Mongabay | Amazon community on Tapajós River invaded by wildcat miners

By Sue Branford and Maurício Torres, with additional reporting by Ailen Vega - Mongabay
By Sue Branford and Maurício Torres, with additional reporting by Ailen Vega - Mongabay

  • The Brazilian community of Montanha-Mangabal made up of beiradeiros —riverside peasant farmers and traditional fishermen — has been invaded and threatened by angry wildcat miners.
  • The beiradeiros community spread for miles along the Tapajós River in Pará, worked for decades to establish its legal land rights, achieved in 2013 when Brazil’s National Colonization and Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) turned the land into a 550 square kilometer Agro-Extractive Settlement (PAE).
  • However, the federal government failed to meet its obligation to demarcate the land. As a measure of last resort, Montanha-Mangabal and Munduruku indigenous allies began marking the land’s boundaries in September using GPS and signs.
  • This self-demarcation process apparently led to the miners’ invasion, as they illegitimately claim some of the community’s land. The beiradeiros, Munduruku, and other indigenous groups see the invasion as part of a bigger threat by Brazilian ruralists and the government to develop the Amazon.

A hundred beiradeiro families — peasants and traditional fishermen — live in Montanha-Mangabal, an Amazon community spread thinly along 40+ miles of the Tapajós River. Their legitimate land claims are being threatened by wildcat miners and by a proposed, government-supported dam. Photo by Mauricio Torres

MONTANHA-MANGABAL, Brazil: On 28 September, a group of wildcat miners, known in Brazil as garimpeiros, invaded a small community of riverside peasant farmers and traditional fishermen, known as beiradeiros, living beside the Tapajós River in Pará state in the Amazon.

“The miners are extremely angry, they’re armed and threatening everyone,” one local resident told Mongabay.

The beiradeiros say that a large group of garimpeiros arrived in the area, disobeying a legal order “not to enter any area occupied by the traditional population of Montanha-Mangabal.” The miners threatened violence against the local inhabitants, and, according to a witness, “took everything we had, including the ammunition for our firearms.”

The garimpeiros left after making their threats, but the beiradeiros now feel vulnerable and isolated. Their houses are scattered along the river, and it takes an average 20 minutes to row from one to another. The community only has two or three radios, along about 70 kilometers (43 miles) of river.

On the day of the invasion, the beiradeiros appealed to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), an independent branch of the federal government, to take protection measures. So far, neither the MPF or any government branch has responded.

The violence against the beiradeiros arose when the 100 families residing in Montanha-Mangabal — frustrated with the government’s failure to mark out the legal borders of their settlement, began self-demarcating their land, a process known as auto-demarcação. The miners see that process as a serious challenge to their illegitimate land claims.

Community members work in the forest during the September self-demarcation. Photo by Fernanda Moreira

Rightful owners of the riverbank

The community of Montanha-Mangabal was legally established in 2013, when residents won a long struggle to gain rights to their land. That year, Brazil’s National Colonization and Agrarian Reform Institute (INCRA) created a 550 square kilometer (212 square mile) Agro-Extractive Settlement (PAE) for the community.

As a PAE, the beiradeiros — which is what people living along Amazon rivers call themselves — can go on occupying the land and using it the way their ancestors did in perpetuity. They cannot, however, sell the land.

Pedro Martins, a lawyer with the Terra de Direitos NGO, which works closely with the beiradeiros, told Mongabay: “A few days ago the inhabitants of the PAE began their process of auto-demarcação, putting up signs marking out the limits of their land.”

According to Martins, that action angered the invading miners because it clearly showed that the riverside land didn’t belong to them. That’s when the threats began “within this process in which communities are empowering themselves to defend their territories against illegal mining in the Tapajós region.”

Martins sees the Montanha-Mangabal conflict in a broader context: “In the Amazon as a whole the mechanisms for advancing capital in the region always involve agrarian conflicts, struggles over the control of natural resources and violence,” he said, adding “Wildcat mining is only the advance guard of larger economic interests in the region. The miners are used to carry out criminal actions against local families.”

Martins sees events in Montanha-Mangabal as being linked to the current political climate in Brazil: “Tension and violence in the Brazilian countryside, and especially in the Amazon, have increased with the extreme political instability in the country.” Critics of the Temer government hold that the administration’s pro-development policies have emboldened ruralists, agribusiness and mining interests eager to exploit the Amazon.

Mangabal-Montanha residents celebrate the marking out of the borders of their lands. That effort has resulted in an attack from wildcat miners, to which the Brazilian government has yet to respond. Photo by Fernanda Moreira

Continuing struggle for Amazon land

For Montanha-Mangabal, becoming a PAE was the culmination of a 140-year-struggle for legal recognition. The community was settled in the second half of the 19th century when hundreds of poor farmers from impoverished northeast Brazil migrated to the Amazon to tap rubber. After the rubber boom went bust in the early 20th century, many were trapped without the money for the 2,000 kilometer (1,200 mile) trek home.

Stranded, some single men abducted women from neighboring indigenous groups and settled down with them. One resident, Dona Raimunda Araujo, recalled family stories of how her grandfather “stole” her grandmother, a Munduruku Indian. But the women were not passive victims, she added; they brought centuries of indigenous survival knowledge to the rubber-tapper communities, without which the communities might have perished. This helps explain why beiradeiros communities — which cut only small areas for crops — have some of the best-conserved forest in the Amazon.

Despite their isolation, the beiradeiros, many of whom are illiterate, acquired evidence of their long term settlement — reports by priests, letters from visitors, old travel tickets. Still, it took years of tenacious effort, wrestling with the Brazilian bureaucracy, for the small community to get its land rights recognized.

