To fight invaders, Munduruku women wield drone cameras and cellphones

by Joana Moncau and Elpida Nikou from Repórter Brasil



Munduruku defenders put up a sign to self-demarcate the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory during a surveillance operation in 2019. Image by Daje Kapap Eypi Munduruku Audiovisual Collective.



Seen from above, the small village is almost lost in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. But it’s there, in a hut in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory, in Brazil’s Pará state, that three Munduruku women review the video they recorded of the actions of their people to defend the territory from invaders, especially illegal loggers and miners. Expelling the invaders has always been risky, but it’s become even more so under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.


A camera, a drone, cellphones and social media are the weapons wielded by 30-year-old Aldira Akai, Beka Saw Munduruku, 19, and Rilcelia Akai, 23, in taking on these growing threats. The women are members of the Daje Kapap Eypi Munduruku Audiovisual Collective, which works to relay the Indigenous people’s complaints beyond the banks of the Tapajós River that mark the territory’s boundary.


“[Video] is a very important tool, which strengthens the struggle of the Munduruku,” Aldira says. “Many people no longer believe what we say, they only believe what they see.”

Repórter Brasil followed the young women for a week in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory, in November 2021, as they produced videos for Facebook and Instagram that reached activists and world leaders participating in the COP26 climate summit. These images illustrate what the data from platforms such as Global Forest Watch (GFW) already show, including the prevalence of mining activity inside the Indigenous territory — an act that violates Brazil’s Constitution. One of the starkest examples of this violation is the number of applications that have been filed to mine within Indigenous lands: the parts of the territory that aren’t targeted by these applications are so few that they’re almost imperceptible. The platform also shows how the impact of mining and other threats to the territory translates into deforestation.


Threats on camera

The land of the Munduruku is exploited by illegal miners, coveted by large mining companies, and targeted by hardwood loggers. One of the collective’s focuses is to record these invaders in action. That’s what happened in July 2019, within months of Bolsonaro taking office, when Aldira came face-to-face with a group of illegal loggers for the first time.

As she walked through the forest, she remembers asking herself: “Will they react?” “It was the first time I faced such a situation with the camera. I was very anxious, afraid. But I mustered up courage.”


With the rise of the far right to power in the 2018 election, and the anti-Indigenous rhetoric coming from the current government, facing down invaders has become a security risk. “We go and we don’t know if we’ll come back,” Rilcelia says. “It’s very risky for us. They feel very safe because they say Bolsonaro is on their side, and we are nothing.”


Images recorded by the collective show the raft used by loggers to transport the stolen timber being consumed by fire. It was the only equipment that the Indigenous people managed to destroy during that 2019 surveillance operation. “What I felt was fear, but we managed to do it. We didn’t fight with anyone; we managed to talk, because we were within our rights,” Aldira says. They gave the invaders three days to remove their equipment and trucks from the area.


In the video, a circle of Munduruku warriors celebrate their victory. Now, watching that video again two years later, Beka says loggers have invaded the same area again. “Everyone was happy, but it’s been a while and they’re there again,” she says. “It’s different people now, but they’re there.”


In 2020, 146 hectares (361 acres) was deforested in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory. It was the highest rate since 2004, up from 105 hectares (259 acres) the previous year and just 24 hectares (59 acres) in 2018. Detailed satellite images compiled by GFW show roads cutting through the forest, which may have been opened by loggers to transport stolen logs or even by land grabbers looking to clear forest for pastures. “What we see in the neighboring municipality of Trairão is drastic loss of forest caused by the expansion of livestock — and it’s advancing towards the borders of Sawré Muybu,” the GFW analysis says.


Mining poisons rivers and people

In addition to illegal logging, the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory faces another constant threat: illegal mining. The territory is located between the municipalities of Itaituba and Jacareacanga, two hubs for illegal gold mining and home to strong political support for the industry, according to Repórter Brasil. The impact of this illegal activity here isn’t as strong as in other Munduruku territories, such as the neighboring Munduruku Indigenous Territory, where a survey by Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) showed a 363% increase in the area degraded by mining between 2019 and 2020.


But the applications for licenses to carry out open-pit mining in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory make the risk clear. The analysis carried out by GFW for Repórter Brasil shows that “mining activity is an immense threat to the region” and indicates that illegal mining has already caused deforestation, including the possible opening of an airstrip. Between 2011 and 2020, Sawré Muybu was the Indigenous territory with the largest number of mining applications in the country: 97, according to Agência Pública.


