Projects inherited from the military dictatorship that threaten the lands of isolated indigenous peoples

Two lands where isolated indigenous people live are under threat due to development projects inherited from the military dictatorship, show data from a technical report by ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute, a non-profit organization focused on environmental and indigenous people).

The projects are the paving of the BR-319 highway in Amazonas, and the resumption of the Tucuruí Line project (a large power line running through the indigenous land), in Roraima.

Inhabited by isolated groups that have never had contact with non-indigenous peoples, the The lands of Jacareúba-Katawixi (AM) and Pirititi (RR) are in regions that should be affected by the projects and are about to lose the legal protection they had until now.

Both lands were protected by Usage Restriction Ordinances, a temporary legal mechanism to protect isolated indigenous peoples decreed by Funai (National Indigenous Foundation) and which needs to be renewed periodically, normally nt every three years.

The decree decreed for the indigenous land of Pirititi, however, expired on Sunday (5) and was renewed for only six months, a time seen as too short for environmentalists. The one on the indigenous land of Jacareúba-Katawixi expires on Wednesday (8) and Funai has yet to comment on its renewal.

Data and images captured by satellites analyzed by ISA show that both regions already had deforestation explosions during the pandemic with the invaders’ expectation that the ordinances would not be renewed.

“We noticed an increase in deforestation in the period prior to the expiration of the ordinances”, explains Antonio Oviedo, coordinator of ISA’s Protected Areas Monitoring program.

“It’s a real pattern, deforestation increases with the speculation of these invaders that these areas eventually enter the public registers and they can require the title of these lands”, says Oviedo.

The government claims that the resumption of the projects is necessary for the infrastructure of the region. But researchers and local communities say that other alternatives could be studied and criticize the lack of a clear commitment to mitigating the impacts of the works.

Several studies point to the socio-environmental impact of large works on the heart of the forest. One of them, published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, shows that 80% of accumulated deforestation in the Amazon is concentrated in a distance 5.5 km of roads in the region. Another, published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, points out that 80% of forest fires are also concentrated in this radius.

The Ministries of Infrastructure and Mines and Energy have not responded to BBC News Brasil’s inquiries about the projects until the publication of this report.

Survival threatened

The indigenous land of Jacareúba-Katawixi, in Amazonas, is inhabited by the Katawixi indigenous people, an isolated group that has never had contact with non-Indians, but that leaves traces of occupation observed in expeditions such as building shelters and harvesting fruits. Their way of life is totally dependent on preserved nature.

With the use restriction ordinance about to expire, the land is in a region that should be affected by the paving of the BR-800, 800 km road connecting Manaus to Porto Velho by land.

Started in 1974 and opened in 1974, the highway was designed and built in the heart of the forest by the military government as part of a “national integration plan”, which included encouraging migration and creating the Transamazônica.

In the following years, the BR-319 was degraded due to the lack of maintenance. Full of puddles and craters, its condition reached a point that led to its closure in the decade of 1976. Since 2012 it has stretches open for traffic, but without paving.

As of June 2020 , the Bolsonaro government published a notice for the paving of 52 km of the highway. At the time, however, there was no economic feasibility study or the preparation of a detailed environmental impact study (called EIA/RIMA).

The notice was questioned in court by the Ministry The Federal Public precisely because of the lack of an environmental study, but the Dnit (National Department of Transport Infrastructure) argued that there was an understanding with Ibama (Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources) that made the EIA/RIMA unnecessary.

In April, the Dnit managed to overturn in court the injunction obtained by the MPF that prevented the continuation of the works and later presented an environmental impact analysis. However, researchers and environmentalists question the government’s ability to mitigate the consequences of the works.

INPE (Institute for Space Research), the government’s own monitoring body, has carried out several studies that point to for the environmental impacts of the project. One of them brings the projection that deforestation will increase by 1.125% in the surroundings with the resumption of road works.

In this scenario, the survival of the Katawixi is extremely threatened, says Elias Bigio, coordinator of Opan (Operation Native Amazon) and former general coordinator of Isolated and Newly Contacted Indians (CGIIRC) at Funai .

“They are under strong pressure from land grabbing, logging and illegal mining. And the violation of indigenous territory culminates in the death and extermination of this population”, says Bigio, who explains that part of the isolated indigenous peoples are survivors of massacres by invaders from the past.

