In 2008, the indigenous people of the Pari-Cachoeira village, located in the heart of the Amazon, were thrilled by the news that the NGO Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) had secured the necessary funding to build a well-stocked fish hatchery, a spacious farm, and a center for teaching cultural activities on their lands, in addition to implementing other improvements such as basic sanitation. The cash needed for all this indeed reached ISA. However, 15 years later, the projects either haven’t got off the drawing board or have been abandoned. This is what the residents of the village located in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in the Amazonas state (AM), more than a thousand kilometers from the capital, Manaus, report. The only way to reach the tribe of tucano ethnicity is after a seven-day boat trip from the capital or a three-hour plane journey — and there are no commercial flights to that destination.
The reservoir promised by ISA, for example, is on the verge of becoming a swamp. The few small fish that survive in the muddy water do not sustain the livelihood of the 130 indigenous residents. Vegetation has proliferated around the area, and even the natives accustomed to walking in that terrain trip over the underbrush, the size of which even obscures the view of the site that was supposed to support the village’s aquacultural activities.
Just a few meters away, the scorched, rectangular-shaped ground marks the spot where the chicken farm promised by the NGO was supposed to be. “We only wasted time demanding improvements that never came,” said 71-year-old Chief Domingos Brandão. “I went to Manaus, got some equipment to start fish farming and poultry farming, but the NGO stopped helping with what they had promised. They never came back to give any explanation.” According to Brandão, ISA would build the facilities, stock the fish, provide feed, and help maintain the reservoir.
Brandão says that these projects would have improved the quality of life in a village that now relies on state donations and small farms, which are also insufficient. Opening the refrigerator, he laments the lack of food, especially meat. Instead of food, there are empty pots stacked and few provisions like cassava, bags of flour, cornmeal, and salt. “Most of our people live like this,” he said. Downcast, he directs his gaze to the dirt floor, speckled by rays of sunlight that come through the gaps in the mud walls. “NGOs need to leave so we can take control of our lives,” says Brandão.
Stuck in time
The chief says that most residents of Pari-Cachoeira receive money from the Bolsa Família program. “But we don’t want to depend on that,” he says. “We want to explore the soil that holds wealth like niobium, gold, and diamonds. We need development.” Brandão’s complaint is echoed by 66-year-old Rafael Castro, one of the tucano leaders. Things that are trivial for urban men are unattainable dreams for the indigenous people of São Gabriel da Cachoeira. Castro wishes for a shower, sink, and toilet in his house. Over 20 years ago, ISA promised basic sanitation for the village. “My family takes care of their needs in the forest,” he said. He also complains about the non-existence of the cultural center that would teach painting and dance, among other activities. “My little granddaughters spend most of their time at home, watching cartoons on the TV that I bought with great effort.”
According to Castro, the NGOs did not even pave the village roads, as they had committed to do. To reach the man’s house, one must go down a tortuous dirt road that becomes a mud pit on rainy days. “In those times, it’s very difficult to leave the house,” says Castro. He also states that if they had waited for the NGOs to provide electricity—a promise made 20 years ago—Pari-Cachoeira would still be in the dark. The electricity that now lights the houses came from the federal and state governments. “NGOs hinder our progress,” emphasizes Castro. “They even dislike that we build brick houses, because they supposedly harm the environment. They want us to live in houses with mud walls. I feel like NGOs prefer to see us frozen in time.”
Castro’s perception is confirmed when walking around the village. Many houses are made of mud and not all have a TV, sofa, or even a bed. In Pari-Cachoeira, the clock hand takes an eternity to complete a full circle. The indigenous people don’t have formal jobs, nor do they have school activities every day, because teachers don’t always show up in the village. A small soccer field—constructed at great cost by the municipal government due to residents’ demands—is the only leisure option for young people and children who should be in the classroom.
Complaints about the actions of NGOs, particularly ISA, are not limited to residents of Pari-Cachoeira; they extend to other villages in the region. Tule, a teacher from the cCoripaco ethnicity, said that ISA pays little for the pepper produced by the indigenous people and resells it at a much higher price to a factory in Ireland, without sharing the profits. “They make good money off our knowledge,” he says. Craftsman Celestino Azevedo, 63, says he makes crafts sold to NGOs that promise to mediate between the village and the city. He charges R$ 500 per piece. The items are sold abroad for $7,500 (around R$ 37,500).
In the United States and Canada
Quite different from what happens in Brazil, American and Canadian tribes have been enriching themselves for years through the extraction of natural resources in the territories they inhabit. Such is the case with New Town village in North Dakota, where there is a post office, police security, a hotel chain, a Subway fast food outlet, and even a casino. Inspired by Las Vegas establishments, this venture has generated jobs for the community, become a source of income, and gradually expanded to include a restaurant and a leisure area with a slide. Adding up everything produced in the village, the annual revenue for the reservation amounts to $400 million (almost R$ 2 billion). The residents have also switched to using solar energy, which is cheaper, and built a museum to preserve the local ancestral culture.
