A Politician in the Amazon Region Has Been Occupying Indigenous Land for 30 Years, the Kayabi People Are Trying to Recover the Area

Dalton Martini registered as his property 10,000 hectares of an area considered to be the birthplace of the Kayabi people, who still remember it. He says there have never been indigenous people there

Sinop (MT) e São Paulo

The deputy mayor of Sinop, a city in the north of Mato Grosso state surrounded by cattle, soybeans and corn plantations, is annoyed with the mayor. Dalton Benoni Martini (PTB), 65, was elected in 2020 to be the deputy mayor after four terms as a town councillor. The mayor and his deputy fell out and are now political enemies.

"I am passionate about this city. We were going to have a two-man administration. Now we are no longer talking," says Martini, a follower of former president Jair Bolsonaro. In 2022 he tried to get elected federal deputy, but failed.

But the quarrel with the mayor is far from being the main struggle waged by Martini, who was born in Rio Grande do Sul but has lived in Sinop since 1978 and made money with agribusiness, especially cattle, soybeans and corn, as well as logging.

Dalton Benoni Martini's portrait
Dalton Benoni Martini (PTB), deputy mayor of Sinop, a city in the north of Mato Grosso state - Bruno Santos/Folhapress

In the early 1990s, Martini occupied productive lands a little over 200 kilometres’ distance from Sinop, and since then he has devoted himself to denying the existence of the Kawaiwete indigenous people –or Kayabis, as they are known—of the Batelão Indigenous Territory, where Martini’s fazendas are situated.

"There have never been indigenous people there," says the deputy mayor, who appropriated 10,000 hectares of the traditional Indigenous territory to breed cattle, plant soybeans and corn and extract timber in an area of the Amazon region that was once preserved land. "The Indians don’t want more land. They want to live like the whites."

His words are part of a comprehensive strategy –political, judicial and economic—that aims to erase the history of the Kayabis. The strategy is crucial for dozens of ranchers who, like the deputy mayor of Sinop, make money exploiting the Indigenous people’s traditional territory. The facts on the ground do not reflect Martini’s words.

The Batelão Indigenous Territory covers 117,000 hectares and is considered the birthplace of the Kayabis. From the 1940s, however, the state government of Mato Grosso began illegally selling parts of it to anyone interested in making use of the land.

In the 1960s, due to successive land invasions and conflicts, especially ones involving rubber tappers, a significant portion of the Kayabis were taken by the pro-Indigenous activist brothers Villas-Bôas to the Xingu Indigenous Territory, in a non-consensual move rejected by a large portion of the families.

Some of the Kayabis resisted the move and remained in lands close to Batelão used by the indigenous people for hunting, fishing and gathering of materials for making bows, arrows and sieves. Many of them returned from the Xingu to those areas, which were demarcated as an indigenous territory.

Over the following decades, rural producers such as Martini began to occupy and deforest the Batelão territory to use it as pasture, for cattle breeding, monoculture and logging. According to the deputy mayor, there are over 20 of these producers in the area.

When Folha interviewed Martini in his office in Sinop, we inquired if what he did was land grabbing –that is to say, if he invaded areas that didn’t belong to him so ensure his ownership of the land, based on his occupation of it and on illegal documentation. Martini denies it.

"It was not land grabbing, because these lands were sold by the Mato Grosso government in the 1950s and 1960s. My lands, the government had donated to some Belgians," he said.

"I arrived there, I occupied the land and put cattle on it," says Martini. "I bought it from Mr. Anísio," he continued, without giving further details on who was supposedly the former occupier.

Subsequently the rancher went to court to request the recognition of his ownership by usucaption [ownership due to possession beyond a certain number of years], with a view to proving that he "was there" and had bought the area 30 years earlier. "The Belgians were located during the court proceedings. I didn’t have the title to the land before that, but now I have the definitive title."

While ranchers penetrated ever further into the territory, to the point of there no longer being any indigenous villages or people remaining in the Batelão land, Funai (National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples) began carrying out studies with a view to demarcating the area.

In 2007 the Justice Ministry analysed the proposal submitted by Funai, considered the territory to be "traditionally occupied by the Kayabi indigenous group", and declared the indigenous land as belonging permanently to the Kayabis. This is a step that precedes the definitive demarcation, which must be ratified by the president of the Republic.

The following year, responding to a judge’s decision, the Justice Ministry stepped back from its position. The ranchers who occupy Batelão went to the courts to stop the demarcation from going ahead.

A decision by the Federal Justice system in Mato Grosso in 2016 recognized the indigenous land as belonging to the Kayabis. New appeals were filed with the TRF (Regional Federal Court) of the 1st Region, allowing the ranchers to request new expert opinions. The legal stalemate remains.