In the action in which it asked not to stop the works, the Dnit argued that works on the highway are of public interest because it concerns the Rondônia’s only road link with Amazonas and Roraima.

Asked about the criticisms by BBC News Brasil, the Ministry of Infrastructure did not respond until the publication of this report

Towers in the forest

The presence of isolated indigenous Piruichichi (Pirititi) in the Pirititi indigenous land, in Roraima, is known since the years 1976, from the reports of the Waimiri-Atroari, a group with a history of contact that also lives in the region.

The Pirititi are placed in a situation of extreme vulnerability with the end of the use restriction ordinance and the passage of the Tucuruí Line through the indigenous land, says Elias Bigio.

The first ordinance was decreed by Funai in 2008 and has been renewed every three years since then. This year, however, Funai renewed the ordinance for only six months, a time seen as insufficient by the indigenous people and researchers.

“Six months is too little. It is not possible to carry out studies, to listen to the community, to remove invaders. It only benefits illegal loggers and land grabbers”, says Antonio Oviedo, from ISA.

The MPF filed a lawsuit this year

with recommendations for the protection of isolated indigenous people, including advancing the process of definitive demarcation of the land and actions to combat invaders.

The Tucuruí Line is a electric power transmission line of 1.319 km that intends to connect some northern states to the national energy system. With the current route, it would cut the indigenous land of the Waimiri-Atroari in 125 km.

Although the line is more recent, having been auctioned in 2008, explains Bigio, it is also part of a project for the region that is a legacy of the military dictatorship.

The Tucuruí hydroelectric plant, which the line intends to connect to the national energy system, was built in 1974 in the Pará as part of a military government project to explore mineral reserves in the Amazon, which generated demand for large electricity production. Its second stage was only completed in 2008, the year in which the Linhão was auctioned.

The impacts of the construction of the hydroelectric plant are among the most studied in Brazil, with numerous studies reporting how it affected riverside and indigenous communities in the surroundings. In addition to deforestation and invasions, hydroelectric construction increased the presence of mosquitoes, brought numerous diseases, affected fishing (essential for the survival of indigenous people and riverside dwellers) and generated mercury contamination, as a result of mining brought to the region.

On the other hand, the Tucuruí Line became the focus of conflicts as it passed through numerous public and private lands, including reserve areas. The construction of the line requires the clearing of certain areas for the construction of towers up to 800 meters, in addition to bringing other impacts pointed out by the IBAMA, such as pollution, increased flow of people and diseases, and new deforestation fronts.

The section that passes through the Pirititi indigenous land had its works stopped due to the possibility of socio-environmental impact and awaiting approval from Ibama. With the new directions indicated by the Bolsonaro government, however, Ibama and Funai authorized the construction of the stretch.

“It is surprising that Funai is doing this”, says Elias Bigio. “What should have been done was to carry out a technical consultation, so that the nearby indigenous community, with contact histories, could participate. They were not heard and the authorization does not follow the guidelines of the institution itself. There is a Funai ordinance with more 52 years that prohibit developments on land of isolated indigenous people.”

President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly defended that indigenous peoples —1.1 million of the total 125 million of the Brazilian population—should have their lands reduced. It’s a stance Bolsonaro has had since before becoming president. In 1998, when he was still a federal deputy, he told the Correio Braziliense newspaper that it was a “shame” for the Brazilian military forces not to be “as efficient as the US ones” in “exterminating indigenous peoples”.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy did not answer the questions asked by BBC News Brasil about the crossing of the line in the indigenous land.

Harlison Araújo, legal advisor of the Associação Comunidade Waimiri Atroari, says that the indigenous peoples of the community have presented a proposal for environmental compensation on which the federal government has not yet expressed its opinion. They have been fighting for years to be heard by the government about the works.

“If the government does not consider the proposal, there is no agreement”, says Araújo. “They treat the project as if it were the fault of the Indians for the project not to go ahead, but it was the government that did not work properly.”

Araújo recalls that there was no prior consultation with the population before the auction and that the government did not consider the 80 irreversible impacts, pointed out by Ibama and Funai, and the others ten that are just mitigable.

” they are projects that put themselves as if the Indians were an obstacle, as if people’s lives were just a nuisance along the way,” says Elias Bigio. “This when it is perfectly possible to study alternatives that respect local people and guarantee their protection.”


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