Threats to the Xingu and Indigenous Communities

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Not All Doom and Gloom: Brazilian Government Achievements
Who Protects the Forests?
What Are The Threats?

Not All Doom and Gloom: Brazilian Government Achievements

For five centuries, the ferocity of the tribes of the Xingu combined with the difficulty of access to the area to keep the agents of destruction at bay. The sympathetic attitude of the Villas Boas brothers and others at various times during the last fifty years combined with exceptional political circumstances to result in a contiguous area the size of Great Britain eventually being granted protection.

This area, which bounds the Xingu River for 1,400 kilometres of its course, is made up mainly of Indigenous Territories, with patches of other ‘Conservation Units’ in Brazilian terminology. These include National Forests and Parks, State Forests and Parks, Ecological Stations, Extractive Reserves, Biological Reserves and Areas of Environmental Protection. Each delineation comes with some level of environmental protection, at least nominally.

The achievement and commitment on the part of successive Brazilian governments that this represents is enormous. In the larger picture, we should remember that overall almost 37 percent of the Brazilian Amazon lies in demarcated protected areas, and the Amazon Region Protected Areas programme, a current government initiative, plans additional protected areas which would bring this up to 47 percent if fully implemented. This is in addition to the proportion of privately owned land where by law the landowner is supposed to leave the forest standing – a provision which is almost universally ignored.


…and it’s a big ‘But’. Demarcation, while laudable, does not of itself protect. Only when that demarcation is followed by physical protection and enforcement, and backed up by legal process is the objective of environmental preservation achieved. In the case of Brazil this is where failings are frequent and profound, resulting in the loss of huge areas of forest – “deforestation” – within protected areas and the loss of biodiversity and natural resources – “forest degradation” – within the areas of forest left standing.

Where illegal logging has plundered National Forests and Indigenous Territories for their valuable hardwood trees, the ecosystem is left weakened and degraded, vulnerable to further damage from rainfall, desiccation and fire.

Where illegal miners have invaded protected areas, the rivers are polluted with silt and mercury, the fish poisoned and the game hunted to local extinction to feed the miners.

And where cattle ranchers have illegally cleared huge tracts of land – as is the case in the middle part of the Xingu, known as the Terra do Meio – the forest is gone, and gone forever.

And what stands in the way of all this undisputably illegal activity? In 2008, for the State of Pará, the Brazilian Environment Agency IBAMA had just one employee for every 8,000 square kilometres – the size of North Yorkshire – and that included administrative and clerical staff.

Even the valiant efforts of this tiny group of enforcement officers are more often than not thwarted when cases reach the courts, where partisan local judges often simply ignore the law and throw out cases against landowners. In an area where the sparse upper levels of society mingle over huge geographical areas and the wealthy and influential are all part of the same powerful elite, the peddling of influence carries far more weight than laws made in a distant and, as they see it, unconnected capital.

Many officials profit from the widespread forgery and corrupt issue of documents which is part of daily life in this land where governance is so thinly spread. This includes IBAMA. Those who have the temerity instead to do their jobs can often find themselves threatened with death.

There is little incentive for them to be diligent. Of fines levied by IBAMA between 2005 and 2010, just 0.75% have been paid – more than 99% of those caught in breach of environmental legislation have received no punishment whatever. Little wonder the Forest Code law, which requires the retention of 80% forest cover on Amazon farms, is routinely ignored by landowners, from poor settlers to the mega-corporations which own enormous soya and cattle farms running to hundreds of square kilometres. Routinely, landowners – or more properly ‘landholders’ – challenge attempts to enforce the law on spurious grounds of proportionality, and incredibly local courts frequently uphold their challenges.

Who Protects the Forests?

In the absence of government commitment to preserving the Amazon forests it falls to its original inhabitants, the indigenous tribal people, to implement strategies to protect the trees, something they have done since the arrival of the first Europeans. Nowadays, in the worst affected areas, they sometimes call on motorised aluminium boats, GPS, satellite imaging and 4 wheel drive vehicles, often paid for by foreign NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), where before they had bows and arrows, canoes and their own two feet. Today they need this technological assistance because the level of threats and the incidence of invasion of their land is ramping up at an alarming rate.

While Conservation Units lose forest cover and biodiversity every year, indigenous territories stand out in satellite images as the only remaining areas of unbroken forest. Even so, instances of illegal logging of the most valuable hardwoods in indigenous territories are frequent and extensive. Most of the resulting timber is exported to Europe, the United States and, increasingly, to China, under the cover of forged or corruptly issued documentation.

What Are The Threats?

In the 1970s the two main agents driving deforestation were the timber industry and the arrival of poor settlers. In the twenty-first century, while logging remains a major cause of invasions of indigenous territories, both of these have reduced in significance in terms of overall deforestation, falling behind a raft of other agents.