"The Kayabis claim this area as a memory, but the expert opinion on it has been inconclusive thus far," says the deputy mayor. "Meanwhile, I am encountering problems selling my products to traders and meat packing companies, obtaining bank loans, and georeferencing the area. In Sigef (INCRA’s Land Management System), the area shows up as indigenous land. Who wants to buy an indigenous land?"

From Sinop, Folha travelled to the Batelão Indigenous Land, a few kilometres from the municipality of Tabaporã, Mato Grosso. The two cities are situated about 200 kilometers apart.

We also visited the Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Land, home to the Kayabis living closest to Batelão. The territory is demarcated and is about 50 kilometres’ distance from Juara (Mato Grosso), which in turn is 170 km from Tabaporã.

Immense plantations of soybeans and corn stretch over an ever larger area of Batelão. It is the same with pastures and livestock. Evidence of logging activity can be seen, with signs relating to management of this activity.

Martini has put up at least two signs in the area. One of them says "Fazenda Nova Andradina (Tucandira). Owner Dalton Benoni Martini", and the other one, "Fazenda Arara Azul. Owner Dalton B. Martini." The first fazenda has simple wooden homes for the caretakers, plus large areas occupied by heads of cattle. The second one appears to have been occupied more recently.

The forested areas shrink at the same pace as the advance of plantations, cattle and logging. In 2010 Martini was arrested in a police operation against illegal logging, as he himself tells us. According to the deputy mayor, the activity was legal. He told us that he is still extracting timber from the indigenous land.

In the lands of the Apiaká-Kayabi, whose villages are built on the banks of the Peixes River, we found indigenous people who said they have not forgotten Batelão. The territory is a green expanse in the region of Juara, a town that follows the same system of monoculture and cattle breeding found in municipalities such as Sinop, Sorriso and Tabaporã.

In the Tatuí village, we spoke with three indigenous people who said they were born in Batelão –and underwent a diaspora process that is at the heart of the emptying of the indigenous land.

In a small yellow folder, Canisio Kayabi, 73, keeps an enlarged copy of photos of the indigenous chief of Batelão taken to the Xingu territory by the Villas-Bôas brothers, besides photos of his relatives who suffered the same fate, and handmade maps of the indigenous land with the location of the villages indicated, drawn from memory and from subsequent visits.

"I went to the Xingu [Territory] in 1965 or ‘66. There had been conflicts with rubber-tappers. I went with 15 of the Villas-Bôas security guards," said Canisio, who prefers to speak in his mother tongue. One of his sons –Kawayp Katu Kayabi, 37, president of the Kawaiwete Indigenous Association--, took on the role of translator.

"I liked it in Xingu, but wished to come back. I was born here," he said. "Batelão was emptied, but those who come from that place have never forgotten it."

Canisio’s 12 children were born on the Xingu reservation. Four of them remained there and eight moved to the Apiaká-Kayabi land, where their families grew larger.

Most of them survive by harvesting Brazil nuts, fishing, hunting, making cassava meal and planting bananas in small plots. Any surplus is sold. The land is invaded by loggers, and there are tales of some indigenous people colluding with them.

The ancestors were left behind, says Canisio. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in the indigenous land.

Canisio has met Martini in the village where he has been living since he left the Xingu area. "He is well-spoken. He tries to mislead you, saying that Indians don’t want land any more. But nobody here has forgotten."

Canisio’s brother-in-law Kawit Kayabi, 78, says the same: "I have never forgotten the area [Batelão]. I never got used to the Xingu. I kept thinking about it. Over there we couldn’t find the material we need to make our bows, arrows and sieves."

Luciano Tamaná Kayabi, who is over 70 years old, says his father and grandfather are buried in Batelão.

"In those days there was free space in which to grow our vegetables. We would change our plots from one place to another," says Luciano. "The fazendeiros themselves would lend their planes to take the Indians. FAB [the Brazilian Air Force] also took them, they took the Indian from his place. Many didn’t want to go. They didn’t want to leave their plots and their relatives’ burial places."

Luciano says the idea that they need to wait for a definitive decision from the courts is unfair. "They say we must wait for the courts, but it is the fazendeiros who are there, not us. I have the hope of recovering Batelão. That place was always ours. Our people are there."

On two occasions, groups of Kayabis tried to enter Batelão. They were stopped by fazendeiros and gunmen. "If you come forward, you’ll get a bullet in your face," some indigenous people were told in one of these attempts.

Martini, the deputy mayor of Sinop, says that the courts have recognized that the area was occupied in good faith. "There is still a lot of preserved land. And since 2006 there has been no permission for more deforestation, due to the issue of the indigenous land."