When that finally happened, the PAE immediately ran counter to the plans of then President Dilma Rousseff, who was eager to open the Amazon to large scale economic activities. Rousseff was determined, despite warnings from environmentalists, to turn the biodiversity rich Tapajós basin into an industrialized export corridor, building a series of dams on the river to generate energy for mining.

Location of Montanha-Mangabal and of proposed dams which would flood part of the community. If the Jatobá dam is built, the government is obliged to resettle the community to a new location, which residents must approve. Map by Mauricio Torres

One of these dams – Jatobá, still in the planning stages — would flood land given to Montanha-Mangabal. The creation of the PAE means that, if the dam goes ahead, the 100 families will now have to be resettled to a locale acceptable to them.

Luiz Bacelar Guerreiro Junior, at the time the superintendent for the regional office of Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) and the person who signed the portaria (order) creating the PAE, said: “I am very proud to be ending a struggle like this one, giving rights to those who deserve them.”

Felipe Fritz Braga, a prosecutor in the Federal Public Ministry, independent government litigators, commented: “The recognition of Montanha-Mangabal by the Brazilian state is an unmistakeable act of true and effective agrarian reform. It is the first time the federal government recognizes the antiquity of the occupation of this land by these communities and treats them as people having fundamental rights, especially rights to the land.”

Self-demarcation a tactic of last resort

Under the terms of the portaria, INCRA was obliged to mark out the borders of PAE. But so far it has done nothing. Increasingly concerned about the way their undemarcated land was being invaded by loggers, miners and land thieves, the community repeatedly appealed to INCRA to fulfil its obligation.

Finally in September 2017, the beiradeiros decided to mark out their lands themselves, in the process known as “auto-demarcação” (self-demarcation).

One of the beiradeiros, Ageu Pereira, told Mangabay: “This demarcation is happening because a lot of our land is being invaded. And the competent body, INCRA, hasn’t come to do the work. So we’ve decided, we’ll do it. We are already doing it”.

Montanha-Mangabal resident and woodsman Francisco Firmino da Silva, known as Chico Caititu, helping the Munduruku with demarcation of their lands. Photo by Marcio Isensee e Sá

Francisco Firmino da Silva, known as Chico Caititu, a woodsman, explained more fully: “We are demarcating the land ourselves so that they [the outsiders] will know where they can go and what land belongs to us. They are always saying to us: ‘I don’t know which is my land, which is yours.’ So as of today all those people who come from the road, all those people will know where they can — and where they can’t — go.”

In fact, none of the invaders can lay legal claim to the land. The settlement lies within the area of Influence of the Transamazon Highway, built in the 1970s. At the time, a 100 kilometer (62 mile) strip was claimed by the federal government on either side of the highway. Though the beiradeiros are constantly threatened by loggers and miners waving documents that, they say, show them to be owners of plots, inside and outside the settlement, those claims aren’t valid. All the land is federal unless the government decides otherwise, as in the case of the Montanha-Mangabal PAE.

Beiradeiro and indigenous alliance

The auto-demarcaçāo has lately become a tool for strengthening an emerging alliance between the beiradeiros and local indigenous communities. In the past, these communities fought each other for control of territory. Now they increasingly see themselves as allies, with each helping the other with demarcation.

In 2013 Chico Caititu and other beiradeiros travelled to the Xingu River to join the Munduruku and other indigenous groups to protest construction of the Belo Monte dam, now in operation and damaging local communities and the environment.

In 2014, when the Munduruku carried out their own auto-demarcação marking the boundaries of their Daje Kapap Eipi (Sawré Mubyu) indigenous territory, beiradeiros from Montanha-Mangabal helped. Now the indigenous communities are reciprocating.

“We and the beiradeiros both depend on this forest and this river,” said Juarez Saw Munduruku, the cacique (chief) of Sawre Muybu village. “We are threatened in the same way by government projects, miners and loggers. This is why we made an alliance. I am in debt to Montanha-Mangabal and I have come to pay that debt. And I have brought 23 male and female warriors with me.”

Both the Munduruki cacique, Juarez Saw Munduruku, and the beiradeiro Chico Caititu are worried about the hydroelectric dams planned for the Tapajós River — which scientists say is an environmental “crisis in the making.” Of particular concern is the nearest one, the Jatobá dam, where studies for the dam’s licensing are due to be finished next year.

If it goes ahead, the Jatobá dam will have a severe impact on both the Munduruku and the beiradeiros.

Other Munduruku groups, not directly affected by Jatobá, also helped in the recent demarcation. Two leaders from the Satere Maue community undertook a five-day journey to visit and express their support for Montanha-Mangabal’s demarcation. They are involved in their own struggle, so far successful, to stop large São Luiz do Tapajós dam — shelved by IBAMA, the environmental agency, in 2016 after a major public campaign against it.

It is too soon to gauge the reaction of other beiradeiro communities and indigenous communities to the violence happening in Montanha-Mangabal. But, if it continues, there is likely to be counter-offensive.

Today the beiradeiros in Montanha-Mangabal increasingly feel part of a broader community which is resisting government and business incursions into the region, and standing against the rising wave of violence.

Solimar dos Anjos, a beiradeiro playing an active role in the demarcation, said: “We need the river to fish. The river is our supermarket. The river is our life. The same goes for the forest…. But we can’t preserve all this alone. This partnership we have, this alliance we have made with the Munduruku, is an important conquest.”

Correction: When this article was originally published, several photos were credited erroneously to Ailen Vega, but were actually shot by Fernanda Moreira. The errors have been corrected.

Actions: Land Conflicts
Axes: Earth, territory and space justice