It was like any other day in this remote corner of the Amazon, where macaws squawked and coasted on colourful wings overhead and the hot sun beat down on the gushing Tapajós River. Aboard a dirty, makeshift skiff belching diesel exhaust, gold prospectors sucked up murky sand from the riverbed to pan for the glinting metal. This time, though, they brought up something else: a perfectly intact set of ceramic plates and bowls. It was a bizarre find. But the prospector figured it might ingratiate him and his fellow fortune seekers with the Munduruku, a local Indigenous tribe of roughly 12,000. He chugged the skiff over to a Munduruku village and came ashore.
Juarez Munduruku, the village chief, was immediately alarmed. The Munduruku believe another set of their tribesmen live parallel lives underwater. The village, he said, risked consequences for disrupting their aquatic brethren. Sure enough, within days, a little girl in the village fell ill. She couldn’t breathe or swallow. When a doctor examined her, he found a fish bone lodged in her throat.
“It was the angry fish spirits,” Juarez ― the village chief who, like many in the tribe, uses Munduruku as a surname ― recounted on a rainy afternoon last March.
It’s among the reasons the Munduruku are fearful of all the excavation now taking place on the river. “It can mean very bad things for the Munduruku when the fish are angered,” he said.
It’s not just gold prospectors. Mineral oreminers and loggers have also flocked to this region of Brazil’s northern Pará state in the months since the country elected Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right legislator and former military figure, as its new president. Bolsonaro ran as both a cultural and economic conservative bent on restoring power to the country’s European-descended elite and exploiting the natural resources of the land their ancestors conquered. He vowed that “not one centimetre will be demarcated for Indigenous reserves” and set about making it harder to enforce tribal safeguards while encouraging those brave or desperate enough to make haste in seeking the jungle’s untapped wealth.
“Brazil was once the world leader at enforcing laws against deforestation, but mining and logging have become really big issues of degradation for which protections never fully developed,” said Steve Schwartzman, the Environmental Defense Fund’s tropical forests director and author of a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that shows protected land in the Amazon producing some of the lowest net emissions in the region.
“This is a serious crisis now,” Schwartzman added. “There’s never been a president of Brazil who has so actively and explicitly promoted illegal activity or who has been so thoroughly convinced that development and growth in the Amazon necessarily displaced indigenous people.”
A year into Bolsonaro’s presidency, deforestation broke new records. Historic wildfires torched the world’s largest absorber of carbon dioxide in a moment of global climate panic. And the Indigenous death toll rose at a steady clip.
Brazil’s disastrous response to the uptick in deforestation drew threats of sanctions from former allies. The United Nations’ human rights chief condemned the slayings as “a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land ― especially forests ― by miners, loggers and farmers.” Bolsonaro now faces a dual threat at the International Criminal Court, where countries facing existential threats from climate change are pushing for ecocide to be recognised as a crime against humanity and an influential group of Brazilian lawyers and former government ministers are urging prosecutors at The Hague to indict the president on genocide charges.
Bolsonaro’s defenders say Brazil’s course on these issues hasn’t changed significantly from previous administrations and that the leader’s brash, populist style makes him, like Donald Trump, a convenient punching bag for holier-than-thou liberals. In an end-of-year Twitter thread, Bolsonaro complained that “no other country in the world” requires mining companies to go through a rigorous process to obtain approval from tribes before extracting minerals and metals from protected land. He said “new minerals and modern technologies” developed in Brazil “will fix the environmental damage of the present and the past, left mainly by rich countries.”
Yet for the Munduruku, who had been considered next in line for land protection following a decade-long demarcation process, the shift in power has come with seismic rumblings.
Two Agencies, One Priority
The sudden rise of the country’s new far-right leader left many here shellshocked as Carnival festivities wound down last March. But at the end of the dirt road that leads away from the airstrip in Itaituba, a boomtown on the edge of Munduruku territory, a hastily erected billboard heralded a new beginning.
“PROSPECTOR,” the sign bellowed in an austere black sans-serif on a plain, white background. “Enjoy your right to pan.”
The Amazon was officially open for business.
This was one of the central promises of the Bolsonaro administration. His business-friendly aplomb and Cold Warrior vitriol quickly won over editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist urged readers to put aside concerns over Bolsonaro’s violent homophobia and racism and consider the money that could be made.
This far-flung outpost on Brazil’s northern frontier became the frontline of the changes the most influential cheerleaders of global capitalism praised as progress. It was a fitting setting. An Indigenous village until the late 1800s, Itaituba developed into a rubber-growing hub by the turn of the century, when Royal Geographical Society records show, “construction of a steamer pier, public hall and a fine church” made the town a key port for a global industry.
Today, it’s a city of nearly 101,000, a dusty boomtown that happens to include a Munduruku neighbourhood and health clinic. Motorbikes zip down the potholed roads of its downtown, trailing clouds of red dust behind them. Construction trucks and equipment clog the main streets. Rubber no longer dominates the economy here. Gold, however, is king.
