Clouds of smoke billow from a field consumed by fire near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. According to a local farmer, the fire was set by ranchers to clear the land for soy cultivation. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

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BR-163, the Cuiabá-Santarém highway, a strip of asphalt and dirt roughly 25 feet wide and 1,700 miles long, carries at least a third of Brazil’s soy and corn crops to market. Moving between 1,000 and 2,500 truckloads of soy and corn a day from the central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso to the Amazon River port city of Santarém, Pará State, the highway cuts across massive swaths of Amazon forest, much of it home to indigenous territories. 

In late August, a group of Kayapo indigenous peoples from the Indigenous Territoris Mekragnoti and Baú blocked the highway for over a week. The group demanded the federal government continue assistance to indigenous communities, increase protections for indigenous communities in the Covid-19 pandemic, and  scrap plans to construct a railway to transport soy along the northern route of the BR-163 highway, called the Ferrogrão, or grain railway. 

Earlier this year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a strong proponent of agribusiness development, already began paving of the last 30 miles of roadway. Amid fires, the coronavirus pandemic, and a president bent on opening much of the Amazon forest and indigenous territories to further agricultural development, the Kayapo want to send a message: They will not placidly accept a steady march of logging, mining, and agriculture near and into their territories.

Not the First Pandemic: Destruction in the Wake of the BR-163 

Since its construction, the BR-163 has brought massive destruction to indigenous communities. As the Kayapo Mekrãgnotire wrote in their open letter on the blockade: “This road brought uncontrolled deforestation, fraudulent occupation, and speculation of nationally owned land, illegal gold mining and logging, mercury contamination of our rivers, violence, and disease.” 

For the Panará, an indigenous group that lives south and adjacent to the Kayapo, the highway construction of the 1970s was genocidal. Contacted by crews driving the road directly through their territory, massive waves of untreated diseases spread through a highly vulnerable population with low immunity. With a population estimated several hundred and possibly near a thousand in the late 1960s, by 1978 there were only 69 living Panará after the military had removed them from their territory and relocated them in the Xingu Indigenous Park.

In the 1990s the Panará were able to return to their traditional land near the BR-163, federally demarcate the territory and win a settlement of nearly a half-million U.S. dollars in damages. Today, with a population over 500, the Panará community is growing. They are training primary school teachers to teach in Panará and write the language and maintaining traditional livelihoods, language, and culture.

However, the Bolsonaro regime has presented a different vision for the 163 corridor in the Amazon, one of ever-increasing agribusiness development. Although not necessarily legal, in the spring of 2019 the president publicly called on indigenous communities to open their lands for soy development, offering credit for indigenous peoples to become soy farmers and convening dozens of meetings to attempt to convince individuals to take his offers. Several young Panará men attended the gathering with soy planters, and while they remained unconvinced, others may not have. Although few tribes appear interested in the president’s proposal, a small number of tribes, such as the Paresi, and some individuals did attend a press conference with him in 2019. However, his efforts have pushed proponents of this type of rural development toward more brazen actions to advance the frontier of soy, corn, and cattle into Amazon forests.  

Fire

A combination of a changing climate and an incensed base of the president’s supporters caused last year’s fires, which reached historic levels. Ranchers, miners, and those hoping to occupy federal and indigenous lands started many of the fires, the New York Times reported last year

Alongside a largely defunded environmental enforcement agency, IBAMA, the agricultural frontier is moving out from the BR-163 at a quick clip. Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research found deforestation rates across the Amazon were up 30% in 2019 from the prior year, the highest rate in over a decade. In a changing climate, climate scientist Carlos Nobre, warns that increased deforestation may irreparably alter moisture storage and could turn much of the rainforest into a dry savannah.

This year, fires have continued to spread as the region reaches peak fire season and intentional burning continues uninhibited. The practice of burning forests lays a path for agricultural development, but the fires also have destructive consequences for indigenous communities. A video shared on Twitter shows Kayapo families running from flames as fire engulfed homes and surrounded the village of Kororoti, in the Kayapo Mekragnoti territory, on September 2.

Covid-19

Also in the Mekragnoti territory, the Covid-19 pandemic recently took the life of a Kayapo elder and chief, Nikaiti Mekranotire, age 76, on August 26. The first of the community to pass from the disease, Nikaiti joins a growing number of indigenous and particularly elders that have been taken in the pandemic. The chief’s niece, Mayalú Txucarramãe, took to Twitter to mourn his passing: “We lost a Kayapo encyclopedia, a great master.”

Famous for his outspoken environmental activism, Kayapo chief Roani Metuktire was hospitalized with Covid-19 on August 31.

One of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Brazilian indigenous communities have suffered a number of outbreaks, often among isolated populations with low disease immunity far from hospitals. Although official figures are difficult to source, at least several hundred indigenous peoples have died of the disease thus far, from Muduruku, Xikrin, Yanomami, and the Kayapo, to name but a few. Some, such as chief Aritana Yawalapiti, of the Yawalapiti were among the last speakers of their language. 

And in some areas, such as in the Yanomami territories in Brazil’s far north, illicit gold miners, openly encouraged by the president to invade indigenous lands, have spread to disease among largely isolated indigenous peoples. Advocates and activists have described a similar situation in indigenous communities in North America.

Indigenous Rural Development

This year, despite the pandemic and weather-related losses in the South of the country, Brazil is set to overtake the United States as the global leader in soy commodity production. The government hopes that finishing the paving of the highway could increase soy exports to 25 million tons by 2024, up from 10 million tons in 2019. Constructing the Ferrogrão railway would increase these exports by orders of magnitude, securing Brazil, and this piece of Mato Grosso and Pará States, as the global breadbasket of soy. However, that kind of growth would mean pushing soy and corn into uncut Amazon forests, lands that are within or adjacent to indigenous territories.

The indigenous groups along the BR-163 have other plans. As the Kayapo write in their open letter at their road blockade, they want, “development of sustainable economic enterprises that are compatible with our culture.” Indigenous communities have been hard at work installing schools that teach in their own languages, setting up internet connections, establishing health clinics in their communities, and setting up culturally sensitive economic projects, such as native bee honey production in the Suia communities. The Bolsonaro regime’s push to open indigenous territory to agricultural development brings unprecedented challenges.

But as the Kayapo blocking the 163 indicated, they’re ready for a fight. “We Kayapo protect the last large tract of primary forest surviving in the southeastern Amazon. Although we have ensured its preservation for generations, today we suffer unprecedented threat.” 

The Kayapo ended the blockade once the Ministerio Publico Federal, similar to an attorney general who serves the people’s interests, sued the federal government to uphold the Kayapo’s demands. From the work of Joenia Wapixana, Brazil’s first indigenous congresswoman, demanding action against gold mine invasions to the efforts like those of the Kayapo to shut down a lifeline of global soy production, Brazil’s indigenous communities are not backing down. Rather, they see the possibility for rural development to mean something quite different: access to healthcare, education, and technology, all while maintaining forests, cultural autonomy, and turning traditional ways of life into indigenous futures.

The full text of the Kayapo Mekrãgnotire’s open letter can be accessed here, through the Instituto Kabu.

Gabe Schwartzman is a Graduate Research Fellow with the National Science Foundation who in 2017 spent a year with the Intsituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian nongovernmental organization that supports communities living in forests and protected areas.