'War for survival': Brazil’s Amazon tribes despair as land raids surge under Bolsonaro

By Tom Phillips in Aldeia Nova, Rondônia state. Photographs by Avener Prado

More than 30 bullet holes told Awapu Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau a sinister tale.

“Their message is that they’re going to finish us off, isn’t it?” the village chieftan said as he examined the pockmarked sign warning outsiders to stay off the giant Amazon reserve he calls home.

Brazil was only 11 days into Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency when dozens of armed land-grabbers rolled up at the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory and cut a trail into the forest, claiming Bolsonaro’s anti-indigenous rhetoric meant they would not be stopped.

Eventually the intruders were repelled – but not before leaving their leaden response to the government notice cautioning trespassers against straying on to supposedly protected land.

“We’re scared,” admitted Awapu, a 27-year-old cacique (chief) who has received death threats for speaking out against the invaders. “Nobody wants to die.”

The slow-burn assault on Brazil’s indigenous lands did not begin in January with Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right presidency.

But Awapu, and activists across the country, say they are convinced the onslaught has intensified since Bolsonaro took power, as illegal loggers, goldminers, poachers and land-grabbers take the president’s verbal offensive against such communities as a green light to act.

Last week Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council rights group denounced that 153 indigenous territories had been invaded since January – more than double last year’s figure of 76 – partly blaming the surge on Bolsonaro’s “aggressive” talk.

‘We’re scared,’ said Awapu Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a 27-year-old cacique (chief) who has received death threats for speaking out against the invaders. ‘Nobody wants to die.’
‘We’re scared,’ said Awapu Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a 27-year-old cacique (chief) who has received death threats for speaking out against the invaders. ‘Nobody wants to die.’ Photograph: Avener Prado/The Guardian

Nor does the threat come only from illegal actors such as those behind the January raid on the Wales-sized Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve in Rondônia state. Increasingly, it is coming from the government itself.

In the coming days Bolsonaro is set to unveil draft legislation that would allow commercial mining in indigenous territories, something currently outlawed, despite overwhelming opposition from voters.

“Indians don’t want to be poor landowners living on rich soils – especially the richest soils on Earth,” Bolsonaro told last month’s UN general assembly, boasting of the gold, diamonds, uranium, niobium and rare earths hidden beneath their reserves.

“Not since the dictatorship have Brazil’s indigenous peoples felt as threatened as they do now,” said Randolfe Rodrigues, a progressive senator from Amapá, another of the Amazon’s nine states.

“And it’s not just threats. It is concrete facts,” added Rodrigues, highlighting attacks on Amapá’s Waiãpi indigenous community and the recent murder of an activist fighting to protect the territory sheltering Brazil’s largest concentration of uncontacted tribes.


Fátima Cleide, a prominent Workers’ party (PT) politician in Rondônia, said indigenous communities stood at a historic and perilous juncture. “This is a war for survival … What they want is for the indigenous peoples to disappear.”

Bolsonaro allies celebrate his Amazonian blueprint and brand critics foreign conspirators.

Marcos Rocha, Rondônia’s Bolsonarista governor, claimed opening supposedly impoverished indigenous communities to mining would bring “dignity”.

“Indians want to grow and to develop, just like any human being. Most other countries have decimated their Indians. We want them to walk alongside us – because they are Brazilians, just like us,” he said.

The Bolsonarian congressman João Chrisóstomo compared his leader’s plans to the creation of casinos on Native American reservations in the United States. “Today all the Indians there are super-millionaires,” Chrisóstomo claimed, laughing.

But many fear Bolsonaro’s moves could prove catastrophic for small and already fragile communities such as the 150-strong Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau – a semi-nomadic, Tupi-speaking group which remained uncontacted until 1981 and whose members were once called the Bocas Pretas (Black Mouths) for their distinctive tattoos made with the juice of the genipap tree.

“The government’s attitude towards indigenous people is the same attitude the Portuguese had when they first came to Brazil: to enslave, to colonize and to acculturate – to destroy their cultures,” claimed Rodrigues.

