Territorial suppression; pollution of the Flexeira River; territorial invasions by hunters, loggers, and extractors; illegal burnings; wild animals deaths caused by being run over, burned or hunted; tensions on the outskirts of the Indigenous Land caused by the presence of farms, highway BR-222 and the Carajás Railway

Economic processes in Pará, intensified by large government intervention projects, have caused immeasurable environmental and sociocultural impacts on Indigenous populations. The case of the Gavião is emblematic. The name Gavião was given to different Timbira groups by travelling missionaries in the early twentieth century. These groups stood out for their warlike characteristics and used hawk feathers as one of their main adornments. [Gavião means hawk in Portuguese].

The Gavião were divided, according to their location in the Tocantins River basin, into three self-designated local groups. The first is called Parkatêjê (par means foot, or downstream; katê owner; and people), the “downstream people”.  The second is Kyikatêjê (Kyi means head), the “upstream people”. In the early twentieth century, due to conflicts with the Parkatêjê, they took refuge upstream along the Tocatins, in Maranhão state. This is why the Kyikatêjê are also designated as a group from Maranhão. The third group, which occupied the headwaters of the Capim River, became known as the “mountain group”, or as they call themselves, Akrãtikatêjê (akrãti means mountain).

The Gavião are speakers of an Eastern Timbira language, linked to the Macro-Jê linguistic family. The first contacts between them and expansion fronts were already occurring in the 1920s, and underwent different phases. The first included sporadic, peaceful, visual contacts between Indigenous and “civilized” people. At the time, the non-Indigenous “pioneers” used the banks of the river to anchor or rest during trips, having no reason to penetrate the interior of the forest.

However, when vegetal extraction (caucho [rubber], copaíba oil, and, eventually, Brazil nuts) gained momentum and assumed greater importance for the regional economy, the socioeconomic structure of the middle Tocantins and of the Burgo do Itacaiúnas changed.  This led to the search for nut trees within the forests on the right bank of the Tocantins River,  initiating conflicts.

This began a bloody struggle between the Gavião and the local community, especially with collectors of caucho [rubber] and, later, nuts. The Gavião people were accused of committing “great savageries”. In the 1930s and 1940s in Marabá, the region’s main commercial centre, groups of local politicians, businessmen, and nut plantation owners organized expeditions to exterminate the Indigenous people.

In 1943, the federal intervener in Para State granted  a tract of land to the Gavião. This smaller group began to inhabit the headwaters of the Mãe Maria igarapé between the Flecheira and Jacundá rivers. Afterwards, the Indian Protection Service (SPI) began to commercially exploit the area, issuing leases to third parties for the exploitation of the existing nut trees.  Given the difficult access, a minimal amount was charged for the leases.

At the beginning of the 1950s, completely unable to form a resistance or treat their sick, whether due to forest diseases, or the constant attacks against them, the Indigenous people saw that their only possibility for survival was to seek contact and “negotiate” a “ceasefire” with the Kupên (non-Indigenous people).

A brief history of the Kyikatêjê is also pertinent. In the early 1960s, they inhabited a region along the Frades igarapé, a tributary of the Tocantins River, near the current borders of the municipalities of Cidelândia and Vila Nova dos Martírios, in Maranhão. At that time, these lands were in the municipality of Imperatriz, which was broken up into several other municipalities during the 1980s.

The opening of highway PA-070 (now BR-222), connecting the municipality of Marabá, Pará with the Belém-Brasilia highway (BR-010), promoted the rapid incursion of the cattle grazing front and the  penetration of land grabbers and squatters on territory inhabited by the Kyikatêjê. Antônio Soares Cotrim, a sertanista [an expert in the region] from the National Indian Foundation (Funai), denounced, in newspaper articles at the time, the activities of the Industrial Campaign for Development of the Amazon (Cida), which had begun to expropriate Kyikatêjê lands for logging projects. It is no coincidence that one of the municipalities that currently lie on lands previously occupied by the Kyikatêjê is called Cidelândia.

The occupation of Kyikatêjê territory by the expanding fronts of occupation provoked reactions from the Indigenous people. The panic that hit the region resulted in the military government issuing Decree n° 63.515, of 31 October 1968, prohibited expansion into an extensive strip of land to stem the invasions and promote contact with this Gavião group.  However, the decree was ignored and Kyikatêjê lands continued to be seized and traded. The restricted area contains portions of the municipalities of Cidelândia, Vila Nova dos Martírios and São Pedro da Água Branca (all in Maranhão), and Rondon do Pará (in Pará).

