in a brick house doesn’t mean I’ve lost my culture. If we don’t learn anything from society, we will be like our ancestors were two hundred years ago: deceived, robbed. Today we study. The Indian is a Brazilian citizen”.

Ana Aranha Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard