Course:CONS370/2019/Indigenous responses and resistance to resource extractive and infrastructural developments in the Tapajos-Xingu region of Brazil (1980 to 2018)

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For the past few decades (insert dates), the Tapajós-Xingu region of Brazil has seen an influx of infrastructural developments, some of which have the goal of natural resource extraction. One such development, called the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex, is currently under construction and has been the subject of much debate. The Belo Monte dam is situated on the Xingu River which is the Amazon's largest clear-water tributary.[1] What is the driving force behind these infrastructural developments in the Amazon? In short, Brazil's need for industrial expansion.[2]


The Brazilian government is utilizing the natural resources of the Amazon to meet demands of the export industry in a colonial manner and to grow its economy. Such exploitation of the Amazon is characteristic of an anthropocentric worldview, and by default, clashes with the traditional ecocentric view held by the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, such as the Kayapo peoples. In addition to the Brazilian government, there are a plethora of domestic and international stakeholders who also benefit from the decimation of the Amazon. As a result, the traditional people of the Amazon are facing a stark reality of an impending demise.

Additionally, there is a general lack of effective land governance in Brazil. As such, much of the forestry has a direct negative impact on rural areas as they face a process of urban exclusion and poverty. This is because of the high degree of private land ownership, which is one of the main agrarian issues within Brazil.[3] However, the recent political shift in government has lead to control of the Executive arm of government to the Social Liberal Party led by Jair Bolsonaro. the Tapajós-Xingu region, and larger Amazon area are facing heightened issues in terms of land use and aboriginal land rights. This essay looks at the existing and historical land tenure arrangements and the administrative agreements around such tenures and recommendations relating to such tenures.

Tenure arrangements

The indigenous populations which inhabited Brazil prior to the arrival and colonization by the Portuguese in 1500 have since been witnesses to the mass exploitation of the country’s vast natural resources, including Brazilian wood, gold and diamonds. After the Portuguese colonization, both the indigenous people and external international business partners traded in what is known as the “pau-Brasil” trade [insert reference].

This mutuality changed after the introduction of the Portuguese colonies and incorporation of Brazilian land into the Portuguese empire and the declaration of the first General Government. Due to this, labor force requirements were required to bolster trade enterprises, in which the indigenous people were forcibly used as slaves. It was only after 1910 that the indigenous people began to regain some of their lost sovereignty and land rights - fuelled by the installation of Indigenous Protection Service, which was subsequently replaced by the The National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) in 1967. Both of these official agencies were tasked for caring for Indigenous affairs, and in this case, land rights and land protection.[4]

Government Demarcated Indigenous Lands (Green)

By 1952, the federal government had established the Indigenous reservation policy which resulted in the Xingu Indigenous National Park being established in 1961. Further advancements towards land agreements were detailed in the Indigenous Act 1973 which stated that any land that had been previously occupied by Indigenous people, or which had remained permanently inhabited as well as any land which was required to be used for traditional productive activity requires the government to demarcate the land in order to ensure respect for the aboriginal people. This is the first example of traditional land tenure where land was officially recognised as an aboriginal title.[5] This act to the constitution allowed the lands - which officially are the property of the nation-state of Brazil - to be allocated for and possessed by the Indigenous people, as well as offering exclusive rights and ownership over the use of natural resources on the land. Within the articles, it is written that; ‘indigenous lands are inalienable and the rights to imprescriptible xxx.’ (reference)

Currently, the land falls partially under a native title tenure as the Federal Union has allowed the classification of public land as fully protected units specifically for the indigenous people to practice traditional laws and customs. The Federal Government has given indigenous peoples possession of their original territories, many of which overlap between various aboriginal groups. Recently, the Brazil Supreme Court has allowed the indigenous people to live on the land and given the ability for indigenous bodies to gain profits from natural resources.[6] With this (as of 2015), the Federal Government has demarcated 699 lands, spanning across 1,158,198km, most of which are located within the Tapajós-Xingu region (49%), as well spanning across 54% of the Amazon region, with an additional 30% being in regions which are under private ownership or land upon which cities were built. These lands can be seen in figure 1 below. [place a caption to denote Figure 1]

In addition to these tenures, the majority of the land tenures in Brazil originate from legal ownership as given by land of a deed granted from the 16th century. Paralleling these legal claims relate to title-age via occupation, squatting or cultivation which was granted after Brazilian independence in 1822.[7] This switched in 1850 when claimed land began to be recognized by its occupation and cultivation. This has continued to be in full or partial effect through the majority of the 19th and 20th century yet fluctuates through the voting and electing of specific parties such as the Partido Democrático Trabalhista (PDT) or the Partido Verde (PV) which have a heavy emphasis on social justice and environmental issues.

