Brazilian Government Justifies Logging by Calling Maró Indigenous Territory Communities “Fake Indians”

After it was revealed that the Pará state government had authorized forest management plans inside of the Maró Indigenous Territory, Borari and Arapium indigenous groups have been accused of being “fake Indians.” The case underscores the importance of the self-identification of indigenous communities.

Maro Indigenous Territory BrazilAfter it was revealed that the Pará state government had authorized forest management plans inside of indigenous territory, the Borari and Arapium indigenous groups have been accused of being “fake Indians.” The case underscores the importance of self-identification.

Photo: Sign made by the Arapium Borari Intercommunity Indigenous Council (Photo: Ana Aranha)

“It hurts, as if they were tearing at our bellies.” Apolonildo de Souza Costa, commonly known as Rosí, rests her hand over her stomach to explain how it feels to watch logging boats floating away with stacks of tree trunks along the rivers that bathe the Maró Indigenous Territory in northwestern Pará state. The other 239 indigenous Borari and Arapium who live in the territory also feel it in their bellies: the impact of deforestation. Hunger is the first effect of the environmental degradation, a consequence of the exodus of game for hunting and the difficulty in collecting fruits.

Like many people who have been persecuted and indoctrinated by Jesuit missionaries in the region, Rosí does not have an “Indian name.” Colonization taught her ancestors to hide their identity. But her defiant appearance betrays newer attitudes, and Rosí stands tall when she represents herself as a “Borari vigilante-warrior.” The formal evidence about the Maró inhabitants’ indigenous identity includes 250 pages of identification studies conducted by Funai (National Indian Foundation). The most forceful evidence, however, is not among these papers, but in the bold actions of the “vigilante-warriors.”

The group risks itself to combat deforestation inside their lands. Once per month, they leave their houses and spend days combing the 42 thousand hectares of Maró territory in search of invaders. When they find them, generally settled in sawmills, the vigilantes notify Funai and stay in the area until an inspection team arrives.

The lumber employees don’t usually react violently. The reaction comes later. The second chief, or vice-chief, Odair José Souza Alves, known as Dadá Borari, has already received offers of money, threats, has been followed, and suffered a violent attack. “First, there was an offer of 30 thousand reais. The logger opened a folder in front of me and showed me the money,” said Dadá.

Then came the threats. In June 2007, the violence went up a notch, and Dadá was abducted in the city of Santarém [county seat of the Maró territory]. He spent seven hours in captivity. “I was bound between two trees, arms and legs, and [I] was trapped,” he recalled.  An inquiry into the case was opened, but the culprits have never been found. Since Dadá continued to receive threats, he was enrolled in the Program for the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights administered by the Secretary of Human Rights of the Presidency of the Republic. For the past seven years, he has had to go about life with a military police escort. When he talks about the violence, conviction grows in the chief’s voice. “I could be taking my final breath, but even then I won’t leave here. For me, the threat only makes me stronger.”

Photo: Dadá Borari received threats and was beaten after denouncing loggers (Photo: Ana Aranha)

In recent years, the group of vigilantes has only increased their offensive against the loggers. With the help of Funai, they have learned how to use a GPS device to collect evidence for inspection reports. In this way, they document and send formal complaints about everything that they find inside their territory. The pressure exerted by the group has been enough to motivate a delicate legal dispute between federal and state entities.

With the evidence collected by the Borari and Arapium people, indigenous aid agencies have discovered that the Pará State Secretary of Environment and Sustainability authorized the harvesting of forests inside of Indigenous Territory. The map below, provided by the NGO Fase Amazônia (Federation of Agencies for Social and Educational Aid), shows at least ten areas inside indigenous territory in which the state government has authorized the registration of a CAR [Rural Environmental Registry–an environmental regulation system in which rural agricultural workers or commercial speculators can register ownership of rural tracts of land].


Rural Environmental Registries (CAR) inside of Indigenous Territory

Map Source: Federation of Agencies for Social and Educational Aid (FASE)

Set in motion by the indigenous people themselves, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) identified and embargoed Forest Management Projects inside of the area,  in this case, those involving wood that would leave the indigenous territory with a certified seal. In some cases, loggers had received the authorization as recompense for having been removed from another indigenous territory in the southern part of the state. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) in Pará is questioning the legality of these authorizations in a lawsuit asking for the withdrawal of sawmills from the area.

In a response to questions from Repórter Brasil, the State Secretary of Environment and Sustainability in Pará replied that the concession occurred only because the demarcation process had yet to be concluded: “The stated area is only delimited and not demarcated, which would formalize the area as indigenous territory. In a confirmed indigenous area, the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) does not exist.”

The demarcation of the Maró Indigenous Territory has been inching slowly forward in the Ministry of Justice since 2011, when the identification and delimitation report was published. According to Funai, the lawsuit is “at the stage of an administrative adversary proceeding under review by the Ministry of Justice” [an adversary proceeding allows a party to contest the claims set against them].

In the midst of the dispute, the Borari and Arapium people have given Ibama and the MPF ample reason to carry out a large-scale inspection of the territory. In November 2014, the inspectors banned the sawmills and embargoed the Forest Management Projects operating in the area.

Two weeks later, in what was interpreted as a response to that operation, the federal judge in Santarém, Airton Portela, unleashed a controversial decision: he established the “nonexistence” of the Borari and Arapium identities. Using terms such as “fake Indians” and “supposed rituals,” the judge questioned Funai’s anthropological findings and determined that the agency should suspend the demarcation process, clearing the way for exploitation of the forest inside of indigenous territory.

When questioned about the forest management authorizations, the Secretary of Environment also cited the decision as a justification: “There is a legal discussion in progress about the existence of the Maró Indigenous Territory. The Federal Justice system considered this Indigenous Territory to be nonexistent.”

The judge’s argument–that denies the right to auto-denomination–aroused reactions from anthropologists and indigenous rights activists, including Jane Felipe Beltrão, vice-president of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology. “As soon as I found out, I contacted the attorney for the case and offered my support. This act goes against the Constitution, which guarantees indigenous people the right to represent themselves as such,” asserts the anthropologist. She was one of the experts for the appeal made by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office that succeeded in suspending the motion.

Maro Indigenous Territory BrazilPhoto: Arapium and Borari girls sing circle songs in Portuguese and Nheengatu, one of many languages from the Tupi-Guarani language family (Photo: Ana Aranha)

The final judgment in this case could be an important landmark or set a dangerous precedent. This is because the judge has used cultural miscegenation to negate indigenous identity. He argues, for example, that the habit of drinking xibé (a beverage of indigenous origin made from manioc flour) would be “unserviceable” to characterize indigenous identity because it has already been adopted by the people of Pará state. Likewise, Catholic practices introduced by missionaries served as an argument against the recognition of indigenous people.

Taking this rationale to its extreme, all indigenous populations that have already been influenced by or have had an influence over other cultures would lose their territorial rights.

“The judge is in error if he thinks that culture is impermeable,” Beltrão states. She explains that all indigenous populations in the Tapajós river basin have been subjected to a severe process of cultural persecution and repression since the 16th and 17th Centuries. Of those that were not enslaved by the colonists, many died in confrontations, escaped to other regions, or were led to settlements–communities subjected to catechism by missionaries. According to Funai’s identification reports about these places, the indigenous were taught to “demonize” (a term that has been whitewashed from historical registers) their native languages, culinary habits, rituals, and political organizations.

“The intent was to homogenize, to make them leave behind their indigeneity. For a long time, they were obliged to hide their identity in order to survive. The Constitution set an important landmark for [indigenous] rights,” explained Beltrão. In affirming their identity, the Borari and Arapium have shown that the time for hiding has passed. The case is one more example of indigenous empowerment in defense of their territories, the subject of a series of articles by Repórter Brasil, one of which Upside Down World has previously published here.

Maro Indigenous Territory BrazilFor those who are still unsure about how to define indigenous identity in the 21st Century, chief Dadá extends an invitation. “To those who question my ethnicity, I want to invite you: come to my village, get to know me, but come to be educated by us. To be indigenous today is not the same as 200 years ago. The fact that I wear a T-shirt, use a cell phone, a computer, live in a brick house, [there is] no way this says that I lost my culture. If we don’t learn from society, we would be like the indigenous person from 200 years ago, deceived, robbed. Today we educate ourselves. The indigenous person of today is a Brazilian citizen.”

Photo: A mixture of the traditional with the non-traditional is common among contemporary indigenous people (Photo: Ana Aranha)

Written by Ana Aranha for Repórter Brasil, reporting from the Maró Indigenous Territory, Pará, Brazil, July 4, 2015;

Translated by Holly Holmes

Original report (in Portuguese)

Ana Aranha travelled to the Maró Indigenous Territory at the invitations of Fase (Federation of Agencies for Social and Educational Aid) and FAOR (Eastern Amazônia Forum).