In 1969, contact was made. Faced with several threats of “massacre” against the group, the National Indian Foundation negotiated with the Kyikatêjê for their transfer to the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land.  According to anthropologist Iara Ferraz, the costs of this removal were borne by the Industrial Campaign for Development of the Amazon, whose land expropriation and squatting practices had already been denounced by Cotrim.

With the opening of highway PA-70, the Mãe Maria area, which until then had been considered of little importance, started to arouse great interest among dozens of land grabbers, who moved onto the Indigenous Land.  Realizing that the National Indian Foundation staff and the Indigenous people living there would not be able to hold back the incursion, different Gavião groups (the Parkatêjê, the Kyikatêjê and, later, because of the Tucuruí hydroelectric plant, the Akrãtikatêjê) planned to unite on the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land. This would eventually turn into a stronghold of resistance and survival for the Gavião people.

The Mãe Maria Indigenous Land was duly ratified by Decree n° 93.148, of 21 August 1986.  It lies in the Tocantins-Araguaia hydrographic basin in the municipality of Bom Jesus do Tocantins, Pará.  It is bounded on the west by the Flecheiro River and on the east by the Jacundá River. It has an area of 62.488 thousand hectares and is comprised of tropical forest and firm ground. It is worth noting that a serious anomaly occurred in the demarcation of the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land. In the ratification of the decree, highway BR-222 (old PA-70) as well as lands where the Eletronorte power lines and Carajás Railroad pass, were excluded.

According to data collected by the Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) and the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the Gavião currently have an estimated population of over 900 Indigenous people, distributed across 17 independent villages.  Three of them are older (Parkatêjê, Kyikatêjê and Akrãtikatêjê) and 14 are more recent (Akrãkaprêkti, Krijãmretijê, Koyakati, Krãpeitijê, Krijõhêrekatêjê, Akrõtikatêjê, Rohokatêjê, Akrãti, Kripei, Print Par, Krintuwakatêjê, Hàktijõkri, Mejõkrikatêjê and Pamrexã).

The implantation of large government projects in south and southeastern Pará caused immeasurable and irreversable environmental damage to the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land. The initial construction of the Belém-Brasília and the Trans-Amazonian highways caused indirect changes to the landscape and had an acute impact on the region’s flora and fauna. The implantation of federal highway BR-222, had a  direct impact on the Indigenous Land since, in addition to cutting down two thousand hectares of nut trees, it scared off game and left the area even more exposed, and consequently, vulnerable to invasion and crime. There have even been robberies of tourist buses on the Marabá-Belem route, and of passenger cars, which often drive into the Indigenous Land. More recently, a leader of the Akrãtikatêjê village was kidnapped. These facts have forced some villages to hire special security, while in others, the Indigenous people themselves have handled the protection of their communities.

The extraction of iron ore from the Carajás National Forest, in the southeastern part of the state, along with the accompanying construction of the Carajás Railway, inaugurated in 1985, directly affected the lands and ways of life of the Indigenous people in the impacted area. The railway has an extension of 890 kilometres and is primarily intended for hauling iron ore to foreign markets.  It was built and operated by the Vale S.A. company (formerly the Vale do Rio Doce company).

The Carajás Railway is linked to the mining project. On the one hand, its opening, by cutting through previously unexplored forests, attracted and provided easy access to land grabbers, squatters, hunters, prospectors and loggers; all of whom began to fight for control of Indigenous lands and their natural resources. On the other hand, the world’s largest freight train, with four engines and 330 cars, with capacity to carry over 80 tons of iron ore, circulates daily and noisily among urban centres and inside the Indigenous Land. In some cases, like in the Parkatêjê village, it passes within 1.5 kilometres. This has caused vehicle accidents, in which people and animals were run over, and has scared off regional game, as well as other consequences.

Against the backdrop of the Great Carajás Project, Vale and the National Indian Foundation signed an agreement (nº 059/1982) to provide the following assistance to impacted Indigenous peoples in the demarcated areas of the Indigenous Lands: territorial security, health, productive activities and infrastructure.