Administrative arrangements

Brazil has a complex interlaced framework involved in land regulation. The Federal Government is tasked with presenting proposals regarding changes in legalization and institutional involvement, so long as Congress approves such proposals. The Federal Government is legally authorized to create Extractives Units and National Forests. Beneath the Federal Government is the State Government, which includes the House of Representatives. this branch is involved in creating State Forest, and is most implicated in working in the Tapajós-Xingu region.[8]

General Flow and Institutional Framework, Brazilian Land Regulation

The Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária (INCRA) is a branch of the Federal Government’s Ministry of Agrarian. The task of INCRA is to create and notify national property registration numbers, deciding on unclaimed lands, determining real estate registrations. It also is tasked with using unclaimed land for indigenous land tenure or related affairs such as settlement projects or colonization. Beneath this are State Land Institutes which control and regulate state public lands.[9]

Alongside these bodies are several autonomous, regulatory bodies such as the Notary System; a subordinate of the Ministry of Justice. They’re tasked with controlling, gaining and selling the property under the law. A second subordinate, the Land Property Registry Notary, registers all rural and urban property transactions (KAY, 2006). The administrative arrangements further broaden at the Municipality level where both the City Council and the Executive engage in motions behind the transformation of rural land into urban properties. The body which defends the cases which involve rural properties is the Federal Attorney's Office (AGU). There are many levels to this, and often involve complex development plans which include heavy planning and taxation.[10]

The group which is crucial to the function of both the Notary System, the Land Property Registry Notary and the INCRA is the Department of National Heritage (SPU) which falls beneath the Ministry of Planning. This institution is responsible for regulating and managing all national properties throughout the country, including unclaimed lands, the transferring of such lands to the INCRA and registration bodies. Lastly, the Supreme Federal Court (STF) is behind the enforcement of social, environmental and productive functions under the constitution to ensure accurate identification, delimitation, entitlement, demarcation, and acknowledgment can be completed.[11]

In addition, these institutions, external bodies, and functions also exist to administer land arrangements. The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) is an NGO with a mandate for dealing with problems plaguing poor rural areas, which are often triggered by the high degree of land ownership concentration in Brazil. It operates as a legal service, which creates rural unions, educates and reaffirms by denouncing violence against poor rural communities by government bodies. The CPT primarily works within the Amazon region. however, does work within the Tapajós-Xingu region.[12]

Land administration within Brazil is often examined by international organizations which work on intrinsic, multi-disciplinary structuring [what does this mean?]. The UN-HABITAT, a United Nations programme primarily works on land tenure and property administration, particularly with property rights and affordable land care and affirmation. From 2008 to 2013, they conducted 8 projects throughout Brazil valuing over $10 million USD. Although acting independent from any Government bodies, their work was directed and structured by Brazilian Government agencies and ministries.[13]

Affected Stakeholders

Before and after satellite imagery of the region where Belo Monte was built

Affected stakeholders are Indigenous groups such as the Kayapo peoples, many of whom depend on the Xingu River for their livelihoods. Indeed, because of the Belo Monte dam, tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples have been forced from their homes, and have had their fishing livelihoods destroyed (Anderson & Elkaim, 2018). Other Indigenous peoples affected include the Juruna, Xikrín, Arara, Xipaia, and Kuruaya, who live in the Xingu region (Amazon Watch, 2011). In order to build an effective resistance campaign, the Kayapo peoples recognized the importance of repairing relationships with other Indigenous groups in the Xingu valley (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). This solidarity has resulted in a climate of shared antagonism and distrust by IPs of outsiders seeking to exploit Indigenous lands (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). The collective objective of the Indigenous peoples of the Xingu was to halt construction of the Belo Monte dam. However, despite years of struggle, construction work of the dam continued. Thus, a major issue now is adequate compensation, for the largely irreversible harm done. Pictured is satellite imagery demonstrating the damage to the surrounding area.