The resistance movement, also recorded on video by the collective, yielded victories like the one that took place in 2019. After a campaign conducted by the Munduruku people with the support of Brazilian and international Indigenous rights organizations, multinational mining company Anglo American committed to withdraw 27 mining applications approved by Brazil’s National Mining Agency (ANM) that overlapped with Indigenous lands; 13 of those applications were in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory.


An obstacle in the Munduruku fight against this transgression is that the illegal miners are supported by various groups in the federal government, which are often accused of leaking information about law enforcement operations against mining in the region.


Besides deforestation, mining also causes pollution of local rivers, at one point clouding the water at the river beaches of Alter do Chão in the Lower Tapajós region. While the Federal Police announced an investigation to ascertain whether the change was associated with illegal mining, for the Munduruku of Sawré Muybu, there’s no doubt. For several years they have warned about the harmful effects of mining on the river. According to Greenpeace, illegal mining has already destroyed more than 600 kilometers (370 miles) of rivers within Munduruku lands in the past five years.


“When I was young, the water was different, it used to be green. I used to catch fish with an arrow,” says Juarez Saw Munduruku, an Indigenous chief. “Today, you can’t see the fish at the bottom so you can’t shoot an arrow. And with each passing year, the water is getting dirtier as a result of mining,” he says in an interview with the young women of the video collective.


Mining brings mercury contamination with it. The heavy metal, which is used to extract gold from ore, ends up into rivers and is poisoning the Munduruku population. “Research shows that our blood is full of mercury. And the fish that we eat are sick,” Juarez says, referring to research conducted by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil’s leading public health research institutions, in the Middle Tapajós area. According to the study, all residents of the three villages in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory were found to have high levels of mercury in their bodies, and were ingesting the heavy metal at levels up to 18 times above the safe limit. All 88 fish samples tested for the study also had mercury in them.


Defenders under threat

All these socioenvironmental aggressions have ratcheted up tensions on the Munduruku lands and increased the threats against their leaders. In March 2021, the headquarters of the Munduruku Wakoborũn Women’s Association, in Jacareacanga municipality, was invaded and burned by a group of miners. In May, the home of Indigenous leader Maria Leusa Kaba was also burned. In June, a bus that was to take Munduruku leaders to a demonstration in Brasília was attacked. In November, just after COP26, someone broke into the house of another Munduruku leader, Alessandra Korap.


In this context, the members of the Munduruku Audiovisual Collective are convinced about the importance of their work. “Let more young people come to do this work after us; it’s very important work, a tool that we really need nowadays,” Aldira says.


Juarez, the chief, or cacique, says Amazonian peoples such as the Munduruku still need a lot of help to face the several threats that plague the region. “It’s very difficult for us to stop these activities; we know that we are all suffering because of this major destruction here in the Amazon,” he says.


With the process of official demarcating the Indigenous territory stalled for years, the residents carried out their own self-demarcation in 2015. It was there that Beka made her first video recordings, when she was just 12 years old. “This government says it will not demarcate even an inch of land,” Juarez says indignantly, recalling one of Bolsonaro’s more infamous campaign promises. “With that, the invasions are coming, as a result of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. If these big projects advance [such as dams], we’ll lose our land.”


Between 2019 and 2021, the first three years of the Bolsonaro administration, the deforestation of Indigenous lands increased by 138% compared to the previous three years. According to the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, invasions of indigenous territories to illegally exploit natural resources more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, coinciding with the start of the Bolsonaro administration. In 2020, that number remained high, with 263 cases. Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, did not respond to Repórter Brasil’s questions about the invasions and the slow pace of the demarcation process.


As Juarez watches one of the videos produced by the young women on his cellphone, he stresses the importance of the Munduruku Audiovisual Collective: “It’s through this group that we take these complaints out,” he says. “It’s in their hands, the youth, the young women, to protect the territory later on.”


This story was reported by Repórter Brasil and first published in Portuguese here on Feb. 2, 2022.

This reporting was carried out with funding provided by Global Forest Watch, which has the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment (KDL). It was also supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Repórter Brasil maintains complete editorial independence.


This post first appeared on Mongabay.

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