An Indigenous Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe man seeks protection from military police after villagers were threatened by people who seized their land.

An Indigenous Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe man seeks protection from military police after villagers were threatened by people who seized their land. Isis Medeiros

Land Grabbers: The Growing Assault on Brazil’s Indigenous Areas

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, illegal miners, loggers and ranchers are invading and occupying ever-larger amounts of Indigenous territory. Brazil’s original inhabitants are increasingly opposing these incursions, leading to conflicts and a surge in killings of local activists.

One afternoon last month, several vehicles descended on a village in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where Avelin Buniacá Kambiwá and other members of some 20 Indigenous families were building their homes. Emerging from one of the cars, a man known only by his nickname, Piauí, shouted to his companions and anyone else within earshot, “Feathers are going to fly!”

He was referring to the feathered headdresses of the local Indigenous people. He was outraged, and he wanted them gone.

Piauí is what Brazilians call a grileiro, a land-grabber — someone who invades Indigenous or public land, or land that simply does not belong to them, before claiming it as their own. They frequently use fake documentation to carry out activities such as illegal logging, mining and real estate speculation.

Two years earlier, some members of the Pataxó and Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe peoples had lost their homes along the Paraopeba River after a tailings dam at a major iron ore mine collapsed. The Brumadinho dam disaster killed 270 people, spewed millions of tons of toxic waste into the river and surrounding communities, and left hundreds of Indigenous people homeless.

“We live in fear — we’re always wondering, when will they kill us?”

To help these displaced people, the Minas Gerais Association of Japanese Brazilian Culture bequeathed them 89 acres of land, most of it an outright donation. Along with the Pataxó and Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe came Kambiwá and Kamakã people. The Indigenous families began settling into the newly created village of Katurãma in June. But Piauí had been eyeing this land for years. Since arriving on their land, the Indigenous residents had been met with gunshots fired into the trees, fires set around the village, and threats to slit their throats.

“Some families left,” said Buniacá Kambiwá, a teacher and coordinator of the Minas Gerais Committee to Support the Indigenous Cause. “They couldn’t take it anymore. It’s our land, our home, but they were too afraid to stay here.”

Brazil is home to 305 Indigenous groups, and virtually all are in an intensifying battle to keep their land. Some, like those in Katurãma village, have come together after being pushed off their original territories, while others hold steadfast to land that’s been theirs since before the arrival of colonizers more than 500 years ago. No matter the details of their individual situations, they all agree on one thing: The attacks on their land and their lives are getting worse.

Driving this surge to occupy or confiscate Indigenous lands are the policies of Brazil’s nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who took office on January 1, 2019, promising not to give “one more centimeter” of land to Indigenous people. Bolsonaro has presided over a huge increase in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and also has led an assault on the territorial rights of Brazil’s Indigenous groups. Two bills now before Brazil’s Congress would make it impossible for Indigenous people to reclaim lands taken from them prior to 1988, legitimize the claims of people who now illegally occupy Indigenous lands, and allow mining on Indigenous territories without their consent.

Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe people receive a document giving them possession of 89 acres of forested land known as Mata do Japonês.

Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe people receive a document giving them possession of 89 acres of forested land known as Mata do Japonês. Isis Medeiros

Indigenous groups are resisting these efforts. At least 113 Indigenous people were murdered in Brazil in 2019, according to a report from the nonprofit Indigenous Missionary Council. Most were “committed to the protection of the borders of their territories and fought against logging and mining,” the report said. Another 25 cases of attempted murder involving 81 victims were also documented.

The acts of violence happened across Brazil among several Indigenous groups, including the Pataxó, Guajajara, Guarani-Kaiowá and Yanomami. Since 2019, the number of attacks against defenders of Indigenous rights and lands has skyrocketed. According to Júnior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the Yanomami and Ye’kuanna Indigenous Health Council, “invasions on Yanomami land have increased 90 percent since the beginning of 2019.”

Yanomami territory, which stretches across the states of Amazonas and Roraima and is home to 29,621 people living in 367 communities, has long suffered invasions and attacks from illegal miners — called garimpeiros — who tear up the land in search of gold. According to Brazil’s Social and Environmental Institute, an estimated 20,000 illegal miners were on Yanomami land in 2020. But in the last two years, Hekurari Yanomami said, the criminal operations have grown tenfold — and so has their violence.

Proposed legislation would make it impossible for Indigenous people to reclaim lands taken prior to 1988.

The miners, he said, now come in large groups, arriving by boat and helicopter with machinery to help them carry out their activities. In areas of Yanomami land that once had two or three illegal miners searching for gold, he now sees as many as 15 men working. They’re often armed with military-grade rifles and machine guns.

“We live in fear,” said Hekurari Yanomami. “We’re always wondering, when will they kill us?”

