Exclusive survey reveals a much greater impact than estimated by agribusinesses. Ministry of Indigenous Peoples shows concern and demands consultation, but Lula’s minister of transport is optimistic about project launched by Bolsonaro.

A route of nearly 1,000 kilometres of railway that will traverse the centre of the country through protected areas and indigenous territories that are also home to isolated tribes. This is the Ferrogrão project (EF-170), a monumental undertaking that is the brainchild of major soybean and maize producers in West-Central Brazil, which promises to bolster the new outflow route through the country’s Arco Norte and reduce costs. 

Production is currently transported by trucks using the BR-163 highway towards the ports located in the municipalities of Itaituba, Santarém and Barcarena in the state of Pará. Running parallel to the highway, the Ferrogrão line promises to reduce agricultural transportation costs, but it comes at a high price for traditional peoples and the Brazilian climate change agenda. 

This is yet another case dividing Lula’s ministers. This time it is precisely in the state that will host COP-30, in 2025, when the president of the Republic would like to show off positive results in the fight against deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

If they do not consult us, we’re going to set up a village on the train line. Then we’ll see if they’ll go over the top of us.

Doto Takak Ire, president of the Kabu Institute
Kayapó indigenous people block BR-163 during a protest in August 2020. Photo by Lucas Landau/Instituto Kabu

Doto Takak Ire, president of the Kabu Institute, which represents 12 communities of the Mẽbêngôkre-Kayapó people distributed throughout the Baú and Menkragnoti indigenous lands (ILs) and two communities from the Panará IL, stated for the report, “If they do not consult us, we’re going to set up a village on the train line. Then we’ll see if they’ll go over the top of us”. The territory is in the area most affected by the railway route, according to an exclusive analysis carried out by the InfoAmazonia Laboratory of Geojournalism. To make the situation worse, this is also the area used by three isolated tribes: Pu’rô, Isolados do Iriri Novo and Mengra Mrari.

The survey carried out as part of the report in partnership with InfoAmazonia and O Joio e O Trigo shows how, overall, at least six indigenous lands, which are home to approximately 2,600 people, and 17 conservation units, are in the demarcated area, which encompasses 25 municipalities of Mato Grosso and Pará, with an estimated population of nearly 800,000 people. Including a 10-km buffer zone around the territories, the railway will have an impact on more than 7, 300 km² of indigenous land and more than 48,000 km² of conservation units.

The analysis also considered a 50-km area around the Ferrogrão line, based on the route published in the Transport Information Database of the Ministry of Transport and the deforestation data of the Satellite Deforestation Monitoring Project in the Legal Amazon (Prodes [Projeto de Monitoramento do Desmatamento na Amazônia Legal por Satélite]) of the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe [Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais]), for the period from 2008 to 2022. 

This greater area of influence was based on the technical paper submitted by the Kabu Institute to Funai [National Indigenous People Foundation]) in November 2019, which draws attention to the pressures directly related to the BR-163 paving process in that area – and which could be exacerbated by construction of the railway line.

On the Pará side of the railway line, the paper states, a section of nearly 380 km (40% of the total length) is less than 50 km from the indigenous lands of Baú, Menkragnoti and Panará, “where deforestation levels have remained extremely high since paving of the BR-163 started”. The area of influence of the BR-163 highway is 40 km either side of the highway, as specified for this kind of undertaking in the Legal Amazon according to Inter-Ministerial Ordinance No. 60/2015

The environmental impact study (EIS) for the Ferrogrão line, submitted during Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency in November 2020, drawn up by the company MRS Ambiental, only considered two ILs within the undertaking’s area of influence: the Praia do Mangue and Praia do Índio reserves, located in the municipality of Itaituba and home to the Munduruku people.

The study was based on the Terms of Reference issued in September 2019 by the National Indigenous People Foundation (Funai) – chaired by Marcelo Xavier who is currently being investigated for a series of crimes committed against indigenous peoples, including the genocide of the Yanomami people. The document considers a distance of 10 kilometres around the railway line, in line with the measurement stipulated for this kind of undertaking by the aforementioned ordinance of 2015.

Asphalting went ahead under the Bolsonaro government, reaching as far as Novo Progresso by the end of 2019 and being completed up to Miritituba in February 2020. Although the Kabu Institute is in charge of the use of the resources under the Basic Environmental Plan (BEP), which is the main requirement stipulated in the environmental impact study for the highway, it has not received any federal transfers since 2020.

Between 2010 and 2019, the projects were jointly decided upon by the villages associated with the institute, with oversight by Funai, to which the indigenous peoples reported every six months. “It will soon be five years since the Bolsonaro government halted everything; that’s five years of violation of our rights”, Doto Takak Ire complained. 

In May of this year, the Kabu Institute came to an agreement with the highway concession holder for an emergency transfer of resources while it awaits new studies from Funai to resume the Basic Environmental Plan.