In 2011 the dam's builder, Norte Energia, signed an agreement with the Brazilian government in which $1 billion dollars would be allocated to those affected by the dam (Sullivan, 2016). However there have been complaints from traditional peoples, especially traditional fisherfolk, that they have not been compensated enough (Sullivan, 2016). Construction of the Belo Monte dam killed multiple tons of aquatic species, and drastically reduced the area in which traditional peoples could fish, thereby impacting their way of life (Sullivan, 2016). During the flooding of the dam's reservoir, 16.2 tons of fish were illegally killed, for which Norte Energia, was fined US$11 million (Branford, 2016)

Another significant issue is the loss of Indigenous identity (Sullivan, 2016). The compensation that was given to Indigenous communities during the dam's construction, sometimes as much as $10,000 dollars per month for two years, resulted in a multitude of social issues (Anderson & Elkaim, 2018). The sudden influx of cash led some rural communities to embrace modern consumer goods (Anderson & Elkaim, 2018). Feuds within tribes, alcoholism, and prostitution became serious issues (Anderson & Elkaim, 2018). This decimation of Indigenous culture resulted in Norte Energia being sued for “ethnicide” (Anderson & Elkaim, 2018). While taking away generational lands leads to lifestyle changes and social or cultural losses,133 [what is this?] these losses are hard to quantify

It is important to recognize that Indigenous peoples displaced by the Belo Monte dam have lived on these lands for generations (VanCleef, 2016). Their “blood is inside the land,” therefore it is more than just an economic asset for them (VanCleef, 2016). Corporate or government entities monetarily compensating Indigenous peoples for their losses, is the bare minimum of what should be done. There can be difficulties in recognizing the non monetary value of assets (VanCleef, 2016). However according to The World Bank, there must be an effort to provide displaced peoples with access to resources and opportunities, equivalent to those that were taken from them (VanCleef, 2016). The power of Indigenous peoples to correct such issues is not as strong as it should be. Because of entrenched political corruption, and the current far-right Bolsonaro government, the struggle for Indigenous peoples to protect their land, culture, way of life and obtain adequate compensation will continue.

Interested Outside Stakeholders

Social actors (stakeholders, user groups) who are interested stakeholders, outside the community, their main relevant objectives, and their relative power

Interested stakeholders are numerous and to list them all is beyond the scope of this essay. Many people both foreign and domestic, stand to benefit from the exploitation of the Amazon, and the construction of large scale industrial projects such as the Belo Monte dam. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to measure the the extent to which foreign capital has de facto laid claim to the Amazon (Lea, 2018). The Belo Monte dam is owned by the consortium Norte Energia, which is led by Brazilian federal power utility Eletrobras who have a 49.98% interest stake (Hall & Branford, 2012). The remaining shareholders in Norte Energia are major construction companies (Hall & Branford, 2012). Multiple foreign corporations have been contracted to do work on the dam as well, providing parts such as turbines. These include French multinational Alstom, the Austrian engineering firm Andritz, and Voith Group, a German multinational (“Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant”, n.d.). Other institutions that stand to benefit from such large scale, environmentally destructive mega projects include the International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). Brazil's large foreign debt is often used as leverage by such organizations, to persuade the Brazilian government, to adopt intense developmentalist economic policies (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). The Brazilian state has unequivocally aligned itself with the interests of big capital (Hall & Branford, 2012).

The Belo Monte dam was largely financed by the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), which is owned by the Brazilian government (Atkins, 2019). BNDES has been sharply criticized for the way it spends public money (Branford, 2016). Indeed, investments made by the BNDES have completely failed to serve the interests of the Brazilian public (Branford, 2016). The Brazilian mining industry will benefit from the completion of the Belo Monte dam as well. Instead of providing affordable electricity for Brazilian cities, the majority of the power generated will likely be utilized to fuel the expansion of mineral processing plants and aluminum smelters in the Amazon (Dawson, 2018). The aforementioned assertion is reinforced by Lea (2018), who points out that many critics of the Belo Monte dam are of the position that its main purpose is to fuel the production of aluminum for export.