Changes in agriculture in the south of Brazil have resulted in the displacement of a burgeoning cattle industry into the Amazon and the Cerrados regions. As pastureland has been replaced in the south by arable crops, primarily sugar cane and soya, the area of pasture in the Amazon has grown.

The Amazon referred to here in terms of agriculture is ‘Amazônia Legal’, the legally-defined area. This includes the part of the cerrados (savannah) region to the south which lies in Mato Grosso State. This is important when trying to understand the situation, because the two ecosystems are quite different in character, flora and fauna. The Xingu River has its headwaters well into the cerrados and flows northwards for a quarter of its length before entering the Amazon rainforest proper, passing first through an area of ‘transition forest’, drier and more open than rainforest but more heavily forested than cerrados. Cerrados is well suited to growing soya, which does not grow as well in the hot, wet tropical zone, though recent developments in genetically modified strains have improved its performance.

Since 1970, a total of 546,000 square kilometres has been cleared in the Amazon for cattle pasture – an area larger than the whole of France. But the total area under pasture in Brazil taken as a whole has remained broadly constant during that period, so the growth of cattle production cannot be blamed on its own for the deforestation. More properly, the deforestation can be blamed on the displacement of cattle in other parts of Brazil for other forms of agriculture, by far the largest of which are the cultivation of soya and sugar cane.

This process is progressing northwards. In the 1980s the State of Mato Grosso was in its infancy. Most of the state was still covered with natural cerrados forest and savannah, though cattle ranching was already well established. Ranching continued to grow steadily until the early part of the twenty-first century, after which it began to decline slowly. At the same time, the area under cultivation for soya exploded. Mato Grosso now provides 29 percent of Brazil’s soya, an incredible 8 percent of the world’s entire harvest. Cattle ranching has been pushed north into the State of Pará to make way for the barren expanses of soya fields in Mato Grosso. Ex-Governor and present Senator Blairo Maggi has earned his self-styled epithet ‘Rei da Soja’ – ‘King of Soya’, but at enormous cost to the natural cerrados vegetation ecosystem.

For the Xavante who once roamed freely throughout the eastern part of Mato Grosso gaining most of their food from hunting, this expansion of soya has been an unmitigated disaster. Left with only a few isolated patches of land, they have been forced to adopt a completely alien lifestyle, reliant on growing crops. As agribusiness has swallowed up the cerrados around them, their ability to sustain themselves has been stripped away, leaving them dependent on income from employment by FUNAI, pensions and handouts from government agencies. Their health has declined sharply as a consequence of the resulting change in their diet; obesity, rotten teeth and diabetes are rife in communities which now eat more processed food high in sugar and fat and low in many essential nutrients.

Their small islands of cerrados are insufficient to maintain a healthy population of the principal game species on which they traditionally depended. One chief, standing in the centre of his village gazing out at the panorama of flat, featureless soya fields where just a few short years ago only natural cerrados forest could be seen, ticked off the species they are no longer able to find when hunting: “There are no more deer, the anteaters are gone; we can’t find rhea, the tinamou, the seriema – all the game birds we used to hunt are gone; tapirs are rare, there are fewer armadilloes and even wild boar take a long time to find. The waters of the rivers give us only a few small fish. How will we live?”


In the History section there is a discussion about the effects of road building during the 1970s and 80s. But the impact of roads has not diminished, and the government continues to do little to mitigate the effects of improved access to areas in the Amazon. Where previously it would take several hours of gruelling travel along uncertain ‘highways’ which frequently became impassable quagmires, now just a few hours of travel along tarmac roads makes access incomparably easier, opening up ever more of the forest to settlers, loggers and goldminers.

By opening access to markets and supplies, farming becomes viable deep within areas which were previously dense, inaccessible jungle – the economic viability is changed. Looking at satellite images along roads like the BR-163 and the Trans-Amazon Highway, the pattern of deforestation is obvious. From the main roads, smaller offshoot roads fan out in a herringbone shape. Usually, these roads are initially opened up by loggers as they access the valuable trees spread out through the forest. Settlers follow, clearing patches in the already damaged and degraded forest where the bulldozers, tractors and lorries of the loggers have started the process. Usually these settlements are illegal, but they can sometimes be ‘regularised’ by corrupt officials, often as part of a deal with a larger landowner who agrees to buy the land once it has been legalised.

Cattle Ranching

Once the large landowner moves in he completes the process of clearing the land, ignoring the limit of 80% of forest cover which is supposed to be retained. These consolidated land holdings are very rarely challenged, and the landowners grow rich by appropriating land which by rights is the property of the Brazilian state.

