An Amazon indigenous village’s flight from sprawling soy

Not for the first time, the indigenous village of Khikatxi has relocated deeper into the rainforest to preserve its health and wellbeing. Will it be the last?


kisêdjê soja

An aerial view of the new Khikatxi village in the Wawi indigenous territory, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. The indigenous residents built the buildings from scratch after relocating. (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Every night, Kisêdjê men carry plastic chairs to the centre of a huge yard surrounded by the dozens of huts that make up the village of Khikatxi. The dry season and the low light combine to create a deep, starry black sky over the Wawi indigenous territory in which it is located, in the northeast of Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. The men habitually gather at this time to deal with community matters or simply to chat about the day. They sit in a circle in darkness punctuated occasionally by the burning glow of a cigarette or the screen of a mobile phone.

That evening at the end of October, a visitor started the conversation. Chief Paulo Xavante had arrived a few hours earlier following a 400-kilometre journey from another indigenous territory. His mission was to collect seeds of the pequi, a strong-tasting yellow fruit native to the Cerrado, which grows unusually large in this area, where the savanna starts to merge with the Amazon forest.

Kisêdjê men sit together in the centre of their village at the end of the day, chatting and dealing with community affairs (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Chief Paulo plans to grow the large pequi in an agroforest, integrating cash crops with the existing native tree cover as a way to generate income without deforesting. Despite facing pressures from the expansion of agricultural commodity production in Mato Grosso, his community wants to avoid partnering with farmers and planting soybeans, as others from the Xavante indigenous group already do, such as in the Sangradouro territory.

“I came to get pequi to feed us and to trade, to favour our health and the air we breathe,” says Paulo, addressing the seated listeners. “I am against what they are doing in Sangradouro. There was manipulation there, because the farmer takes 80% and the indigenous people 20% [of the soybean revenues], and then the land is destroyed.”

The agricultural frontier is advancing rapidly in Mato Grosso. In just a decade, soy’s planted area grew by 50%, largely occupying degraded pastureland and pushing cattle ranching further north. By 2021, the state harvested a quarter of all Brazilian soybeans, some 35 million tonnes – a figure equivalent to 80% of Argentina’s total production and twice that of China. In addition to its copious soybeans, the state also has 79 indigenous territories.

The border of Wawi territory is clear to see: on one side is native forest, on the other, sprawling soybean fields (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Farms already touch the edges of Wawi territory. Although the line has not been crossed, the Kisêdjê feel threatened by the impacts of monoculture on their land and their people. For this reason, in 2018, Chief Kuiussi Suyá took the drastic decision to move the entire 380-person Khikatxi village some 10 kilometres into the Amazon forest. The process is still underway today.

Soybean explosion in Querência

I met Chief Kuiussi at the indigenous health clinic in Querência, a 17,000-square-kilometre municipality that encompasses an urban centre with 18,000 inhabitants and Wawi territory. Kuiussi, who is recovering from a heart condition, told me that whenever possible he avoids coming to the city. He described how he grew up fishing in the nearby Pacas River and running around his village, before migrants from the south occupied the region in the 1980s, encouraged by the federal government.

Arriving in Querência via the BR-242 highway, the first visible monument is a silo that stores grain crops (Video: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Querência has become the 10th largest soybean producing municipality in Brazil. It also lies on the route of Arco Norte, a commodity transit corridor that has become a top priority for agribusiness, and the Jair Bolsonaro government. The Arco Norte is a plan to further develop a system of railways, waterways and highways to shift grain crops from Brazil’s midwest to its north and northeastern ports, cutting the cost of exports. Brazil exports around 60% of its soybeans and 70% of shipments go to China, according to foreign trade data.

So far, only Brazilian companies have been awarded contracts to construct various parts of Arco Norte. But investment from China in the logistics network is expected. “China has begun to focus on the entire agri-food production chain, from its beginning in agriculture in the producing country to include logistics, energy, ports, railways… various stages of the entire production chain,” said Yan Tian of the Global Environmental Institute, a Beijing-based NGO.

