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Gamella struggle against land grabbing, Maranhão, Brazil


The indigenous group of the Akroá-Gamella has historically inhabited the Baixo Pindaré region in the north of Maranhão, today consisting of the municipalities of Codó, Viana, Matinha, Penalva and Cajari. Violent confrontations with colonizers date back to the early 19th century, but the group, after ongoing resistance, managed to maintain an area of about 14,000 hectares until the 1970s, when a new law (Law No. 2979 from June 15, 1969) again permitted the usurpation of indigenous land and initiated a process of land grabbing. Until the 1980s, most of the indigenous land had become partitioned and fenced off by ranchers, loggers and land speculators [1][2].

From then on, the Gamela group has been demanding protection by public bodies and the demarcation of their land but were denied any government support. In the 1990s, indigenous families attempted to recover some of the lands, occupying small plots of land, but they were frequently evicted and pushed to nearby cities. At the end of the 1990s, the group was even declared as extinct by the state – a strategy practiced since colonial times to deny indigenous rights [1][2][3].

In 2013, a group of Akroá-Gamella people reaffirmed their indigenous identity and historical memory, following meetings with the regional quilombola movement. They initiated dialogues with the organizations CIMI, CPT and other indigenous groups of the region and announced two decisions: to fight for their existence and to self-demarcate their territory, after 40 years of waiting [1][4][5]. 

In 2014, about 1,200 Akroá-Gamella people of rural Viana gathered in an assembly to demand official recognition by public authorities in accordance with the Brazilian Constitution and to collectively claim back their ancestral territory, which had become used for livestock grazing and clay extraction [1][3][4][5]. Over the next years, they continued to demand their rights in street demonstrations and blockades, often together with other indigenous groups. The Akroá-Gamella also participated in national protests of the indigenous movement, such as at the annual Acampamento Terra Livre demonstrations in Brasilia [5][6].

The group subsequently started to occupy fazendas on their territory to re-appropriate land that they considered as grabbed. Between 2015 and 2017, eight areas that traditionally formed part of their territory were occupied. They would be used for farming but were also of spiritual importance [1][2][4]. This included four farms where fences were destroyed, access for farm workers was blocked, and livestock, crops and agricultural equipment were removed – which led to the first violent attacks on the community and an increase of death threats by ranchers. As it was reported, the indigenous intervention halted the process of deforestation and led to the regeneration of natural vegetation and wildlife [3][6]. 

The Akroá-Gamella also opposed the construction of a transmission line, built by Maranhão’s energy company Cemar – which in turn publicly stated that indigenous people would prevent development in the region [2][4].

With that also threats against indigenous leaders and environmental crimes intensified, but despite violent incidences denounced by the community, public authorities remained negligent towards the situation [1][2]. The hostility was repeatedly fueled by public discourses of local farmers, politicians and evangelic leaders, who depicted the Akroá-Gamella group as “alleged Indians” who were “invading land and threatening the local population” [1][3][5].

In April 2017, the violent atmosphere culminated in a brutal attack on a new occupation in the rural settlement of Baías leaving 22 indigenous people injured – five of them seriously, including two of them with severed hands. At least 250 people, supposedly coordinated by ranchers, were believed to have participated in the attack with machetes, fire guns, and stones – many of whom had previously been attending a demonstration in Viana and mobilized against the indigenous population via social media as the so-called “Movimento pela Paz”. Police were reportedly called but did not intervene; also the state government first attempted to downplay the events [1][3][4][7][8].

The indigenous group in a public statement declared that their resistance will continue: “People are mistaken if they think that by killing us they’ll put a stop to our fight. If they kill us, we will just grow again, like seeds… Neither fear nor the ranchers’ bullets can stop us”. [7] The events were also denounced at the Interamerican Human Rights Court [4].

Months after the attack, members of the Akroá-Gamella together with other indigenous groups held a three weeks protest at the INCRA headquarter in São Luis, occupying the building which is also the seat of the indigenous agency FUNAI. Along with demands to recognize indigenous rights to territory, health and education, the Akroá-Gamella demanded the creation of a working group to advance the recognition of their ethnicity and traditional land. Such a working group was eventually created and meetings with the indigenous community took place. After legal interventions, the community in September 2017 eventually also gained the right to be recognized as “Gamella” group [1][3][4][9].

Even two years later, police investigations of the 2017 attack had not been concluded and some principal victims, as well as suspects, were not heard. Community members who witnessed the attack suffered from psychological and physical impacts and remained without sufficient access to medical care and social security. Despite the ongoing threats, no further protection was provided for the attacked community – which in 2020 counted 1,500 people occupying an area of 500 hectares [3][4][8].

Instead, the hostility against the Akroá-Gamella group has further augmented after the attack and with the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Community members report that they would now hesitate to go to Viana and avoid being recognized as indigenous. At night, shots would be fired towards their villages, passing locals would curse them as thieves and vagabonds, and some members were even persecuted by armed men. Just within the first four months following the 2018 presidential election, the indigenous community denounced eight violent attacks to a state delegation for agrarian conflict [3]. Also, the hopes for land demarcation suffered a setback. Plans to move the competency for indigenous land demarcation from FUNAI to the Ministry of Agriculture were advanced by bill MP 870/19, and despite temporarily halted after indigenous resistance, are still politically envisaged [3][4].

