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Brazil's government starts expelling non-Indigenous people from two native territories in the Amazon

SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil’s government on Monday began removing thousands of non-Indigenous people from two native territories in a move that will affect thousands who live in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

The South American nation’s intelligence agency ABIN said in a statement that the goal is to return the Apyterewa and Trincheira Bacaja lands in Para state to the original peoples. It did not say whether or not the expulsion of non-Indigenous people has been entirely peaceful.

The territories are located around the municipalities of Sao Felix do Xingu, Altamira, Anapu and Senador Jose Porfirio in Para state. Brazil's government said the country’s Supreme Court and other judges had ordered the operation.

Indigenous groups estimate more than 10,000 non-Indigenous people are living inside the two territories. ABIN said as many as 2,500 Indigenous people live in 51 villages within.

“The presence of strangers on Indigenous land threatens the integrity of the Indigenous (people) and causes other damages, such as the destruction of forests,” the agency said in its statement. It added that about 1,600 families live illegally in that region with some involved in illegal activities such as cattle raising and gold mining. "They also destroy native vegetation.”

The Apyterewa territory had the most deforestation of any Indigenous land in Brazil for four years running, according to official data. Footage obtained by local media and shared on social media in September showed hundreds of non-Indigenous people living in a newly built town with restaurants, bars and churches deep inside the lands of the Parakana.

Other authorities that participated in the action on Monday included Brazil's ministry of Indigenous Peoples, environment protection agency IBAMA, the federal police and armed forces, among many others. Several of those bodies were defanged and did little to protect Indigenous peoples’ territories during the far-right administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro between 2019 and 2022.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva began rebuilding environment protection agencies and has so far created eight protected areas for Indigenous people. Soon after the beginning of his administration, his government expelled thousands of gold miners from the massive Yanomami Indigenous territory in the northern state of Roraima.

State and federal authorities this year also dislodged landgrabbers from the Alto Rio Guama territory. They threatened forcible expulsion of those settlers failing to leave, and pledged to eliminate access roads and irregular installations; nearly all of the illegal residents departed voluntarily.

Encroachment on such territories over recent years prompted Brazil’s top court on Thursday to enshrine Indigenous land rights by denying a suit backed by farmers that sought to block an Indigenous group from expanding the size of its territorial claim.

In the case before the court, Santa Catarina state argued that the date Brazil’s Constitution was promulgated — Oct. 5, 1988 — should be the deadline for when Indigenous peoples to have already either physically occupied land or be legally fighting to reoccupy territory. Nine of 11 justices of Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled against that argument, a decision that has far-reaching implications for territories nationwide.

Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press