Brazil’s Xavante People Struggle for Their Territory – Marãiwatséde


The Xavante people of the southern Amazon won an important victory in their four-decade long struggle to secure their traditional territory, Marãiwatséde, located in Mato Grosso state in the Brazilian Amazon. On October 18, the Brazilian Supreme Court announced that it had overturned an injunction, issued earlier by the Federal Regional Court (First Region) suspended the expulsion of illegal farmers and squatters from the demarcated territory of the Xavante. The Supreme Court ruling should clear the way for the expulsion of farmers and squatters illegally occupying Xavante territory.

Xavante title to the Marãiwatséde territory was recognized in an act signed by the Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in 1998. However, less than 10 percent of the territory is actually occupied by the Indian tribe. Some 85 percent of the land has been deforested or degraded, much of that to create cattle or soy plantations – from 2009 to 2012, the environmental agency fined farmers inside the reserve for illegal deforestation and environmental crimes in excess of $70 million.

Farmers and ranchers from the local association, called Suiá Missu (Aprosum) claim that more than 7,000 non-Indians currently live inside the demarcated borders of the Xavante territory. The farming lobby Aprosum further alleged in court that there would be resistance to any attempt to remove these people from the reserve. The representative of the state of Mato Grosso, Julio Campos, part of the farmers lobby, mentioned in a speech to Brazilian Congress the possibility of a "bloody conflict." Brazilian authorities believe the 7,000 figure is highly inflated. Only 379 ‘squatter occupations’ have been officially registered by the Brazilian government. The number of large, influential farmers inside the reserve is closer to 10, however these few are believed to be responsible for the strong resistance to eviction amongst those squatting inside the reserve. Resistance has become more acute since 2011, when the Xavante won a land title case in the Brazilian Federal Court. Even with the favorable decision, the president of the Federal Court denied the eviction alleging that in the "current situation of exaltation it was better to keep the status quo."

After losing this suit, farmers located inside the reserve hired influential lawyer Luiz Alfredo Feresin de Abreu, the brother of Senator Kátia Abreu, head of the powerful rural lobby, the Confederação Nacional da Agricultura. De Abreau forged an alliance with Mato Grosso state legislators and the Mato Grosso state governor, an alliance which quickly bore fruit. State governor Silval Barvosa signed a bill, approved by the state congress, offering the Indians a state park in trade for their reserve. Funai, the Brazil Indian Agency, rejected this offer as unconstitutional. The farm lobby further worked to exploit divisions within the Xavante, offering money, cars and cattle to those who would agree to the illegal exchange.

The Xavante diaspora from Marãiwatséde began in 1966, when 233 Indians were taken by the Brazilian airforce 400 kilometers south to the São Marcos Catholic mission, where another Xavante tribe had already been re-located. The São Marcos mission was located not in the Amazon but in the savanna, out of the rainforest biome altogether. "Marãiwatséde" means "high forest" or "dangerous forest" in the Xavante tongue. The Marãiwatséde was a special territory conquered by this subgroup of the Xavante. In the two weeks following the transfer a measles epidemic reduced the transplanted Indian population to only 160. Xavante leader Damião Paridzané, who was 8 years old that time, took more then a month to find out that his father, Ru'waê, an important Xavante leader who had opposed the transfer, had died during the epidemic.

The de-populated territory was taken over by the Ometto family, a group of influential farmers from the southern state of São Paulo, and then sold to the oil company Liquigas. This company, in turn, was bought by the Italian company Agip Petroli, which also owns the Suiá Missú, one of the biggest private land holders in the entire world (including part of the actual indigenous land).

The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio offered the first chance to denounce this case worldwide. Xavante leader Paridzané went to Italy to speak to the management of Agip. Pressured by NGOs and the public opinion, the CEO agreed to give back the land, and Brazil Indian Agency Funai started the process of recognizing Xavante title to the area. It was at this point that squatters started to move into the territory, with the connivance of Brazilian Agip.

The Marãiwatséde territory was demarcated in 1993 and approved by president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1998. However, the Xavante themselves were prevented by squatters from entering the territory. It was only in 2004 that Paridzané organized a great mobilization, bringing from different indigenous lands hundreds of Indians back to their territory. After six months camping in front of a group of resisting squatters, they finally re-entered their homeland. On August 10, 2004, Paridzané broke the lock on the gate and occupied the Caru farm, the first of many such occupations. "I remember exactly that night,” said Paridzané. “We didn't sleep at all! We danced and sang the whole night, we killed a pig and had an amazing party inside our land!"

Today, the Indians still occupy only a small part of the territory. The rest remains with farmers and squatters. "Funai has a plan to expel these intruders," points Aluísio Azanha, director of the agency. With the decision in the Supreme Court, they should be officially informed to leave within 30 days. For those poorer families who have rights to resettlement under Brazilian agrarian reform laws, the Brazil government has set aside 400 parcels in areas outside the reserve – a number the government believes more than sufficient. "Larger farms and illegally occupied lands are scheduled to receive no such compensation," said Azanha.

The farmers’ lawyer Luiz Alfredo Feresin de Abreu have declared they are going to appeal. “The information presented by Funai and the Public Prosecutor to the Supreme Court is wrong and led the Supreme Court to commit a mistake," he said, claiming there are indeed 7,000 people living inside the reserve. (By way of comparison, the entire population of the nearest town, Alto Boa Vista is only 5,247 according to the 2010 census). "Besides, there were never Xavante living in there. Funai created this name Marãiwatséde. Indians themselves never heard that. We have maps that show Indians lived far from there and outside the demarcated land. We are going to ask for new studies on the anthropology." And he also points a political problem: "the Xavante are the biggest landowners in the world. And they don't live in the jungle, only in the savannah."


Xavante leader Damião Paridzané: Xavante leader Damião Paridzané: "I was born and raised here in Marãiwatséde. And I want to die in Marãiwatséde." (Felipe Milanez)

"We want our land, and we are going to plant the forest back," said Paridzané. According to the Xavante leader, "We won't give up what is ours. I want the farmers and squatters out. That's what the community wants." He criticizes the use of the Indians by farmers "the head behind some Indians are whites." He was back in Rio for the Rio+20 world U.N. conference, when he said: "They want to kill me, but I will resist and I am not afraid." Now back inside the territory, Paridzané claims "I was born and raised here in Marãiwatséde. And I want to die in Marãiwatséde."