Itaituba mayor Valmir Climaco is a former gold miner who, shortly after boasting about his wife and children during an interview last year with an Australian broadcaster, insisted on graphically detailing the sex he had with other women on a trip to Portugal. Gold mining blossomed from a niche industry dating back to the 1950s to something experiencing what one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers called “a revolution lately with the introduction of hydraulic backhoes, machines with a destruction power several times larger than previous methods.” Even before Bolsonaro, Itaituba maintained a “gold street” where the metal is openly sold despite its illegal origins, according to Climate Home News.
Yet new protections for the old way of thinking and making money are a hallmark of the Bolsonaro era. And that’s why the new offices of the National Mining Agency, whose billboard adorned the airport entrance, served as a sort of informal consulate for the new administration. Protected by a locked fence and a guard strapped with a submachine gun, the cool, well-lit office still smelled of newly unwrapped office furniture when Aidil E.S.R. Lima, the unit head of the station, pushed aside Ikea-style chairs and desks to brandish a map that, when pinned to the wall, stretched taller than her. It showed a detailed catalog of mining and logging sites across the territory the Munduruku claim.
The Munduruku’s borders were invisible. But the national parks that make up large swaths of rainforest to the west and northeast of the Munduruku claim were clearly marked.
“Look, there are already a lot of protected areas,” she said. “We cannot live in a society without this. But we do want to develop in a sustainable way.”
Asked what steps the agency is taking to protect and enforce environmental standards, she said it was “still too soon” to pinpoint. Then, she lightly touched the computer monitor in front of her, the silver ballpoint pen on her desk, and the white legal pad upon which it rested.
“Everything you see in this office comes from the mining activity,” she said.
“It’s not about whether it’s worth it or not,” she added, referring to the environmental costs. “The mining is necessary to our country.”
If even modest investments in office equipment are any metric of priority, the situation at the Fundação Nacional do Índio headquarters was barely a consideration. The agency, known by its Portuguese acronym FUNAI, is responsible for overseeing Indigenous affairs and marking new reservations. The office sits in a small, two-story building on Avenida Manfredo Barata.
There, in a dim, air-conditioned office, Ademir Macedo da Silva, the head of the FUNAI office, stared into the distance. A decade ago, his office was well-funded and maintained five outposts in Munduruku territory across the region. In 2011, funding cuts forced him to close the field stations and consolidate here, hours away from many of the villages. But da Silva, 45, said that was just the beginning of the effort to weaken protections for Indigenous lands.
Soft-spoken but imposing, da Silva still wore his uniform despite, by his own account, having almost nothing to do each day. His office’s handful of SUVs were all damaged, incapable of making the journey into Munduruku territory. He had no budget to fix them, and no money to give tribesmen who came into town seeking his help. For months, he’d been calling the FUNAI headquarters in Brasília, but no one responded.
“The main goal of this government is to open up Indigenous lands and make Indigenous people more Brazilian. That’s it, it’s that simple,” da Silva said. “It’s genocide in the way that they’re not going to kill a group of people, necessarily, but they’re going to kill their culture.”
Several of his staff already resigned. “I don’t even know if FUNAI will exist in a year,” he added.
While FUNAI still exists nearly a year later, the agency’s core function, overseeing Indigenous reservations, was hot-potatoed for much of the year as Bolsonaro tried twice to shift that responsibility to the Ministry of Agriculture, where he installed a top ally of the very agribusiness industry pining to exploit native lands. FUNAI, too, is under new management since Bolsonaro appointed Marcelo Xavier da Silva, a former police officer with deep ties to agribusiness, as the agency’s new chief in July. And the agency hasn’t considered any new Indigenous land designations since Bolsonaro took office.
The Brazilian government had been recognising less and less Indigenous land for years. The country adopted its current rules of designating reservations in 1996. By the time President Fernando Henrique Cardoso left office in 2002, he had approved 145 Indigenous land requests for official recognition. His successor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, approved 87 designations by the end of his second term in 2010. Since 2011, the next two presidents green-lighted a combined 22 reserves.
The retreat from preserving more Indigenous lands stung for the Munduruku in particular. The Munduruku, aided by environmental groups, first started the process of applying for protected status in 2007. By 2013, the tribe mapped out a roughly 700-square-mile parcel, named Sawré Muybu, stretching southeast from the banks of the Tapajós, a few hours south of Itaituba. But the government delayed recognition of the territory. In 2016, a year after the United Nations formally recognised the Munduruku effort, the tribe announced its opposition to the government’s plans to build hydro dams upriver that threatened to flood territory where villages were located. The fight against the dams further delayed the demarcation process.
Then came Bolsonaro.
‘We’re Not Prepared To Be Attacked’
The journey from Itaituba to the banks where Juarez and other Munduruku chieftains now live starts with a two-hour drive down an unpaved stretch of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, followed by another hour or so on a silver speedboat. Parrots and zigzag herons swooped from trees on one bank to new perches on small islands in the river. As the boat’s growling engine slowed to a monotonous pur, a din of frogs, birds and insects filled the air.