In 2008 Environment Minister Carlos Minc had the temerity to order the seizure of a large herd of cattle from an illegal ranch in the Terra do Meio. A lawless tract of land between São Felix do Xingu and the BR-163 and bounded by indigenous territories to the north and south, the Terra do Meio is nominally protected as a patchwork of several types of Conservation Units defined under Brazilian law. But in the absence of any viable level of governance and in a climate of violence and corruption, illegal logging and land grabbing are rife, and huge areas have been illegally cleared for cattle pasture. The ranch where the cattle were seized was located in an Ecological Station area. Over 3,000 head of cattle were seized, representing less than ten percent of the known stock of animals then pastured illegally in the Terra do Meio.

The Ministry and the environment agency IBAMA, having made the seizure, were left with a problem; what to do with a huge herd of animals located far from markets or slaughterhouses in the middle of an area which was effectively ‘enemy territory’ – this was just one of seventeen ranches illegally in the area, and each ranch had its own private army of armed hands and gunmen. They tried to auction the cattle to the local market, but in a meeting of the ranchers of Pará and Mato Grosso, rumoured to have been held in the home of the governor of Mato Grosso, it was agreed that nobody would bid for the seized cattle, and bidding did not even reach the very modest reserve price. It eventually took four attempts before the cattle were sold, and even then they raised only the reserve price, just a fraction of their open-market value.

The landowners, despite making millions out of the illegal appropriation of public land, are protected by their connections with influential politicians, and Minc’s attempts to end the illegal occupations have met with only marginal success.


Brazil’s government has a programme for the implementation of over 60 large hydroelectric dams throughout the Amazon. Hundreds of smaller dams are already in operation, under construction or being planned. Together, these will turn the Amazon basin into a vast region of stagnant, shallow reservoirs, each emitting a daily outpouring of methane which will make the effects of vehicle emissions pale into insignificance – methane is at least 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide produced from internal combustion engines.

For the Xingu, tomorrow’s plans have met with yesterday’s. Originally a grandiose scheme of the military dictatorship, the damming of the Xingu has been a major objective of Brazil’s state-owned electricity producers for over thirty years. It came near to happening in the late 1980s, but Brazil was dependent on international finace to build the five dams that were proposed. Initially, the World Bank said it would put up the money, but after pressure from within Brazil and from the international environmental movement the Bank pulled out, judging the scheme to be too environmentally and socially destructive.

But Brazil’s electroheads are tenacious. Early in the 21st century the scheme was re-floated, now with a new name, Belo Monte. By 2008 Big Electricity had the bit between its teeth. Calling on the support of Dilma Rousseff, head of the Casa Civil – Brazilian President Lula’s Chief of Staff – who was a longstanding supporter of the electricity lobby, the lumbering machine of hydroelectric development rolled into action. By the time Rousseff won the presidency in 2010 plans were well advanced, despite fierce opposition from many sectors – local indigenous communities, small farmers, Brazilian NGOs, academics, energy and hydrology engineers, and environmentalists. By the time the construction project was put out to tender, it had been examined in fine detail. And it had been found wanting in many respects, so much so that the government was forced to form its own consortium of state-owned electricity companies in order to provide a realistic bid, and to back the consortium with government guarantees. The Brazilian Development Bank BNDES was co-opted to provide 80% of the finace, which had been rejected by private banking sources in Brazil and internationally as being far too risky.

The construction of this dam is now under way, despite the Public Prosecutor’s office in Pará State having 13 cases outstanding, any one of which could halt the project – if it ever comes to a high enough court. Based on Brazilian law, these cases have been judged well-founded in local courts, only to be overturned by a judge in Brasilia sitting in chambers. The government and the electricity industry are using technical costructs in an attempt to ensure that none of these cases gets its day in court until it is too late.

The project hasd been criticised by international bodies including the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as well as by many leading figures and organisations in Brazil, from soap opera stars to ex-ministers.

Ecologists and zoologists brought in to study the environmental impact of the scheme, while pointing out that the total environmental damage cannot easily be estimated because of the lack of basic scientific data from the area, say that it will drive many species to extinction. They say that many of the animals hunted by the indigenous communities will decline, leaving them with insufficient resources to feed themselves, partly as a result of the uncontrolled migration of people from elsewhere who will be drawn to the area because of the dam. The impact on the fish cannot be estimated properly because there is no study of fish migration habits or populations, but they expect this crucial source of protein to be drastically reduced. And the stagnant water will become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the parasitic diseases they carry, like malaria and dengue.

Government undertakings that the additional five dams upstream have been abandoned are widely disbelieved. The assurances carry no legal weight, and any subsequent government could simply overthrow them, destroying the ecology not only of the lower reaches of the river but over 600 kilometres upstream, affecting more than a dozen indigenous territories.

The history of large hydroelectric dams in the Amazon is one of repeated failures. Balbina, Samuel, Curuá and Tucuruí – each in turn has been hailed as a new bginning, with the promise of socially sympathetic development of another source of ‘clean’ energy, and appropriate measures to protect the environment. Each has been proved a social and enviroonmental disaster, leaving settlers and indigenous people displaced and  hungry, without adequate compensation. The environment is polluted and degraded, and the flora and fauna are disminished or driven to extinction. The power produced never matches the promises on which the project  is based, and the only people who benefit are those who divert a proportion of the money for their personal gain.