At certain moments, tensions between the Gavião communities and Vale intensified, resulting in various reactions. The largest, most recent demonstration occurred in 2015, near the railroad. Vale immediately retaliated by blocking resources for the community, harming it significantly. These events gave rise to a legal battle, which is still pending in the federal court in Marabá, specifically the Regional Federal Appeals Court (TRF-1). The situation was finally relieved by the granting of an injunction favorable to the Gavião, which ordered Vale to release the resources.  This injunction is still in force today.

Another major project with significant impact upon Gavião communities is the passage of Eletronorte power lines across the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land. The high voltage line that connects Marabá to Imperatriz also impacted areas with nut trees, crops and even the Parkatêjê community cemetery, located near one of the transmission towers, where it is actually possible to hear the electricity flowing.

Every summer, a “cleaning” takes place along the corridor where the Eletronorte transmission towers are located in the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land. Due to the dry climate and other factors, including recklessness, fires often break out near the power lines, which spread to the forest killing flora and fauna.  This creates difficulties for the Gavião, including respiratory problems and eye irritation resulting from the smoke. In addition, soil quality is affected and the community is placed at risk since the fires often approach homes.

The growing territorial strangulation of the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land is clearly visible. It is increasingly surrounded and besieged by an incessant stream of projects. One of the most recent is the attempt to convince Gavião communities to permit viability studies for the construction of the Marabá hydroelectric plant. If it materializes, this project would cause a new incursion into Indigenous land, which is already highly impacted, as well as more human occupation and significant environmental change.

There is constant pressure on the Indigenous Land.  The urban expansion of Marabá is one of the direct consequences of the dense occupation of the surrounding area. The fringes of Morada Nova settlement, for example, lie less than three kilometres from the western border of the Indigenous Land. This facilitates trespassing for nut collection, hunting, fishing and other illegal activities, which has repeatedly been reported by the Gavião.

More recently, the Gavião, like other Indigenous communities, have been affected by Covid-19. As has been seen, villages within the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land are crossed by highways that are in constant use, especially for mining activities.  It is also important to recognize that the ease of travel and access to the villages, along with the way resources are managed and transferred by Vale to the communities of the Mãe Maria Indigenous Land, make the Gavião areas extremely susceptible to disease.

In this situation, each village adopted its own strategies and protocols for containing the virus.  These included: social isolation of the communities, avoiding the departure of Indigenous people from the area, except when unavoidable; limiting the entry of outsiders to the community; solidarity with relatives affected by the disease; acquisition and distribution of hygiene products; distribution of food to families in difficulty; and frequent communication between Indigenous leaders, the community and public health agencies. Up to this point, unofficial data indicate that the Gavião have suffered two suspected Covid-19 deaths.


andrade, Gilciandro Prestes de. 2015. A Amazônia e o Projeto Grande Carajás, entre as tentativas de desenvolvimento da região e os problemas causados às populações indígenas. In: Mundo Amazónico, v. 6, n. 2, pp. 5-19.

ferraz, Iara. 2000. Povo Gavião Parkatêjê. In: Povos Indígenas no Brasil. São Paulo, Instituto Socioambiental. Available at: https://pib.socioambiental.org/pt/Povo:Gavi%C3%A3o_Parkat%C3%AAj%C3%AA. Accessed: 20 Aug. 2020.

silva, Juliano Almeida da. Mimeo. A mineradora Vale S/A e os povos indígenas do sudeste do Pará.

silva, Juliano Almeida da. Mimeo. Silenciamento e obliteração da diversidade dos povos indígenas na Amazônia Oriental marcam os 30 anos do Programa Grande Carajás.

Eric de Belém Oliveira

Eric de Belém Oliveira é brasileiro, com origem e raízes na cidade de Marabá (Pará). É graduado pela Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPA) em Ciências Sociais, com concentração em Antropologia e especialização em Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial. Atua institucionalmente pela Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai) junto às comunidades indígenas vinculadas ao polo Araguaia Tocantins e como agente da cidadania e multiplicador de Direitos Humanos, através da Sociedade Paraense de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos (SDDH/PA). Artista urbano multidisciplinar, é fundador do Coletivo Consciência Negra em Movimento (CCNM), com intervenções políticas culturais nas regiões sul e sudeste do Pará.