The only evidence of humans anywhere close came from a wooden sign bearing the image of a Munduruku warrior carrying the lobbed-off head of an intruder, warning in Portuguese and Munduruku to keep out of the area. Tucked into an alcove in a mangrove forest, the sign was easy to miss or ignore.
As the boat turned a bend in the river, the sound of men’s voices speaking Portuguese grew louder. Roughly 300 feet ahead, around a crook in the river, was a gold panning skiff, covered in rust and held together with nails and rope. The skiffs trawled the riverbed, and the miners sifted through looking for gold and diamonds before dumping the silty remains overboard. The miners waved jovially as the boat passed. In less than an hour, the boat passed three individual skiffs with crews of at least three.
The boat finally cut its engine and drifted into an upside-down basket of mangrove tendrils, under the shade of which three women washed clothes in the river and four children shrieked with joy as they climbed thicker branches and took turns diving into the water. This was the village of Sawre Aboy. Under an open-air gazebo of wood and dried palm, Jairo Saw Munduruku, the 50-year-old chief, was sitting down to a lunch of freshly killed queixada, a native boar.
Over sweet coffee and chewy, salty chunks of meat, Jairo ― a short, soft-spoken man with a balding pate and easygoing nature ― said his village of roughly three dozen arrived here in 2015. They had previously lived about an hour farther upstream, until a neighbouring band of Munduruku began allowing miners and loggers to traverse their shared territory. Rather than challenge both his fellow Munduruku and the well-armed extractors, his village had chosen to retreat here.
For the first few years, he and his extended family eked out a decent living, farming and milling manioc flour, fishing in the river and hunting in the dense foliage.
Then in late 2018, the sound of distant chain saws cut through the night, punctuated with the thuds of felled timber. Jairo and a few men from the village trekked over an hour into the forest the next day, where they found a team of loggers bearing saws, axes and rifles. When the Munduruku told them they were on Indigenous land, the men shot at them.
“We have guns, but we only use them to hunt,” Jairo said through a translator. “We’re not prepared to be attacked. The miners and loggers have powerful guns.”
Since then, the chain saws have only grown louder and closer, he said. In 2017, just over 1 square mile of forest was cleared within Munduruku territory, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research cited by Greenpeace. That number surged to nearly 2 square miles in 2018. By the end of 2019, the figure increased to nearly 6 square miles.
Violent conflicts with the loggers are one threat, but hunger may be more dangerous. The deforestation is pushing away the animals they rely on for food. The queixada he ate, he said, was the first they’d killed in weeks, and their hunters had to hike 45 minutes into the jungle to find it.
It’s also brought pollution. Jairo walked to the riverbank, where a plume of diesel exhaust rose in the distance and murky brown water pulsed by.
“It used to be clear,” he said. Now, children in the village leave the water with rashes ― a common symptom of mercury exposure, one byproduct of the gold panning. “I moved my family because I thought we were safe here. I thought we’d stay here forever.”
Juarez’s village is roughly 20 minutes upstream. A group of children studied Portuguese in one hut. Kids ran around eating coconuts in the hot afternoon sun. Seated in the shade of her home on the edge of the village, Ciane Paiĝo Munduruku gripped her 3-year-old son, Weliçi, close, though she seemed lost in a state of calcified grief.
Over the past nine months, the Indigenous death toll has mounted. In July, gold miners entered Wajãpi territory in the northeastern state of Amapá and stabbed the tribal chief, Emrya Wajãpi, to death. In September, gunmen murdered a veteran Indigenous protector “execution style” in the remote town of Tabatinga, near the Peru border. In November, loggers in the northern Maranhão state ambushed a pair of Araribóia tribesmen in their protected territory, killing one and injuring the other. In December, two Guajajara leaders in the same region were killed in a shootout. A 15-year-old Guajajara in Maranhão, which borders Pará, was knifed to death less than two weeks later. Indigenous people made up 37% of all rural murders in Brazil in 2019, up from 7% a year earlier. The first two weeks of 2020 saw another five murders added to the tally.
There were also other deaths, less violent but no less tragic. In November 2018, about the time Bolsonaro was elected, Ciane, 19, gave birth to her baby girl, Jay’um. Eager to brandish his anti-Marxist bona fides, the new leader had picked a fight with the Cuban government before even taking office. In response, officials in Havana recalled the 8,300 doctors it had deployed to provide routine care to the poorest and most remote regions of Brazil, which included this village.
Before the doctors were recalled, one had visited for up to a week every month, working with the tribal shaman to provide a blend of Western and traditional medicine. Bolsonaro promised Brazilian doctors would replace them. But they never came. In December, 1-month-old Jay’um came down with flu-like symptoms. Ciane hoped her health would improve. It wasn’t that she didn’t take it seriously, but there were now no doctors visiting the village. The nearest hospital is three hours away, requiring a boat ride and a long drive along an unpaved, dangerous stretch of Amazonian highway.
But Jay’um kept getting sicker. By the time Ciane made the long trip to the hospital, it was too late. The girl died shortly after New Year’s Day ― Bolsonaro’s inauguration day.
“It could have been different,” she said softly. “Why do this to us?”