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  HOME | Brazil (Click here for more)

Guardians of the Amazon

SÃO FELIX DO XINGU, Brazil – Generation after generation of the indigenous, Xikrin people has faced the struggle to preserve their way of life.

Tedjore, a shaman, still remembers when the Xikrin retook Rapkô, a village in the Brazilian Amazon, from the “white man.”

Three decades on, the same problems are coming back to haunt them.

Located on the banks of the Bacaja River, in the interior of Para state in northern Brazil, the Trincheira Bacaja is the Amazon in its purest form.

The indigenous reserve is an oasis in the Earth’s lungs. Here, jaguars stalk the forest floor under a canopy of ancient trees, spared, for now, from deforestation and a recent wave of wildfires.

His face painted and wearing a crown of macaw feathers, Tedjore tells of the time when, as a youngster, he helped ward off invaders, loggers and illegal miners.

It was a tough fight but the Xikrin managed to expel them without spilling a single drop of blood.

“In the days of our parents, the white man was already invading our land,” he told EFE.


Elder Bep Djäti Xikrin, a former chief of the Bakaja village, has lost track of his age but his relatives guess he is around 90, judging by his white hair and stories of “war.”

Nine decades spent in the dense rainforest in the Trincheira Bacaja reserve, where the Xikrin settled in 1920 after years of nomadism.

His gaze betrays a weariness and he has trouble walking, but Bep Djati represents the living memory of the Xikrin, an organized, strong and hardy community.

He has dedicated part of his life to protecting the rainforest.

“I am a guardian of the jungle,” he told EFE.

Like shaman Tedjore, Bep Djati fought against the “invasion of lands by the white man” in his youth.

He said outsiders used to be scared of invading indigenous land but today “they come and go and we cannot do anything.”

The Xikrin, one of more than 300 indigenous groups in the Brazilian Amazon, will continue its struggle to preserve its natural sanctuary, he insisted.

Satellite images show how deforestation has advanced at speed in the region, encroaching on the borders of the reserve, an area of lush vegetation and virgin forest spanning 1.6 million hectares, about 20 times the size of New York City.

Although the indigenous communities have been standing their ground, the posseiros, as the invaders are known in Portuguese, have taken the upper hand in the struggle for territory.

In the first seven months of the year, posseiros cleared an area of forest equivalent to 1,309 soccer fields in the reserve, which is home to roughly 2,000 indigenous people.

This represents a 155 percent increase compared to the same period in 2018, according to the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil, whose reliability has been questioned by the country’s new nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to boost the economic exploitation of the Amazon.


The invaders continue to pry on the reserve. Loggers, miners and illegal land buyers (“grileiros”) have erected settlements on Xikrin land just 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Rapko village.

Here, people adhere to the principle of “eye-for-an-eye.”

Tired of waiting for the Brazilian State to intervene, a few weeks ago several Xikrin leaders and warriors undertook a mission to seize chainsaws and weapons and demand the peaceful withdrawal of around 300 families trespassing on their reserve.

“We got there and we said to them: We shoot, we shoot too and we do it to kill,” said Dep Djati Xikrin, a Rapko warrior.

“We didn’t want to fight, we went there to talk. I asked them, who sent you here? Who is your boss?”

Some of the invaders replied in turn, warning in an audio message that they had men in the jungle ready to “hunt the Indians.”

Faced with growing legal and media pressure, some of the invaders have left the reserve but the indigenous community still fears future confrontations.

“That is our concern. We have been fighting for a long time, talking, demanding that the Funai (the National Indian Foundation, a government department) evicts those invaders,” said Chief Beberi Xikrin, another warrior.

“We went and there were a few left. Now, the Federal Police will take the rest and if they don’t, we will evict them.”


Activists in the region say the situation for indigenous communities has worsened under Bolsonaro.

He has been accused by rights groups of incentivizing illegal activities in the rainforest region by defending mining in indigenous territory.

“The invasions increased with Bolsonaro’s speech. He speaks openly of legalizing the garimpo (small-scale mining) and the garimpeiros support him,” an activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, told EFE.

Bolsonaro has retorted by attacking NGOs and European powers, accusing them of wanting to keep the indigenous people living like “animals in a zoo.” He argues that the exploitation of the rainforest’s resources would help the native communities “progress.”

In his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York last month, Bolsonaro took aim at other foreign leaders, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, who suggested the fires in the Amazon be treated as an international crisis.

“It is a fallacy to say that the Amazon is the heritage of humankind and a misconception confirmed by scientists that our Amazon forests are the lungs of the world,” the Brazilian president said.

He said they should respect Brazil’s sovereignty over its Amazon territory, which covers an area twice the size of Argentina.

The Indigenous Missionary Council, which is linked to the Catholic Church, said in a report that the occupation of indigenous lands increased by 44 percent in the first nine months of the year – coinciding with Bolsonaro’s tenure so far.


Iretõ’s skin is a testimony to Xikrin culture. Her arms are covered with jenipapo ink, fruit extract used for body decorations; her earlobe is pierced and dilated to emphasize the power of hearing and a strip of shaved scalp divides her black hair in two.

A protector of Xikrin culture, she and many of the women in Trincheira Bacaja are responsible for taking care of the future generations but also for preserving traditions amid the growth of modern technologies in the region, including the Internet.

“I think about the future of our children. This indigenous area has to be preserved for them,” Iretõ says in her native Kayapo language.

“The rivers are drying up because of farms. We do not want the whites to cut down the forest because then it will be very hot, there will be no air. That is our concern.”


Life on the banks of the Bacaja River, a tributary of the Xingu River, reflects the leisurely rhythm of the nature that surrounds it. The laughter of children mingles with the extreme silence of the forest.

The Bacaja has always been a source of life here, but its waters no longer quench the thirst of the Xikrin population.

It has become increasingly cloudy, and mercury from open-pit mines 200km away, in Paracaja, has begun to seep in.

A study by the Federal University of Para published in 2016 warned that the fish in this river, one of the main Xingu tributaries, showed high levels of mercury and methylmercury.

Mercury limits found in nine of the main fish species were higher than limits set by the World Health Organization.

One of the contributing factors is the presence of illegal small-scale mines in the region.

Another looming threat to the indigenous way of life here is the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, which has already altered the Bacaja ecosystem by stemming the flow of the Xingu River.

In some cases, the Xingu’s volume can decrease by 80 percent, according to a report compiled by the Jaruna indigenous people.

Areas around the river that used to flood and were used by fish as reproduction ground, now remain largely dry.

As compensation for the environmental impact of the plant, authorities offered to erect settlements with cement housing.

While some of the younger indigenous members have taken the offer, many of the elders have decided instead to build straw huts in the village, meaning change and tradition sit side-by-side.

As night falls, cell phone screens, rather than bonfires, cast light in the darkness.

Macaws serve as an alarm system, squawking when a jaguar, or a person, wanders close to the village.

At 10:30 pm the generators are turned off and the Xikrin people turn in for the night.

Silence descends over a village anxious to preserve its way of life.


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