The Arco Norte is already an important part of agribusiness logistics, and its stature could still grow. “In 2009, we exported about 7 million tonnes [of grain crops] through Arco Norte, and today it is approximately 42 million tonnes. The trend is for continued growth,” said Elisangela Pereira Lopes from the Agriculture and Livestock Confederation during a public hearing in the Senate in 2021.

The BR-242 highway leads to Querência and frequently sees intense traffic as trucks transport grains (Video: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Yet, agribusiness infrastructure is sprawling towards socially and environmentally vulnerable areas, according to André Ferreira, director of the Institute for Energy and Environment. “We have identified 200 logistics infrastructure interventions proposed, planned or desired by the market in the Amazon, and that reinforces the movement towards the Arco Norte ports, in an area that is very sensitive,” he said in a recent webinar on sustainable commodity routes to China.

“The government and a large portion of the grain producers have a single thought, which is pursuing the way out through Arco Norte. But society needs to debate this, assessing what the advantages and disadvantages are for the country, since it is a sensitive area of the Amazon. Not only because of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, but also because there are indigenous communities threatened by infrastructure projects,” Ferreira added.

Querência is bisected by the BR-242 highway, otherwise known as the “grain route.” It is one of the government’s designated “strategic” routes for transporting agricultural goods. In the future, it could be connected to the Fico and Fiol railway networks, which are also set to transport commodities as part of Arco Norte.

Fires destroy native forest along the route of the BR-242 highway, a strategic route for transporting agricultural produce out of areas like Querência, where soybean plantations have expanded significantly over the past few decades (Video: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Along the margins of the BR-242, swathes of extensive soybean farms beside native forests are visible on either side. In October, there were fires along several stretches. Fires do not occur naturally in the Amazon forest. They serve only as a way for agriculturalists and cattle ranchers to deforest and manage land. In recent years, Querência has successfully controlled devastating forest loss, prompting environmental enforcement authorities to prioritise other places. But the problem persists, as shown by data from PRODES, the government’s satellite monitoring programme for deforestation.

Arriving in the urban centre of Querência via the highway, the first visible monument is a silo that stores grain crops. On the side of the road, dealerships offer tractors rather than automobiles. Further on the road, shops do not sell individual items, but agricultural products and services. The city’s streets are mainly lined with dusty pickups.

The Portal do Xingu Business is a high-end hotel. It welcomes employees of trading companies from across Brazil and abroad, and is almost always full, a receptionist tells us. The much simpler Brisa Hotel receives truck drivers transporting commodities. At night, the comings and goings intensify, and a line of trucks forms.

The noise of construction work is everywhere. Builders are putting up houses, apartments and other establishments to accommodate the growth of a municipality with a booming economy, but one that is unevenly distributed. Prices are inflated while sewage and waste management are inadequate.

Garbage is dumped in plain sight from the BR-242 highway. Since 2010, Brazil’s waste management policy has required the building of landfills with waterproofing to avoid contamination of soil, and drainage of liquids and toxic gases from decomposition. (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

The rapid growth of the city following the explosion of soybean farms had distressed Chief Kuiussi for years. “I thought a lot, alone in the forest, until I announced my decision to move the village. And everyone agreed.”

Rebuilding a village from scratch

Travelling from the urban centre towards the Wawi territory, the smooth asphalt gives way to a dirt road that passes settlements from the agrarian reform era of the 1980s and plantations sprouting soy seedlings. In the middle of several plantations are paths lined with the buriti palm trees typical of the Cerrado. Further on, my destination still more than 100 kilometres away, the vegetation took on Amazonian features. The trees were taller, more corpulent, hiding the interior of the forest from prying eyes. At other times, the transitioning landscape made it difficult to work out which biome we were looking at.