“Bolsonaro is a president who governs with the mindset of a Portuguese mercenary who arrived here in the 16th century.”

The head of the Indigenous Missionary Council, Roque Paloschi, said his group was not opposed to progress, per se: “But what kind of progress – and for whom?”

Brazil’s indigenous peoples – who numbered upwards of 3.5 million when Portuguese explorers arrived in 1500 – suffered a wretched start to the 20th century. As outsiders pushed deeper into their traditional homes, illness and violence reduced their total population to as little as 70,000. During the 1970s they faced further pain as the dictatorship bulldozed roads through the Amazon and lured migrants with the slogan “a land without men for men without land”.

A bullet-riddled sign warning outsiders off the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve
A bullet-riddled sign warning outsiders off the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve Photograph: Avener Prado/The Guardian

But the return of democracy brought hope. Brazil’s 1988 constitution gave indigenous communities the exclusive right to vast areas, and protected reservations such as the 1.9m hectare Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory were born. By the turn of the century Brazil’s indigenous population had rebounded to some 350,000.

“Until Bolsonaro came along it was looking really very good,” said John Hemming, a veteran chronicler of indigenous affairs whose latest book remembers the Villas-Bôas brothers, storied Brazilian explorers and champions of the indigenous cause.

“Brazil can be so, so proud of what it has done,” Hemming added. “But that is all about to be undone by this creature.”

Hemming claimed the Villas-Bôas brothers – who helped create Brazil’s most famous indigenous reserve in the Xingu – would be “turning in their graves” at Bolsonaro’s “terrifying” plans. Claims Bolsonaro’s project would make tycoons of the indigenous were “a Goebbels​​-type lie”.

“I’m in despair, like everyone else,” Hemming admitted.

On the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve – and indigenous territories across Brazil – despair is spurring action.

On a recent afternoon, two village leaders emerged from the rainforest, carrying rifles and drenched in sweat after a day tracking illegal loggers into the jungle.

“All we heard was the din of the chainsaw. We didn’t see them,” said one of the pair, 33-year-old Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, showing off a smartphone video of the scene.

As he wolfed down a late lunch of peccary and pasta, the second man, Clebeson Tenharim, said he was certain the invasions were accelerating. “It wasn’t like this last year. It has got much worse. They’re really coming into the reserve now,” he said.

Clebeson Tenharin after a forest excursion to find invaders: ‘It wasn’t like this last year. It has gotten much worse. They’re really coming into the reserve now.’
Clebeson Tenharin after a forest excursion to find invaders: ‘It wasn’t like this last year. It has got much worse. They’re really coming into the reserve now.’ Photograph: Avener Prado/The Guardian

Tenharim had no doubt who was to blame.

“This Bolsonaro … all he wants to do is destroy,” the 36-year-old complained, arguing the president’s hostility to indigenous communities was encouraging raiders. “They think the government’s on their side.”

But hardwood-looting loggers are no longer the only menace. Tenharim feared Bolsonaro would “rent the indigenous land out to foreigners” and wondered who would benefit, apart from mining goliaths from abroad.

“It’s difficult to understand our government,” Tenharim sighed. “First they make a law giving us the right to the reserve. Then they break it themselves.”

As he toured Aldeia Nova – one of six small settlements on the reservation’s eastern flank – Awapu Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau said he was also perplexed by the government’s designs.

“They should respect our culture,” the cacique insisted. “When the Portuguese arrived we were already here. Everyone who has studied history knows this.”

At the UN last week Brazil’s president posed as an ally of the indigenous, donning a necklace from the Xingu as proof of his dedication. “Brazil now has a president who cares about those who were here before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500,” claimed Bolsonaro, whose Italian forefathers migrated to Brazil in the late 19th century.

Thousands of miles away in the Amazon few descendants of Brazil’s original inhabitants are convinced by such claims.

“[If Bolsonaro came here] I’d tie him up … until he abandoned this act he wants to pass,” Tenharim joked.

Awapu was more downbeat as he pondered the future of his ancestral home. “We feel sad,” he said. “We don’t know where this will end.”