Protection of an Indigenous Reserve: the Ka’apor People of Amazonian Brazil

Project Contributor: William Balée

The Ka’apor emerged as a people with a distinctive identity about three hundred years ago, probably between the Tocantins and Xingu Rivers in the Amazon Basin. They later engaged in a long and slow migration that took them into Maranhão State, in eastern Amazonian Brazil, by the 1870s. One hundred years later, in 1978, the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Reserve (called Terra Indigena Alto Turiaçu today) was demarcated by Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). The reserve covers about 5300 km sq of high Amazonian forest and is inhabited by all remaining Ka’apor as well as by some Guajá, Tembé, and Timbira people. The Ka’apor, like many other settled Amazonian groups, are a horticultural people whose staple is bitter manioc. They grow about fifty domesticated plants, which are used for food, seasoning, medicine, fibre, tools, and weapons. In addition, they hunt game and gather fruit in the dense forests and fish in the tiny creeks of the reserve. Since the late 1980s, as much as a third of the reserve has been illegally deforested and converted to towns, rice fields, and cattle pastures by landless peasants, cattle ranchers, loggers, and local politicians. The present situation is marked by tension and escalating violence. Raids on indigenous villages by squatters and loggers and counter-raids by native people on squatters’ and loggers’ camps inside the reservation have occurred since 1993 with at least two fatal casualties.

In 2003, the Urubu-Ka’apor, with the support of the World Wildlife Fund, established a non-profit corporation, called the Associação do Povo Indígena Ka’apor do Rio Gurupi; Associação Ka’apor; Associação do Povo Indígena Ka’apor Ta’ Hury, designed to support activities related to health, education, and sustainable management of resources, culture and environmental protection of pre-Amazonian forests in western Maranhão state. The project “Jande Myra Ta Ka’a Rupi Ha (Our Trees of the High Forest): Ka’apor Ethnodendrology”  works in tandem with the Ka’apor non-profit corporation and is sponsored by the Museu do Índio, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The project involves dissemination and protection of the history, customs, arts, and traditional cultural practices as well as the language of the Ka’apor people as these relate to the forest. In particular, it seeks to aid the Ka’apor in preserving knowledge of the trees found in the Ka’apor habitat and in protecting that knowledge, along with their arboreal legacy itself, from usurpation by external commercial logging interests. Extension work on the project, involving the training of indigenous fellows in tree photography and knowledge, began in August 2009. There is a feature exhibit of the Ka’apor in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, USA, which showcases the Ka’apor’s concerns over their land, trees, culture, and languages. The new project with the Museu do Índio also envisions a feature exhibit on Ka’apor trees as well as many other products, to be developed among the Ka’apor people themselves.

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