To finally reach the border of Wawi territory, I had to cut across the 210-square-kilometre Agropecuária Rica farm. In 2014, the owners of the enterprise tried to expand their property into the indigenous area, but the Federal Court denied the request. Today, the Kisêdjê say there is no incursion, but they claim a light aircraft sprays agrochemical over the Rica plantation an average of three times per harvest – and that it passes over their territory. The contact information on the company’s official records is out of date, and it was not possible to track down the owners.

With a hand-drawn map and no internet connection, I left Rica’s soy fields and took a road that skirted the forest. Some five kilometres on, an abandoned brick building revealed my location. This was the school of the old village of Khikatxi. Further along, there were ruins of huts, but no one in sight.

The abandoned school building in the old village of Khikatxi (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

I turned back up the dirt road to the farm and, with the help of some of its employees, travelled a further 10 kilometres before finally finding the new village under construction.

In the large, circular yard at the entrance to the village, men were adding buriti fibre to the roof of what will serve as their clinic. Logs had been placed on the ground to mark where the new school will be. There is also a shop being built to sell or exchange food and jewellery.

A brick building already houses administrative rooms, a community kitchen and a veranda with school chairs and a chalkboard. Besides being an improvised school, the centre hosts meetings and is where, intermittently, the wifi works – so it is always busy.

Men thatch the roof of a communal meeting place in the new village of Khikatxi, using fibre from the buriti palm, common in this area on the border of the Cerrado biome (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Beyond this first yard you come to the village’s main circle, where already finished huts housing indigenous families gather round to form an expansive plaza. Beyond this, there are small farms, the Amazon forest and the Pacas River.

A history of territorial disputes

An old road, opened by cattle ranchers before Wawi territory was ratified in 1998, was the starting point for the new village. “We began to open up the area from the road, with the support of machinery from the municipality. The first to arrive, in 2018, were the chief and some other leaders. Then, we marked where the houses would be,” says Winti Suyá Kisêdjê, a village leader.

The indigenous people occupy imposing huts, built in the Kisêdjê tradition. But the construction of community infrastructure advances at its own pace, depending on the availability of personnel and other resources from public authorities and NGOs.

In previous decades, part of the forest in which the village now sits was cut down to make way for pasture. But with no new deforestation since 1998, secondary forest grew. As well as the vegetation, the Kisêdjê preserve some age-old traditions.

Shortly after sunrise, the community goes on a pilgrimage to the Pacas River. The men fish for matrinxãs and pacus and, with any luck, catch caimans for the day’s meal. The women use tree trunks as benches for washing utensils and clothes, as the children swim around them. A tranquil silence – interrupted only by birds, insects and the waterway – makes it feel as if they have always been there. But their recent move wasn’t their first.

Women from Khikatxi wash their clothes in the Pacas River, while the children enjoy themselves in the water (Video: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

In the middle of the 20th century, land disputes intensified in central Brazil. In 1961, the federal government established the Xingu National Park, an unprecedented initiative. It followed a decade of efforts led by the Xingu indigenous people and the Villas Bôas brothers, sertanistas (expedition leaders to Brazil’s interior) who in the 1940s led an official entourage to map the country, but then decided to leave the mission and settle in Mato Grosso with indigenous people.

Community leader Winti Suyá Kisêdjê (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

With the establishment of the national park, various indigenous peoples who lived outside its boundaries had to move into the newly protected area, the Kisêdjê among them. There was growing pressure from explorers and government authorities to create landing strips, pastures and villages in Mato Grosso. These later became large plantations and populous cities.

Yet, the Kisêdjê, like many indigenous groups, have a strong connection with their original territories. Anthropologist Marcela Stockler wrote that villages, fields, trails and water courses are named according to the events and encounters that took place there – “where such and such an ancestor was born, where enemies were captured, and so on”. The history of the Kisêdjê is built on the space occupied by its people.