In the course of their mobilization, the Akroá-Gamella received support from civil society organizations such as CIMI, CPT, the Movimento Interestadual de Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu (Miqcb), Movimento Quilombola do Maranhão (Moquibom), and the Comissão de Direitos Humanos da Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (OAB/MA). They have also joined the “Fabric of Traditional Peoples and Communities of Maranhão”, a network that connects regional indigenous groups, quilombolas, fisherfolk, coconut cutters, and peasants in a struggle for decolonization [1][2].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Gamella struggle against land grabbing, Maranhão, Brazil
State or province:Maranhão
Location of conflict:Viana
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Land acquisition conflicts
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Specific commodities:Land
Sand, gravel

Project Details and Actors

Project details

People from the Akroá-Gamella group currently live in six villages near the town of Viana - Taquaritiua, Centro do Antero, Nova Vila, Tabocal, Ribeirão and Cajueiro-Piraí – in an area of 500 hectares, counting about 1,500 people [3][4]. According to colonial documents from 1759, they have historically owned an area of 14,000 hectares, which corresponds to the area claimed back today [4][8].

Project area:14,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:~ 1,500
Start of the conflict:1969
Company names or state enterprises:Cia Energetica Do Maranhao (Cemar) from Brazil - Built transmission line without consultation of indigenous community
Relevant government actors:Municipal, State and Federal Government
Ministério Público Estadual (MPE)
Secretaria de Estado de Segurança Pública (SSP)
Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI)
Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária (INCRA)
Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena (Sesai)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Akroá-Gamella community
Mobilização Nacional Indígena
Survival International
Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI) – Maranhão
Movimento Quilombola do Maranhão (Moquibom)
Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT)
Movimento Interestadual de Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu (Miqcb)
Comissão de Direitos Humanos da Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (OAB/MA)
Teia de Povos e Comunidades Tradicionais do Maranhão
Sociedade para Povos Ameaçados

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Akroá-Gamella group
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Land occupation
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Threats to use arms
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Arguments for the rights of mother nature


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Fires, Soil contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Violent targeting of activists
Development of alternatives:The Akroá-Gamella community demands the government to respect their rights as guaranteed to indigenous people in article 231 of the Federal Constitution 1988, including territorial rights, the right to maintain their way of life, and effective, particular rights to health and education [4].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The indigenous community has been fighting for social and environmental justice, but the struggle is ongoing.

As Kum ‘Tum Akroá Gamella in a recent text formulates, this struggle is a multilayered one that seeks to redefine the community’s connection to earth, reappraise ancient knowledge, and oppose the privatization of land. - “When we tear down the barbed wire fence, we tear it down because it was not always there; rather, one day they put it there. When we talk about tearing down the fence inside of us, we are talking about prejudice, racism, violence and patriarchy. It is from this ancestry, from this reconnection with the energy of the earth, that we must carry out the struggle.” [2] … “The earth does not belong to us. It is us who belong to the earth.” [2]

As Kum ‘Tum further notes, in this struggle, silence was an indigenous resistance strategy in order to continue to exist. The recent struggle for recognition and territorial right thus comes as part of a conscious collective search for indigenous identity that for a long time has been silenced by state violence and colonization [2].

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

ILO Convention No. 169

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Santos, R. (2018): Povo Akroá Gamella: do escondimento à luta política descolonizada. CIMI, Relatório – Violência contra os Povos Indígenas no Brasil, pp. 20-23.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[4] Santiago, C. (2020): Terra e identidade: a luta dos Akroá Gamella no Maranhão. Núcleo Piratininga de Comunicação, 30.04.2020. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

[6] NaBaixadaBlog (2016): Indígenas ocupam MA, no povoado GAMELA, entre Viana e Matinha. 20.06.2016. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

[2] Tum, K. (2018): Brazil: I am Kum’tum, I am of the Akroá-Gamela People. World Rainforest Movement / Intercontinental Cry, 20.12.2018. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

“É um atentado contra o direito de existência de um povo”, afirma liderança Gamela - Interview with Inaldo Kum’tum Akroá Gamella in Justificando (2017)

[3] Felipe, S. (2019)): ‘Por que esse homem ainda tá vivo?' The Intercept Brasil, 27.05.2019. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

[9] (2017): Indígenas ocupam prédio do INCRA e fazem manifestação em São Luiz. 24.11.2017. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

[5] Diniz, R. (2015): A força do povo Gamela: “Pensavam que nós éramos matutos, mas nós somos índios. CIMI, 05.05.2015. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

[7] Survival (2017): Horrific: Ranchers attack and mutilate Indians who demanded their land back. 04.05.2017. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

[8] Sposati, R. (2017): “Eles são mesmo índios?”, a pergunta por trás do ataque aos Gamela. Repórter Brasil, 26.06.2017. (Online, last accessed: 20.07.2020)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Video: "O conflito em Viana" (TV Impacrial, 2017)

Video: "A vida dos Akroá-Gamella dois anos depois do massacre" (The Intercerpt Brasil, 2019)

Meta information

Contributor:Max Stoisser
Last update07/09/2020



Street protests of the Akroá-Gamella community in 2017


Protesters in front of the occupied INCRA building in 2017

Photo credit: Honório Moreira

Gamella members at the MA-014 road before the reoccupation of the Cajueiro village in 2016

Source: NaBaixadaBlog

Drawing of Akroá-Gamella land and interfering streets


Assembly of the Akroá-Gamella


Reunion in a Gamella village in 2017