The encroachment of large rural producers –like the deputy mayor of Sinop-- in preserved areas of the Amazon has been detected by Simex (Logging Monitoring System), that uses satellite images to chart locations where this type of activity is taking place. The analysis is carried out by the organizations Imazon, Imaflora, Idesam and ICV (Life Centre Institute).

The most recent data provided by the system, from 2021, point to at least four cases of unauthorized logging in Mato Grosso from August 2020 to July 2021, involving protected areas and showing signs of land-grabbing.

In these areas in which logging was not supposed to take place, since they are ecological stations and indigenous lands, documents known as CARs (Cadastro Ambiental Rural, or Rural Environmental Registry), needed to regularize land use in Brazil, were drawn up. Land grabbers frequently register CARs themselves. It is possible to do this, as the first stage of the process relies on self-reporting.

The research database records two cases of producers from Sorriso, a town situated 85 kilometres from Sinop. There are signs of illegal logging in the Roosevelt River Ecological Station, in Colniza (Mato Grosso), in areas that coincide with those indicated in CARs made out in the name of two businessmen.

One of them is Fernando Pozzobon, a member of the leadership of the Rural Union of Sorriso and head of the town’s cotton growers’ cooperative. "The area was acquired for environmental regularization. I will ask them to find out if this timber extraction involves the property," he said.

The other businessman is Darcy Ferrarin, also a member of the union and large-scale producer of cotton, soy and Nellore beef cattle. We tried to speak to him, but he said he was on holiday in Santa Catarina and didn’t know what it was about.

In the Batelão land, the fazendeiros are pushing to occupy land that has not been used so far, including with logging. The last time Canisio Kayabi was in the indigenous land he says he heard from one fazendeiro: "I’m going to get all the timber out. I’m going to cut everything down and occupy the land." It was a way to reaffirm to the Kayabis the idea that the indigenous peoples don’t belong there.

Kayabi leaders went to Brasília in April for a meeting with the head of Funai, Joenia Wapichana. They asked for the demarcation of the Batelão land to be speeded up.

Canisio holds the hope of returning to the indigenous land where he was born. "Who’s telling the truth here?", he says. "Is it us or the fazendeiros?"

This feature is part of the Bruno and Dom Project, an international press effort organized by Forbidden Stories, a consortium dedicated to continuing the work of journalists who are murdered in the line of duty. Folha is part of the consortium.

The expert on Brazilian indigenous peoples Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered on June 5th 2022 in the region of the Javari Valley, in the state of Amazonas, while returning from an investigation carried out by Phillips. The occupation of lands in the Amazon area was one of the topics Phillips covered.


The deputy mayor, agribusiness and the land of the Kayabis

Sinop (MT)

This town in the north of Mato Grosso state revolves around agribusiness. It is a feature of the region. There are over 1,600 fazendas in the neighbouring municipality of Sorriso, for instance.

The deputy mayor of Sinop is Dalton Benoni Martini (PTB). He appropriated areas of the Batelão Indigenous Land, 230 kilometers from Sinop, and filed a lawsuit to obtain legal ownership of the land, alleging usucaption. He grows soybeans and corn and breeds cattle.

Batelão Indigenous Land

A non-demarcated territory covering 117,000 hectares, situated a little over 200 kilometres from Sinop. The closest town is Tabaporã (MT), just a few kilometres away.

In 2007 the Justice Ministry published an ordinance declaring the land as belonging to the Kawaiwete indigenous people (or Kayabis, as they are known). Ownership is a step that comes before the official demarcation.

There are around 20 fazendeiros such as Martini in the area, and they are fighting the potential demarcation. The fazendas stretch over large expanses of land, containing cattle, soybeans and corn. No more indigenous people are on the land. The Kayabis say Batelão is their place of origin.

The Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Land

The Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Land has villages of the Kayabi, Apiaká and Mundurucu peoples, as well as isolated indigenous people. The distance from Batelão is 155 kilometres. The closest town is Juara (NT), 50 kilometres away.

Apiaká-Kayabi is the traditional territory closest to the indigenous land now occupied by large-scale fazendeiros. Around 600 Kayabis live there, including former inhabitants of Batelão.

Xingu Indigenous Territory

The Xingu Indigenous Territory is where the Kayabi families taken from Batelão were moved to. There are around 800 Kayabis in Xingu. They were taken to Xingu in expeditions organized by the Villas-Bôas brothers, due to conflicts, especially with rubber tappers. The largest single transfer of Kayabis took place in 1966.

The move was not consensual, and a large part of the Indians did not adapt to it, having later moved to villages located in the Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Land and the Kayabi Indigenous Land, situated on the boundary between Mato Grosso and Pará. The Kayabis talk of returning to Batelão.

Sources: In loco reporting and ISA (Social-Environmental Institute)

Translated by Clara Allain