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Land grabbers, miners and farmers are driving encroachment into Indigenous reserves, documentary shows

Land grabbers, miners and farmers are driving encroachment into Indigenous reserves, documentary shows

Experts who took part in a seminar held by FAPESP highlighted the importance of Indigenous filmmaking to a wider societal awareness of the conflicts occurring on Indigenous reserves and in conservation units in the Amazon (image: webinar screenshot)

Published on 10/24/2022

By Maria Fernanda Ziegler  |  Agência FAPESP – “The invaders say they want land, but to my mind, they want more than land. They want to do away with Indigenous people, to end our isolation. We won’t let that happen,” says Bitaté, a leader of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, in the documentary O Território (“The Territory”), which denounces constant encroachments into the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Reserve in Rondônia state, North Brazil.

Surrounded by urban sprawl and deforested areas, the territory contains almost 2,000 hectares of unspoiled rainforest and is inhabited by nine Indigenous Peoples, four of them isolated (having little or no contact with the outside world). The documentary shows the encroachments and how the original inhabitants defend their land against threats such as deforestation, fire, the agricultural frontier, wildcat prospecting and land grabs. Directed by Alex Pritz and co-produced by members of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community, the film won the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience and Special Jury Awards for World Cinema Documentary. 

“It’s hard to talk about the Amazon, mining and Indigenous peoples because it means exposing persecution, death threats and assassination of activists. Invasion of Indigenous land brings loggers, wildcat prospectors, poachers, fishing crews, drugs, prostitution and a lot of deforestation. To defend themselves against encroachment and all these problems, Indigenous communities have learned to communicate and document the activities concerned on film. They’ve also established groups of guardians to protect the forest,” said Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, a historian and indigenist, and one of the protagonists of O Território.

Cardozo took part in the third event in the series The Amazon in images and movement: the stories of extractivism in the Amazon as seen through the lenses of Brazilian documentary makers, organized by FAPESP.

The debate was proposed by researchers engaged in the project After the hydropower complexes: social and environmental processes occurring after the construction of Belo Monte, Jirau and Santo Antônio in the Brazilian Amazon, led by Emilio Moran, a professor at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) supported by FAPESP under the aegis of its São Paulo Excellence Chair program (SPEC). 

The documentary O Território portrays the conflict between the Indigenous community and invaders from two viewpoints. Defense of the forest was documented by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, who have been studying film and communication for several years as part of a strategy to protect their territory. A non-Indigenous team led by director Alex Pritz filmed the other part.

“The film contains images of the invaders’ attacks from the viewpoint of the Indigenous community and also from that of the invaders. I think it’s important to hear what the intruders have to say in order to understand how they think and what motivates them,” Cardozo said.

For some years, she added, the Indigenous community has sent footage of the trespassers to FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, and to public prosecutors with demands for judicial action. “Unfortunately, there have been more and more encroachments in the last six years, largely based on Rural Environmental Registration [CAR]. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Reserve has 1,400 properties that are CAR-registered but illegal and used to justify the encroachments,” she said.

A survey conducted in 2021 by public prosecutors and reported on by CNN Brazil detected 9,986 CAR-registered rural properties in areas partly or entirely belonging to Indigenous communities. The findings were published while the Supreme Court (STF) was preparing to rule on a dispute in which Indigenous peoples faced the threat of losing territories they did not control when the Constitution came into force in 1988 (the legal concept involved is marco temporal or time limit). Lawyers for the Indigenous peoples say they are the original inhabitants of Brazil and have always had a right to the land. The STF suspended the proceedings and has not set a date to resume the judgment. 

According to the Indigenist advocacy group Instituto Socioambiental, a 1985 measure gave the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau permanent possession of the territory but was revoked in 1990 by President José Sarney. In 1991, President Fernando Collor signed a decree guaranteeing ownership by the Indigenous community.

Cardozo said the documentary can inform the world about the violence and conflicts that are occurring in the area. “It shows how land grabbers [grileiros] operate, and their links to such drivers of encroachment as the politicians who pass laws without teeth, fight against Indigenous land rights and win votes by offering settlers and farmers access to conservation units and Indigenous reserves. Besides the politicians in the legislative and executive branches of government, there are also plenty of business leaders who provide financial conditions and structure for small land grabbers,” she said.

Although the land grabs are documented and publicized by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, the conflicts are given more visibility by the award-winning documentary. “The film has been exhibited worldwide and has put pressure on the government. It also forced the police to arrest a person for the killing of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau while the film was being shot. He was assassinated precisely because he was a forest guardian,” Cardozo said.

