Regulators collude with farmers to legalise illegal plots within indigenous reservation in Brazil


Still from video footage showing public officials meeting land grabbers and loggers. Photo: YouTube

This piece is based on an article published by Amazonia Real on 10 March 2017.

An indigenous people forced by government inaction to defend their land from illegal invaders have stumbled on a video which shows the same public officials charged with protecting their rights colluding with the land grabbers and loggers they had been fighting against.

For the past few months, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau indigenous people have been monitoring land invasions and illegal deforestation at the western part of their reservation in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. 

The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have denounced a significant increase in land grabbing at their reservation since late 2016, with the intensification of illegal logging, fishing and mining, as well as irregular property sales, with land grabbers selling 100-hectares plots to farmers and loggers.

Complaining of lack of action by the Federal Police or judicial authorities, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have decided to catch illegal loggers and land grabbers by themselves. 

During one of these operations, the community found videos in the possession of loggers which show Rondonia’s civil servants meeting with farmers to discuss the legalisation of their illegally-acquired plots within the reservation.

The uncovered footage shows Mary Braganhol, the head of Rondonia’s agriculture agency (Seagri), and Hélio Gomes Oliveira, director of the state’s environment agency (Sedam), at a meeting with 50 farmers, loggers and land grabbers at the end of January 2017. 

The meeting took place at a house within the reservation that belongs to FUNAI, the federal agency responsible for indigenous issues. At the meeting, Braganhol and Gomes Oliveira discussed the distribution of plots at the reservation among those present.

Other attendees included deputy mayor of Ariquemes, Lucas Follador, who is the son of State Assembly member Avelino Follador, and an assistant to Senator Acir Gurgacz. According to Amazonia Real, Nelson Bispo dos Santos, president of the Curupira Producers Association, and José Giovanni Basilio, a radio and TV presenter in Ariquemes, organised the meeting.

The Associação de Defesa Etnoambiental Kanindé, an NGO that advises and supports the indigenous community, has sent the video to FUNAI, to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, and to the Federal Police, together with a series of reports about the history of invasions at the reservation. Kanindé estimates that around 800 “invaders” remain at the reservation.

The video footage also shows Lucas Follador offering assistance to those present in legalising their plots. The deputy mayor said that “I have very good contacts at INCRA [the federal agrarian reform agency]. This is an important struggle. I wanted to make myself available to help in any way I can”.

INCRA is an important part of this story because it is the agency with the mandate to legalise the plots. Those who have illegally occupied land at the reservation are seeking a title from INCRA to make it look like they are settled families under an agrarian reform programme.

In addition to this footage, Amazonia Real has found another video showing another meeting taking place at the same FUNAI house. On this footage, part of a TV programme called “TV Brasil”, Hélio Gomes Oliveira, Director of Sedam, again appears explaining to farmers how they can obtain permits to clear forests at their plots. 

Gomes Oliveira tells the farmers that “now we need documentation for the plots. Without that, Sedam cannot go ahead in issuing permits for deforestation. Sedam has its doors open to help all of you, but we need the documentation. […] You need to be settled by INCRA”.

The same footage shows a man calling himself Zezão and claiming to represent Senator Acir Gurgacz congratulating the authorities present and commending the “dedication” showed by the farmers: “I see you are all committed to achieving your objectives. About five years ago, Nelson [Bispo dos Santos] told me your story and I passed it on to the Senator. Since then, he has been fighting for you in Brasilia”.

According to Amazonia Real, José Giovanni Basilio has also posted a video on Youtube where he claims that the land has already been legalised by INCRA but never handed to the settlers. The radio and TV presenter questions whether the area really is an indigenous reservation. 

He appeals to the state governor, INCRA and other authorities to visit the area and support the “working people” by handing them the titles to the land. In this video, Basilio interviews Bispo dos Santos, who argues that the area has never belonged to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and that previous settlers were forcibly moved out to make way for the reservation. 

He says that the state of Rondonia has “three Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau who were brought here from [the state of] Espirito Santo”, to which Basilio replies that “these are hired Indians”. Zezão is also present on this footage, telling Basilio that Senator Gurgacz will “get the documentation for each one of [the farmers]. We’ll fight to legalise everything”.

The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau indigenous reservation was created by presidential decree in 1991 by president Fernando Collor. It has 1.87 million hectares and overlaps with the Pacaás Novos National Park. The indigenous community has denounced repeated land invasions over the past months by land grabbers, loggers and miners, but, according to them, the Federal Police has failed to take any action.

The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have been struggling against invasions of their ancestral lands since the 1970s, when INCRA issued 112 land titles to farmers within the area. This settlement is known as Burareiro, but the part of the settlement that falls within the indigenous land has been embargoed by FUNAI – which means that the settlers cannot move into the embargoed areas or conduct any economic activities there – since the 1970s and is still under legal dispute.

According to ISA, a Brazilian environmental NGO, politicians and agribusinesses are exploiting this legal struggle between INCRA and FUNAI to illegally settle farmers within indigenous land.

Nonetheless, Cletho Brito, the current head of INCRA in Rondonia, has told Amazonia Real that he does not intend to issue settlement titles to people who have invaded the indigenous reservation. 

Brito confirmed that Basilio and the Curupira Producers Association have asked him to issue the titles to the illegal plots but stated that, after consulting his staff, he realised the area was part of the reservation and that “I don’t want anything to do with an area under FUNAI […] I don’t see this situation favourably and I don’t think FUNAI would give in”.

FUNAI has told Amazonia Real that they are in communication with other authorities to take appropriate action following the release of the footage. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Rondonia has said that they are investigating the claims.

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