Winti says his ancestors have not forgotten the land they left behind. “They used to go to the old village every year. They would paddle two days in a canoe to get there,” he said. “But one time, when they arrived, it was all torn down. There was even a landing strip.”

After years of conflict and official requests, the Kisêdjê returned to their former village in 1973. They remained there until recently when new pressures began to worry them.

‘The problem today is different’

It was before midday, but a blazing sun and scorching heat already bothered the Kisêdjê men in traditional dress who had gathered under a shelter. “There was fighting [with farmers] when we took back our land in the past, but I want to talk about today: the problem today is different,” says agricultural technician Yaiku Suyá.

Rather than territorial disputes, other long-term consequences of unrestrained agribusiness currently threaten the Kisêdjê way of life. Khikatxi is the largest of seven villages in Wawi territory, and is occupied by a total of 608 people who make a living from legalised fishing and hunting, small-scale manioc, potato and sugarcane farms, and the gathering of native fruits.

“The rains are sometimes late, and the plants die of heat,” says Yaiku, adding that when they do come, storms and winds have become strong enough to knock down crops. “Around the territory, notice how everything is deforested. There is no forest to hold back the wind and water. We pray to the spirit to divert the heavy rain.”

Kisêdjê men gather under the roof of their central meeting place to discuss the threat of drought and storms – new problems they know are also linked to the expansion of agribusiness outside their territory (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

The intensification of extreme weather events is described in a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Produced by climate scientists from all over the world, the report marks out the Amazon as highly vulnerable.

The use of pesticides, too, has severe implications for both the environment and human health. “I saw the food no longer growing as it did on the land, I saw the bodies of people changing, people had itch and diarrhoea,” says Chief Kuiussi, describing life in the old village.

Yaiku recounts that in their previous location, there was a constant concern over food: “I know how the farmed plots in the old village were managed, and I noticed that new pests appeared.” He describes how caterpillars, large ants and bush pigs multiplied. “With the advance of soy, the soil began to weaken. There was less of a variety of seeds, and the poison killed the plants.”

Notice how everything is deforested. There is no forest to hold back the wind and water. We pray to the spirit to divert the heavy rain.

Springs have become muddy and polluted there, Yaiku says. The water they consume comes from artesian wells, and sometimes there are shortages. The supply of fish has decreased, and animals such as tapirs smell of agrochemicals, he adds. “The meat has even changed colour and no longer has any taste. The animals are all feeding on the soy.”

Studies prove the contamination of the waters of the Xingu basin, including the Pacas River, whose sources lie outside the reserve. Research by the Federal University of São Paulo detected pesticide residues from crops. Their paper points out an imbalance in fish populations in the upper Xingu basin. Other work by the University of Brasilia notes the silting up of the Pacas River where riparian forests have been cleared. That study also found contaminants in areas adjacent to agricultural fields.

In addition, there is evidence that shows the acute effects on human health of close exposure to pesticides. They include skin irritations and reactions, vomiting and diarrhoea. Pregnant women, children and adolescents are most at risk. Animals can also be poisoned.

An anteater rushes across a field planted with soybean seedlings, near the old village (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

But the relocation of Khikatxi has renewed hope among the villagers. “We created our first farm plot and we are excited. The land is good, we don’t have to fight pests. It’s safer,” says Yaiku.

The challenges of the forest economy

Healthy land is important for collecting native produce, a practice that connects indigenous people with their environment, as well as with potential markets for sustainable forest products outside their territories.

One thing the Kisêdjê do is collect between 600 and 800 kg of honey per year, which, along with the production of other ethnic groups contributes to Mel dos Índios do Xingu. The first indigenous brand to be approved in Brazil, whose honey has been on sale since 2001.

The production of organic pequi oil, which the Kisêdjê themselves first developed, earned them the UN Equator Prize in 2019. The award is given to innovative community solutions for sustainable development.