Conversely, many human rights groups, academics, and scientists, have given their support against the Belo Monte dam, and the general destruction of the Amazon. Notably, the International Labour Organization (ILO), released a report in 2011 asserting that the Brazilian government was in violation of ILO Convention 169 (International Labour Organization, 2012). This was due to the fact that the Brazilian government failed to engage in hearings with Indigenous peoples who would be affected by the construction of the Belo Monte dam (International Labour Organization, 2012). What is problematic is that the Brazilian government ratified ILO Convention 169 in 2002 (International Labour Organization, 2012). ILO Convention 169 guarantees Indigenous peoples the right to informed consultation prior to the initiation of any projects that may impact their land or rights. There is no doubt that the Brazilian government have not fulfilled their obligations. Under the Brazilian Federal Constitution, Indigenous populations, are guaranteed a right to communal property (VanCleef, 2016). Furthermore, much of the land surrounding the Xingu River is owned by communities, not individuals (VanCleef, 2016). And still, the Brazilian government has vigorously forced the project upon the Indigenous peoples of the Xingu region. Former President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached due to a corruption scandal, was central in pushing the Belo Monte hydroelectric complex forward (Watts, 2016). Around the time of her impeachment, allegations surfaced that the Rousseff coalition took funds from the Belo Monte project (Watts, 2016). Many critics postulated that was a reason, the project was forcefully green lighted, despite overwhelming opposition (Watts, 2016).

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reviewed a case to prevent construction of the Belo Monte dam that was brought before them (Jaichand & Sampaio, 2013). It was found that numerous human rights violations had already occurred, and were likely to continue after the construction of the Belo Monte dam was finished (Jaichand & Sampaio, 2013). Echoing the findings of the International Labour Organization, the Inter-American Commission highlighted numerous issues. Indeed, it was found that the Brazilian government failed to carry out free and informed consultations with the affected indigenous peoples, and neglected to adopt measures, that would ensure the personal integrity of Indigenous peoples (Jaichand & Sampaio, 2013). Additionally, there was a failure to adopt proper measures that would contain the spread of diseases among Indigenous peoples, which would arise due to the construction of the Belo Monte dam, and the large population of people it would attract (Jaichand & Sampaio, 2013). The ILO and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights successfully raised awareness regarding issues impacting Indigenous peoples. However, despite years of opposition from human rights groups, environmentalists, and Indigenous peoples, it is clear that political and corporate interests have prevailed despite the moral, ethical, legal, social, and environmental shortcomings of the Belo Monte dam.


The Kayapo have historically fiercely defended their territorial and environmental rights against the state, and corporate development projects (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). Indeed, following political and diplomatic campaigns, and a limited degree of armed resistance dating back to the early 1970's, the majority of Kayapo traditional territory has been recognized by the state as reserves (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). However, despite this formal recognition, the continued decimation of Kayapo territory is proof that they are not free from outside interests exploiting their lands (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). As a result of Indigenous resistance, construction of the Belo Monte Dam has been delayed several times due to more than a dozen legal challenges. One of these challenges was a class action lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors against the government and Norte Energia (VanCleef, 2016). Another step taken by some Kayapo leaders such as Chief Megaron Txucarramãe, was to obtain strategic administrative posts within Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), the governmental protection agency for Indigenous peoples (Turner & Fajas-Turner, 2006). Ultimately, construction of the Belo Monte dam continued despite Indigenous resistance.

A critical, underreported issue is the suppression of activists. Hall & Branford (2012) highlighted the fact that some Kayapo activists have been murdered or otherwise threatened, crimes that often go unpunished. In 2016 alone, Brazil saw 50 murders of environmental activists (Hallam, 2017). The murder of Nilce de Souza Magalhães, who was an opponent of hydro development projects, and the leader of the Movement of Persons Affected by Dams, is a notable case (Hallam, 2017). Another, environmental official Luiz Alberto Araújo was gunned down in front of his family, and his assassination, is believed to have been politically motivated (Branford, 2016). Activists are routinely subjected to smear campaigns, and face illegal surveillance, judicial harassment, physical attacks, arbitrary detention, raids and searches, and sexual harassment (Hallam, 2017). Some activists die in remote forests or villages that are affected by dams (Watts & Vidal, 2017). Killers are reportedly hired by corporations or state forces, and are rarely ever caught (Watts & Vidal, 2017). Despite efforts to intimidate and suppress Indigenous and non Indigenous activists, resistance continues on the ground, and in the courts. Furthermore, the international NGO Global Witness which often raises awareness about corruption, resource exploitation, and humans rights violations, have brought much needed attention to the issue (Alley, 2019).