Understanding the motivations of wildcat prospectors and mining companies 

In another presentation delivered during the seminar, Bruno Milanez, a professor associated with the Program of Graduate Studies in Geography and with the Production and Mechanical Engineering Department at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) in Minas Gerais, said the problems occurring in Indigenous reserves and conservation units are complex and need to be properly understood by society as a whole.

“Mining companies, illegal miners and wildcat prospectors are different groups, but all have an increasing amount of political power. To combat these forces, society has to understand how they’re associated. Films can communicate the complexity of these problems and show society that there’s no easy solution. There are very difficult solutions. It’s vitally important for society to be made aware of the environmental, social and cultural destruction being wrought by mining and wildcat prospecting,” he said.

“Illegal mining in Brazil goes well beyond the problem of wildcat prospectors [garimpeiros] and is increasingly linked to drug dealers and arms traffickers, as well as paramilitary groups and death squads [milícias] in the Southeast. Organized crime uses mining as an alternative activity and for easy money laundering.”

The deforestation caused by legal as well as illegal mining and wildcat prospecting is different from that caused by agriculture. “Agriculture and livestock production is responsible mainly for deforestation in the area we call the deforestation arc, which is in southern and southeastern Amazonia and is gradually advancing,” Milanez said. “Garimpeiros and miners encroach on Indigenous reserves and tend to cause deforestation in highly conserved areas. They have clandestine airstrips and clearcut pristine forests or areas with isolated Indigenous communities. Miners have this capability to reach remote areas.”

Large and midsize companies are mining in the vicinity of Indigenous territories in the Amazon, he continued, explaining the difference between wildcat prospecting [garimpo] and other types of illegal mining. “The media talks about garimpo as if it were the only type of illegal mining operation, but the term garimpeiros should properly refer to artisanal miners or panners. There are also corporate miners with the scale and capacity to buy backhoes that cost tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. 

“If you visit the garimpo on the Cinta Larga reserve, you see big machines. They tell you all the gear belongs to the Indigenous community, but it isn’t true because each of those machines costs BRL 1 million [now about USD 193,000] and the Cinta Larga are starving. I know because the association I work for donates baskets of staples to them.” Cardozo is general coordinator for Kanindé Ethnoenvironmental Defense Association in Porto Velho, Rondônia.

For Milanez, gold is one of the most contradictory ores from the social and environmental standpoints. “Economically viable deposits mined on a large scale contain only about 0.5%-1.3% gold, which is minimal. You have to ship out a truckload of dirt to get enough for a pair of pearl earrings, using a truck with 3 m wheels,” he said.

Data for 2010, he added, show that some 50% of the gold mined in Brazil went to the jewelry industry, which is neither essential nor a priority. “About 40% goes to investment and speculation – gold as a financial asset – and 10% to technology, which is perhaps a more important use for society. Why mine it? What’s the rationale?” he asked.

Gold is highly valued even though mining it makes no sense at all from the socio-environmental standpoint. “Gold is appreciated everywhere for its high value and multiple uses,” he said. “Central banks act as regulators of this gold and use it as a store of value. There’s an image that shows how irrational this system is. About 90% of Brazilian gold is exported and goes mostly to Switzerland. So this gold is extracted from the subsoil in Brazil, with all the problems that creates, and placed in a helicopter, then a plane, to be sent to a basement in Zurich or London. The gold begins and ends underground. It’s just transferred, generating a huge liability on the way.”

“The Amazon in images and movement: the stories of extractivism in the Amazon as seen through the lenses of Brazilian documentary makers” was a series of three webinars. The first discussed the changes in mining in the Amazon and how they have been documented by filmmakers. A recording can be watched at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbaACBwT3VM&ab_channel=Ag%C3%AAnciaFAPESP

The second webinar discussed the significance of disseminating other versions of history by means of documentary filmmaking to legitimize narratives on the impacts of large dams and hydropower developments in the Brazilian Amazon in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. A recording of this event can be watched at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6988Ep67U48

The third and last webinar in the series discussed recent documentaries on the consequences of extractivism, especially mining, produced by filmmakers and Indigenous film collectives from the affected territories. A recording can be watched at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwdJPXKoyUA&ab_channel=Ag%C3%AAnciaFAPESP.

Source: https://agencia.fapesp.br/39883