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Area in the Pantanal cleared for planting soy.
Credit: Alcides Faria / Ecologia e Ação
Pantanal Indians Assailed by Deforestation
By Mario Osava, Special to Tierramérica*

Aggressive farming and industry are advancing over the lands of the indigenous people of Mato Grosso do Sul in actions that are as insidious as they are devastating.

CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil, Feb 4 (Tierramérica).- The indigenous peoples of the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul do not look like the tribes portrayed in film, with colorful clothing and adornments and living from nature in the Amazon jungle. But some of their problems are similar to their Amazonian counterparts, and in some cases even more serious.

The ones that stand out are the lack of land to grow crops the destruction of the environment.

The few who are lucky enough to have forest face the threat of losing it. That is the case of those who live in the Mato Grosso Pantanal, a wetland ecosystem whose preservation is among the national environmental concerns, although the focus tends to be on the Amazon.

Forests in the settlement area of the Kadiweu are logged to feed the growing demand of the steel mill in Corumbá, in the heart of the Pantanal, said Alessandro Menezes, president of the non-governmental organization Ecology and Action, in a Tierramérica interview.

The MMX company, which since 2007 has been producing steel or pig iron in Corumbá, has already faced a ban for using illegal plant-based charcoal, but continues to operate under a temporary judicial order.

The environmental authorities have twice seized the charcoal coming from the native forests and destined for the steel mill.

Before building the plant, MMX had signed an agreement with the Attorney General's Office and the state government to acquire coal only from reforested areas, not virgin forests. For violating the agreement several times, the company was fined one million reais (560,000 dollars).

The needs of the Corumbá mining-steel center, which involves four large companies, far outstrips the available plant-based charcoal that can be produced by nearby reforestation projects, says Sonia Hess, professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul.

As a result, nearly 3,500 tons of native trees are turned into charcoal each day.

Furthermore, the environmental authorities state that native Mato Grosso forests also supply the steel mills in neighboring Minas Gerais state. This industrial sector is known for having devastated extensive stretches of forest in that southern state and repeating the damage in the eastern Amazon, related to the exploitation of immense reserves of iron ore in Sierra de Carajás, in the northern state of Pará.

The charcoal producers are taking advantage of the fact that part of the Kadiweu territory "is in litigation, still occupied by large landowners," despite recognition that it is indigenous land, said Menezes. Also under threat are areas of another native community of the Pantanal, the Terena peoples, he added.

In Taunay, one of the Terena areas, deforestation has accelerated recently because of the possibility of future delineation and handover to indigenous possession, said Lisio Lili, a Terena and former local leader of the National Indigenous Foundation. Charcoal and cattle are the interests behind the destruction of the forests, he said.

"We are drawing up a map of the indigenous communities of the Pantanal," in order to collect their memories and realities, as well as understanding their future in terms of threats, like deforestation and the advances of monoculture farming, and also in terms of possible productive and educational development, Lili told Tierramérica. The environmentalists "are our allies," he stressed.

The defense of the Pantanal is among the government priorities. This wetland area, which extends into Bolivia and Paraguay, holds vast biological diversity and is an eco-tourism destination.

In the 1980s there were many international campaigns to protect its wildlife, especially the "jacaré" (Caiman yacare), a caiman that has been overexploited to harvest its skin for export.

The Pantanal wildlife is also threatened by a channel to connect the Paraguay and Paraná rivers, and by the expansion of crops like soybeans and sugarcane, notes Menezes.

Expanding the channel -- increasingly important for exporting steel and farm products through Paraguay and the River Plate -- requires megaprojects that would alter the flows of the watershed and throw the Pantanal ecosystem into imbalance, environmentalists fear.

In other parts of Mato Grosso do Sul, which is home to Brazil's second largest indigenous population after Amazonas state, the problems are different. The Guaraní, who represent 60 percent of the nearly 65,000 Indians in the state, are fighting desperately to expand their land titles, even if they are completely deforested.

Unlike the Kadiweu, whose nearly 2,000 members have a reserve of 538,536 hectares, the Guaraní -- especially the Kaiwoá branch, the most numerous in Mato Grosso do Sul -- live in "confinement", according to anthropologists.

In Dourados, a municipality rich in agriculture, more than 12,000 indigenous peoples live on just 3,500 hectares, and with no forests, in stark contrast to a community with nomadic forest traditions.

Because the land is insufficient to sustain them, many work for wages, mostly as sugarcane cutters. The desperation is seen as one of the reasons behind high murder and suicide rates among the Kaiwoá.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.

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