Regardless of how one feels about the contentious issue of the Belo Monte dam, one cannot deny that it has revealed a string of dishonesty and political corruption (Hall & Branford, 2012). Indeed, political elites dominate the region, and demonstrate minimal regard for its traditional peoples, and rich biodiversity (Hall & Branford, 2012). It is abundantly clear that the Brazilian government have flexed their muscles and have done all they could to push the project forward. After Kayapo Chief Megaron Txucarramãe obtained the position within FUNAI, the moment he began voicing his concerns and campaigning against the Belo Monte dam, the Brazilian government stepped in, and fired him (Phillips, 2011). Txucarramãe called it “political persecution” saying that “[the government] said nothing to [him]. They [didn't] say what [he] did wrong. They just [fired him]” (Phillips, 2011).

Some politicians have even been outspoken about their anti Indigenous views. One example is the former governor of the Mato Grosso region, billionaire Blairo Maggi. Maggi is one of the largest soya planters in the world and has been nicknamed “King of Soya” (Lea, 2018). Maggi is vehemently critical of the protection of Indigenous lands, and argues that their land should be used for agricultural production instead (Lea, 2018). Dishonest politicians have additionally downplayed the negative impact of the dam. In 2010, former environment minister Carlos Minc told Brazilian television that "there is not going to be an environmental disaster” (Phillips, 2010). Minc further went on to deny that Indigenous peoples will be forced from their traditional lands by the Belo Monte dam, telling state television that "not a single Indian will be displaced, they will be indirectly affected, but they will not have to leave Indigenous lands” (Phillips, 2010). Nearly a decade later, we see this to not be true. Government and corporate entities have essentially abused their power for the purposes of monetary gain. Conflict of interests clearly exist, and government corruption is rampant.

In this particular case, the power of social actors such as the ILO and Inter-American Commission, is marginal. The ILO and Inter-American Commission undeniably brought much needed awareness to the violations of Indigenous rights and various issues surrounding Belo Monte's construction. Yet regardless of the fact that the violations of ILO C169 were clearly voiced, it ultimately was powerless to stop construction of the dam. The multiple law suits against Norte Energia and the Brazilian government brought forth by public prosecutors were successful in temporarily halting construction of the dam multiple times, but ultimately the wishes of the government and those responsible for Belo Monte's financing and construction won the power struggle. Belo Monte represents the triumph of capitalist exploitation of natural resources. Furthermore, it represents Western dominance. Indeed, the dam spawns from an anthropocentric vision. Due to the massive amount of lives impacted, some even killed, one could argue that in a sense, the Xingu River runs red with blood.


Whilst Brazil faces many social and economic issues, there has surprisingly been a significant focus around the subject of land tenure and aboriginal land protection and rights. Regardless there is much work to be done to ensure that both the Tapajós-Xingu region and the greater Amazon are protected and that the rights of the indigenous people are upheld, reaffirmed and continued. As of June 2012, the Tapajós National Forest was decreed under the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) and further classified as an IUCN protected area in regard to protecting the sustainability of its natural resources.[14]

However, even with these protections, there has still been a gradual increase in deforestation within the Tapajós-Xingu and Xingu-Tocantins-Araguaia areas. Between 2004 and 2011, these regions experienced an annual reduction of habitat loss of around 0.4%.[15] As of 2018, with the election of Jair Messias Bolsonaro, loss of forest cover has experienced a near 50% gain, in addition to further reductions in the implementation of environmental regulations. This increase is linked more to economic benefits for the livestock and farming industry - with the main contributor being a land conversion from forest to pasture. However, the land tenure is still failing to ensure total protection for aboriginals. However, still a significant proportion of land has been subject to uncontrolled growth of logging, ranching, colonial expansion and major upscaled projects which degrade the land.

As such, the Federal Government should make a stronger effort in regulating these projects and mass expansion. One effective method is through demarcation. As of 2012, there are over 500 indigenous areas within Brazil, yet less than half have successful been demarcated, with many being delayed by lengthy legal and physical procedures which the Government is seemingly drawing out. By creating an agency or branch of Government whose sole purpose it is to demarcate land, these procedures will escape the lengthy processes. This, of course, has further political and economic implications. The Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) is a government agency of Brazil which is obliged with protecting aboriginal interests and culture. In 2017 the agency faced severe funding cuts which severely limited their ability to carry out their role.[16] FUNAI has been stripped of its autonomy by the Bolsonaro government.

Therefore, a good point of interest for this aboriginal forestry is to increase the funding to FUNAI to ensure that they are able to engage and assist in the physical demarcation of indigenous territories. [this final recommendation needs to be updated, to reflect 2019 events in Brazil]


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