As Bolsonaro took office, armed invaders encroach on Brazil’s tribal lands

An indigenous man of Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe, uses a bow and arrow during a meeting in the village of Alto Jamari called to face the threat of armed land/Image: Reuters

Ten days after Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office, dozens of men entered protected indigenous land in a remote corner of the Amazon, hacking a pathway beneath the jungle canopy.

Inspired by Brazilian president’s vow to open more native territory to commercial development, the men, armed with machetes, chainsaws and firearms, had come to stake their claims.

A tense stand-off ensued with members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe, who captured the January confrontation on a cellphone video viewed by Reuters. The trespassers threatened to set fire to their villages to drive them out, tribal members said. Tribesmen readied poison-tipped arrows in their bows.

The invaders retreated. But a bullet-riddled sign at the entrance to their sprawling reservation now serves as their calling card.

The confrontation is part of a surge of threats and illegal incursions that tribes and indigenous rights groups say have accompanied Bolsonaro’s rise to power.

Land invasions have increased 150 percent since he was elected in late October, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a Brazilian advocacy group.

Brazil is home to about 850,000 indigenous people representing roughly 300 tribes. Their vast reservations, accounting for about 13 percent of Brazil’s territory, have long been a source of conflict with outsiders looking to tap their natural riches.

“If I become president, there won’t be one square centimetre of land designated for indigenous reservations,” he said at a 2017 campaign stop in the farm state of Mato Grosso.

Indigenous advocates say such rhetoric has stoked long-simmering resentment, putting native lives at risk.

“His campaign speeches … became a license to invade indigenous lands,” said Ivaneide Bandeira, head of the ethno-environmental defence NGO Kanindé.

One of Bolsonaro’s first acts as president was to strip FUNAI of its role in setting reservation boundaries, passing that authority to the Agriculture Ministry, which is dominated by rural interests.


The Uru-eu-wau-wau were decimated by illness when farmers arrived in the 1970s with the opening of a road through Rondonia.

Today, their 150 survivors live on a reservation covering 1.9 million hectares near the border with Bolivia. It is an area larger than the U.S state of Connecticut.

While some tribal members wear jeans and use cellular phones bought with government welfare payments and sales of Brazil nuts and cassava flour, they live largely as their ancestors did, hunting tapirs and wild boar.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau have faced invasions by illegal loggers and farmers before.

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