Endangered Brazilian Tribe Is Accusing Bolsonaro of Abandoning Them

In one of its worst years yet, the Tapirapé says it fought off record forest fires and COVID-19 alone.
December 15, 2020, 4:09pm
Members of the Tapirape tribe wait to perform a ceremonial dance in Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on January 17, 2020

RIO DE JANEIRO - In a year fraught with crisis, the Indigenous Tapirapé tribe in remote western Brazil says it has been abandoned by an openly hostile government.  

The tribe fought off record-breaking forest fires that blazed through the amazon rainforest and reached their highest level in a decade. It also had to do battle with COVID-19: Brazil is one of the world’s worst-hit nations and has already had upwards of six million infections and over 170 thousand have died. 

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And throughout the crisis, the Tapirapé said the current government of Jair Bolsonaro has been almost completely absent.

“The government isn't doing anything to help protect Indigenous territories,” said 51-year-old Kamoriwai’i Elber Tapirapé, the main chief of the tribe in the Brazilian Amazon with close to 1,000 people.

“But we cannot give up. We are ready to fight and protect our territory ourselves,” said Elber.

Elber and his tribe live in Urubu Branco, made up of 412,000 acres of Indigenous land in the state of Mato Grosso. There, tropical savannah meets the Amazon rainforest, and soybean farming and cattle ranching reign. The tribe speaks the tupi-gurani language and has been in Urubu Branco since 1998, when the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso officially acknowledged it as protected Tapirapé territory.

But Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, is known for being openly hostile towards the Indigenous population. Bolsonaro once said Brazil was “very incompetent” because it had not “decimated” its Indigenous population like the North American cavalry had. In his nearly two years in office, he has also refused to designate “one square centimeter” more of protected Indigenous land and claimed that “the Indigenous person can’t remain in his land as if he were some prehistoric creature.”

Chief Elber said the tribe felt “abandoned” by the government and that they had to rely on nonprofits and local authorities for help during the coronavirus outbreak. “We had a hard time getting a hold of medical equipment like respirators,” chief Elber told VICE World News. The public health organization for Indigenous people, DSEI, registered 66 confirmed cases and two deaths from COVID-19 among members at Urubu Branco and seven other Indigenous territories in the region. 

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Brazil also has Funai, a federal protection agency for Indigenous people that is responsible for giving the Tapirapé overall support. Their only employee in the area, Marcelino Martino dos Santos, is based some 18 miles from Urubu Branco in the city of Confresa and attends to five different ethnicities on his own. Known around town as Dudu, he told VICE World News that the government won’t be sending him help anytime soon. 

“Here I have to do everything myself, from being the office’s mechanic to answering the phones. It’s not easy,” said Dudu.

This year Funai didn’t help the Tapirapé put out seasonal forest fires, despite having already put in a request last year to set up a year-round fire brigade on site, said Dudu. During the dry season, which lasts from May through September, any small spark sets the savannah ablaze. This year, the largest tropical rainforest in the world saw fires surge out of control. The total number of registered active hotspots in the amazon in the first ten months of 2020 have surpassed the number of hotspots detected in all of 2019.

The Tapirapé scrambled to put the fires out themselves using small water pumps, but often failed. “We lost our animals, our medicinal plants, the fruits we pick. All of it burned down. Where are we going to make our livelihood from now?” said Arakae Tapirapé, chief of the Tapi'itawa village on the south side of Urubu Branco. The northern part of their territory was struck by tragedy when a straw school house went up in smoke in late September.

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A Tapirapé school house goes up in flames in Urubu Branco. Photo Courtesy of Chief Kamoriwai’i Elber Tapirapé

The Tapirapé are used to the constant threat of extinction. In the mid 20th Century they were nearly wiped out by a series of wars and diseases and the population reached a record low of 40 people. For decades, the tribe has fought tooth and nail to protect Urubu Branco and the seven villages that make up their reserve. Today, the biggest threat they face is the invasion of their territory by illegal wood traffickers, small-scale farmers and cattle ranchers who illegally exploit the land for a profit. And an almost complete lack of government protection or support.

In July, the Tapirapé won a 17-year-long legal battle when Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of removing all “non-Indigenous people” that have been raising cattle illegally, growing crops and stealing wood from the reserve. From 2000 to 2017, deforestation in Urubu Branco increased by 24,480 acres, depleting about six percent of the total territory. In the civil suit, brought on by Funai, 35 local farmers and cattle ranchers were convicted for setting up shop inside Urubu Branco on stolen property. But as the year comes to a close, a massive police operation that is supposed to remove perpetrators from their land once and for all has yet to take place. Funai says COVID-19 is to blame for the delay.

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But Lusmar Soares Filho, the public prosecutor for Funai who worked on the Urubu Branco case since it began in 2003, warns that delays have “shocking” consequences. In the years that the legal suit dragged on, the territory turned into a real “business hub” for illegal real-estate, according to Lusmar. Trespassers cut down the forest to make way for their crops and cattle and stripped the land of its resources. 

“The damage that has been done is immeasurable. It's astronomic. They even set up a landing strip and a dedicated cellphone tower inside”, said Lusmar. Illegal wood traders have been especially drawn to the territory because it harbors Pau Brasil (Brazilwood). The tree is a national symbol and an endangered species protected by law. But that doesn’t stop them from cutting it down.

Dudu does his best to carry out routine surveillance operations in Urubu Branco and chase out wood traffickers. 

“I’ve received so many [death] threats. I lost count,” said Dudu.

In July, he managed to arrest three illegal wood traders during a raid but warned that it’s just not enough. “I just sent in a document asking the government for backup because wood is being removed like crazy. The Tapirapé can hear the constant hum of the chainsaw. But I can’t stop them alone,” said Dudu. This year he only received enough federal resources to carry out two of the five raids he had planned for this year. Tired of being overworked and afraid for his life, Dudu said he plans to retire soon.

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Over the years, illegal farmers and wood traffickers have been the perpetrators of violence, such as setting Funai vehicles on fire and shooting guns at surveillance squads. Afraid to leave his house at night or walk around alone, Dudu said he often gets phone calls in the office from mysterious people telling him to back off. 

Latin America is the worst region in the world to be a land defender, according to a report from Global Witness. Two thirds of the 212 environmental defenders killed in 2019 were in Latin America, 24 of them in Brazil.

“I live in fear. When I leave work, I have to keep an eye out because you never know who could be around the corner,” said Dudu.

Death threats are not new for the Tapirapé. Ten years ago, Xario’i Carlos Tapirapé, who was head chief from 2000 to 2017, was ambushed on his way into town. He was on a motorcycle with his brother when two men on another bike came out of nowhere. “They rammed into us and we fell. I broke my collarbone and I had to go to the hospital. They almost killed me that day,” Carlos told VICE World News.

But the Tapirapé are determined to protect their territory themselves. They set up their own surveillance team made up of “young warriors” who roam the area looking for trespassers and then call local authorities to make their arrest. But since the coronavirus crisis hit in March, they’ve had to decrease surveillance efforts to focus their attention on treating the sick.

As the Tapirapé attempt to fight off trespassers, fires, and the coronavirus pandemic, and manage the Bolsonaro government’s ongoing neglect, Carlos is hopeful the day will come when they can live in peace. 

“One day we will get to where we want to be. We never give up. What keeps me going is the idea that our ability to resist will be the legacy we leave behind for my granddaughter.”