Illegal mining has also seen exponential growth on Munduruku territory in the state of Pará. A 2021 report from the Social and Environmental Institute said there was a 363 percent increase in land degradation on Munduruku territory caused by mining activity in the last two-and-a-half years. A federal police operation was carried out earlier this year in an attempt to put a stop to the destruction, but the garimpeiros returned to the land as soon as the officers were gone.

Paulino Guajajara, a Guajajara leader and member of the Guardians of the Forest, a group formed by Indigenous people trying to protect their land from illegal loggers, was assassinated in November 2019 while returning from a day of hunting with another local leader, Laércio Guajajara, who was shot in the arms and back. He escaped, but he had to leave his home and be put into a special protection program for human rights defenders. With the two leaders gone, Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara, a teacher and director of the Azuru Indigenous School Education Center, became the loudest voice speaking out against the illegal loggers. He was found dead on the side of a road near his village in March 2020.

The remnants of illegal logging on Mata do Japonês.

An illegally cleared area of Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe land. Isis Medeiros

Three months later, two young Yanomami men were shot and killed on their land by illegal miners. The murders set off a series of events that led to violent attacks on the Yanomami village of Palimiú over 65 days in April, May and June of this year. In one of the attacks, three garimpeiros died, and five people, including one Yanomami person, were injured.

“The federal government,” said Hekurari Yanomami, “encourages it.”

The two bills currently making their way through the Brazilian Congress could make the work of land-grabbers, illegal miners and illegal loggers easier. The first would legitimize claims to public and Indigenous land that had previously been invaded, meaning those who illegally took over the land would not only get away with it, but also would be awarded the titles to the land they had taken.

The second bill would do away with the current process of identifying and demarcating Indigenous land. Under the proposed legislation, only those lands that the government had identified as Indigenous territories on the date of the promulgation of the Brazilian Constitution — October 5, 1988 — would continue to be considered Indigenous land. Many territories were officially declared as Indigenous after that date, which means that Indigenous groups might have to forfeit large swaths of their traditional territories to miners, loggers, cattle ranchers, and real estate speculators.

“They try to take [our land] over and over again, but we won’t stand down.”

And if an Indigenous group sought to demarcate its land, it would no longer go through the current well-defined, multi-step process. Instead, Congress would have the authority to demarcate Indigenous lands.

“It’s difficult to get Indigenous land demarcated, recognized and ratified now,” said Arão da Providência Araújo Filho, an attorney and member of the Guajajara Indigenous group. “If this bill passes, it will be impossible.”

When a farmer donated the land in the state of Minas Gerais to the Association of Japanese Brazilian Culture in 1980, it was untouched forest. It wasn’t until 2010 that the area — now known as Mata do Japonês — started to suffer from isolated invasions by grileiros hoping to take advantage of the fact that the land was rarely visited by its owners. The grileiros staked claim to plots along the edges of the property.

In 2016, the association went to court to have the land-grabbers evicted. Twenty-nine grileiros were identified but have yet to be removed. The number of invasions has continued to climb. Four years later, the land invaders started coming in groups. Men like Piauí felled trees and put lots up for sale, despite the fact that the land didn’t belong to them and that much of it was a protected conservation area.

Residents of Katurãma in Mata do Japonês and local volunteers build the village's communal kitchen.

Residents of Katurãma in Mata do Japonês and local volunteers build the village's communal kitchen. Vrin Resende

The Association of Japanese Brazilian Culture didn’t know what to do. It had lost control of its own land. So when the Indigenous people who would create the Katurãma village approached the Japanese Brazilian cultural association in 2021 about acquiring the land, the association’s leaders saw a solution to their problem.

“When we owned the land, there were no watchmen. Nobody was able to keep an eye on it,” said Antônio Hoyama, the Japanese Brazilian group’s administrative director. “Before the Indigenous people were there, the grileiros were destroying the forest. We knew with [the Indigenous people] there, it would be protected. They’re already replanting the area of the forest that was burned by the fires [set by the grileiros]. And we knew they needed a place to live.”

Now, as these Indigenous groups build their thatch-roofed houses in Katurãma and rebuild their lives, they sleep under tarps, afraid the land-grabbers will take over if they leave while the community is still under construction. They’ve reported the illegal activity on their land and the violence they’ve faced to both the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), but still feel unsafe.

“The lives of Indigenous people depend on the land,” said Buniacá Kambiwá. “They try to take it over and over again, but we won’t stand down.”

A Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe ceremony for the possession of Mata do Japonês.
Avelin Buniacá Kambiwá sits by a fire at night in search of spiritual strength.

A Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe ceremony celebrating taking possession of Mata do Japonês (left); Avelin Buniacá Kambiwá sits by the fire (right). Isis Medeiros; Vrin Resende