A Kisêdjê woman returns to the village with a bowl full of large pequi fruit (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

The gathering of pequi is a ritual that involves the whole community, especially the women. The largest trees are close to the old village. They were planted decades ago to regenerate degraded pastures. But seeds are already being planted around the new village.

“We moved far away to have peace of mind. Now we’re here, we have to think about the future of the children,” says matriarch Wekoí Suyá, via a translator. “We believe there will be plenty of pequi, and it will be enough to market.”

The production of pequi oil in the village faces challenges. Processing previously reached 400 litres per year, but it stopped during the pandemic. Traders in Brazil and abroad have also had difficulties selling it.

The US-based Culinary Culture Connections imports sustainable products from Latin America, including pequi oil. Its co-founder, anthropologist Gregory Prang, has worked with ethnic groups in Brazil and wants to stimulate the forest economy. Prang says the oil is “very tasty” when used in moquecas (stews) but has few buyers in North America.

“The pequi is little known here [in the US] and I lack the marketing budget to promote the product,” Prang says. “Every year, I have to throw half of it away. It is expensive to buy and time-consuming to import.”

In the last shipment, the company ordered a hundred 180 ml jars, and they took six months to arrive at their destination. The product has a one-year shelf life. Initially sold at US$20, a jar now costs US$7.50 through their website.

A Kisêdjê woman cuts pequi fruit to remove the meaty core. Women gather pequis in heaps on the floor, then wield machetes and cut the hard skins of the fruit to get the seeds, which are then taken to processing to extract the oil. (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Prang questions whether the bioeconomy – a subject that has sparked growing debates about how Amazonian peoples can generate income and keep the forest standing – can actually thrive. After doing a survey of more than 1,000 Latin American households’ purchasing decisions, he realised that few people are interested in paying more for sustainability.

“It’s the same in other parts of the world. There is a tendency to evangelise about fair trade, but most people actually don’t think about it,” he says.

Agreements with supermarket chain Pão de Açúcar and famous chef Alex Atala for the purchase of pequi oil have been broken off, their press offices said, without offering details.

A study by the Amazon 2030 project shows that soy is the region’s main export, generating US$9.8 billion in revenue between 2017 and 2019. Meanwhile, in the same period, exports of Amazon bioeconomy products generated US$298 million, just 2% of the revenue from soy. The volume of pequi oil exported is so small that it is not included in the data.

Khikatxi villagers collect jabuticabas – Brazilian “grapes” – from a tree next to a soy field (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

State support for forest-friendly initiatives is also disproportionately low. Between 2019 and 2020, the government provided two billion reais (US$428 million) in credit for small- and medium-sized producers in the Amazon. Of that, 55 million reais (US$11.7 million) went to sustainable activities. The rest went to agroindustry, mainly grain crop and beef production, according to a report by the organisation Conexsus.

Nevertheless, the Kisêdjê rely on collecting activities. Wekoí says the women have been proactive in planting urucum and muruci fruit trees around the new village. And this year, the village will build an oil processing facility. “We are always thinking of those who come after us,” she says.

The deforestation cycle

On my last morning in Khikatxi, leader Winti took me north of the village to a spot on the banks of the Pacas River, which marks the border of Wawi territory. On the other side, I saw a vast expanse of native forest, unlike to the south of the village, where large areas are already covered by soy farms. Even in that spot, however, new deforestation could be seen in the distance.

This northern part of the forest serves as a buffer to the indigenous territory, with intensive agriculture, ranching and logging all prohibited. Environmental authorities confirmed, however, that there has been illegal deforestation, and have fined those responsible.

Soy plantations have crept so close to the edges of one side of the Wawi territory that they have forced its indigenous inhabitants to move away. Coexistence has become impossible. On the other side, the recurring process of occupying new parts of the Amazon begins again. Winti questions what comes next: “Are we going to be trapped? Will we have to move again? How soon? To where? This land has limits.”

Lívia Machado Costa also contributed reporting to this story.