Mineral Extraction and Petrochemicals

As well as being rich in biodiversity, the Brazilian Amazon holds huge reserves of mineral raw materials. Many of these are already being exploited in huge mines, like the Carajás mine a short distance to the east of the Xingu, which is the largest iron ore mine in the world. Brazil ia a major world supplier of iron, copper, aluminium, magnesium, nickel, gold and tin. In the Xingu basin there are many illegal and semi-legal gold mines. One of the largest nickel mines came online last year, together with a smelting furnace powered by electricity. Vale, Brazil’s multinational mining company – the second largest internationally – has a large stake in developing the Belo Monte hydroelectric scheme to provide the power needed. Part of the nickel reserves lie within the Xicrin Indian reserve.

Greenpeace has repeatedly highlighted the knock-on impacts from developing mines in the Amazon. Mines require good access and infrastructure to facilitate the transportation of their production, in the form of roads, railways and airports. While mining companies have made considerable efforts to maintain and re-forest the areas under their direct control, the destruction of surrounding forests is inevitable and catastrophic. Opening access and providing an industrial focus attracts migrants, and migrants destroy forests. In the case of the iron mine, huge tracts of forest are cleared simply to provide charcoal to feed the smelting furnaces which line the railway, but more people means more mouths to feed and more timber for building.

So far, no oil has been discovered in the Xingu region, but further to the west there are oil deposits which are creating problems for indigenous and rural populations.

Further Reading


Many books have been written throughout the last thirty yeas about tropical rainforests and their people, too many to list here. Each reader will want to look form a particular perspective, concentrate on a specific aspect. An internet search is the way to go.

For anyone interested in the real story behind the Belo Monte dam I would recommend “Tenotã–mõ”, a thoroughly-researched riposte to the Brazilian elelctricity industry’s promotion of the scheme:


This is a translation into English of the Executive Summary. At the bottom is a link to the whole book in Portuguese, which is available to download as a series of pdfs.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Mongabay’s Rhett Butler has recently published an updated review of deforestation in Brazil, which includes some promising indicators as well as some warnings: Mongabay: Deforestation in the Amazon

Philip Fearnside is a researcher at the National Institute of Amazon Research (INPA) in Manaus. He has a long history of research into the causes of deforestation. The article has references to the infamous Terra do Meio: Deforestation in Amazonia

National Geographic’s Scott Wallace on agriculture in the Amazon; this article also covers the process of road building, timber extraction and settler invasion, and explores the links between them: Farming the Amazon

 Agriculture: Cattle and Soya

A damning report by Greenpeace into the cattle industry in the Amazon : Broken Promises

and one on Soya, by US environment think tank Brighter Green : – brief version: Cattle, Soyanization and Climate Change

– full version: Cattle, Soyanization and Climate Change

– and a WWF report with the focus on the Cerrados: Soya and the Cerrado:Brazil’s forgotten jewel


Here’s an article by Mongabay’s Rhett Butler from 2008 which clearly illustrates the herringbone growth of unofficial secondary roads radiating out from main highways: Industry-driven road-building to fuel Amazon deforestation

From Imperial College, this article explores the link between roads, settlers and the timber industry, and plots possible timber industry-linked deforestation: Spatial Pattern of Standing Timber Value across the Brazilian Amazon

the full article can be downloaded here: Spatial Pattern of Standing Timber Value across the Brazilian Amazon – pdf download

Hydroelectric Dams

International Rivers has an overview of Amazon dams here: International Rivers – Amazonia Viva

They also have a very good fact sheet about the Belo Monte scheme: International Rivers Belo Monte Facts

The Rainforest Foundation has a good summary too: Rainforest Foundation Belo Monte Summary

A very thorough quantitative scientific analysis of the methane emissions from Amazon dams, by Philip Fearnside. Dr Fearnside analyses the official figures given by the Brazilian government and explains his detailed reasoning and research, which shows that they are a gross underestimate: Emissions of Greenhouse Gases from Reservoirs – Fearnside

Here is a paper by Dr Fearnside which is easier to understand, though without the full quantitative analysis: Why Hydropower is Not Clean Energy

Mining and Mineral Extraction

This recent report by Greenpeace explains the link between pig iron production and deforestation in the Amazon: Driving Destruction in the Amazon

and a comprehensive review of mining in Brazil from the point of view of the mining industry’s Engineering and Mining Journal: Brazil Mining


Tribes Alive has produced this video about the impact of the Belo Monte dam: Altamira – Belo Monte Dam

And this video, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, explains the details: Defending the Rivers of the Amazon