Development is also a reality at the Fort McKay indigenous reserve in Canada, where the population is allowed to extract oil and iron ore. The sales revenue even helps maintain indigenous traditions—something NGOs claim to care about. Today, the 800 residents of the village control $45 billion in oil (R$ 225 billion). The abundance of per capita resources has allowed the community a level of prosperity unimaginable for Brazilians—indigenous or not. Every child born in the community is entitled to dividends from the tribe’s businesses. A young person reaches the age of 18 with a savings of approximately $100,000 Canadian dollars (about R$ 390,000). If they complete a course in economic education, they can withdraw half of the amount. At 21, they have the right to withdraw the other half.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian Congress keeps on hold a bill that would allow native peoples to benefit from the resources located under the ground where they live. Federal Deputy Sílvia Waiãpi (PL-AP) supports the exploration of natural resources by indigenous people. “Legal activity must be encouraged for the development of the people,” argues Sílvia. “In the Amazon, the children of the forest live in a ‘green prison,’ condemned to maintain the narrative of the colonizer,. aAccording to which, that people, in order to truly be themselves, must maintain the lifestyle and thinking of the year 1500, just the one that was easy to subjugate.”
Anthropologist Edward Mantoanelli Luz, a scholar of the modus operandi of NGOs operating in the Amazon, calls for a restructuring of third-sector groups. “The Sstate must establish more serious and rigorous criteria,” he says. “How to do this? By controlling the entry of resources from abroad and the application of these funds. In the end, detailed accountability for projects carried out in Brazil must be required.” Luz advocates for prohibiting NGOs from supporting the demarcation of indigenous lands in Brazil, as this is a matter concerning the country’s national sovereignty. “This right, which belongs to Brazilians, cannot be usurped by international groups with economic interests.”
Inquiry begins to open the ‘black box’ of NGOs
According to residents, ISA has been active in the São Gabriel da Cachoeira region since the 1990s. Due to a lack of transparency and government oversight, it is unclear exactly how the group operates. Now, the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (CPI) of Amazon NGOs, which promises to open the “black box” of the third sector operating in the forest, has traced the origin of funds obtained by ISA and one source of funding, the Amazon Fund, created in 2008 and funded by 80% foreign capital. Norway and Germany are the largest donors, while Brazil injects the remainder of the money managed by the National Bank for Economic and Social Development.
Still in the investigative phase, the CPI has revealed that in recent years, ISA received approximately R$ 30 million from the fund to carry out projects in Pari-Cachoeira. The commission recently also discovered that ISA raised an additional R$ 12 million from the fund between 2016 and 2022 for a “project on management in indigenous lands.” The committee is puzzled by the use of terms considered vague and subjective. “The project establishes the systematization of knowledge and the strengthening of local governance structures and indigenous organizations,” states a section of the document. The Pari-Cachoeira community has claimed to have never seen a cent of what was obtained by ISA, let alone the promised improvements. The CPI believes that the actual amounts are much higher than what has been discovered so far. Therefore, it will summon representatives from ISA and other NGOs.
It also considers to summon members of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro (Foirn), a branch of ISA in the region. The leadership of Foirn consists of members from villages in the area who present themselves as spokespersons for the tribes. In this way, the NGO is able to more easily obtain funding from the fund. To the CPI, however, leaders from Pari-Cachoeira and surrounding areas claim that these individuals do not speak for the region as they are a minority. In addition to the amounts raised for projects in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, the CPI discovered that ISA has ties to the Ministry of the Environment. Appointed by Marina Silva, the executive secretary of the ministry, João Paulo Capobianco, is one of the founders of the NGO. ISA has been one of the major critics of the Jair Bolsonaro administration, accusing the government of being surrenderist and destructive. When contacted, both ISA and Foirn did not respond.
Marina herself holds a position in the NGO Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam), a relationship that the CPI President, Senator Plínio Valério (PSDB-AM), has called “promiscuous.” The parliamentarian also warned of what he termed an “invasion” of NGOs in Brazil. “We run the risk of losing our sovereignty,” he said. “We cannot allow organizations backed by foreign capital to enter our country, take ownership of our resources, while our people languish in poverty. We will open the black box of NGOs operating in our Amazon.”
ISA’s operations in São Gabriel da Cachoeira are just the tip of the iceberg. There is much to investigate. The closest estimate of environmental NGOs operating in Brazil is 16,000, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Still, CPI technicians interviewed by the Oeste report suspect the number could be even higher. The committee has good leads on irregularities. For example, the Union’s Accounts Court (TCU) has gathered documents on the transfer of R$ 252 million from the Amazon Fund to 18 NGOs. Nearly 85% of the money was spent on lectures, books, and research—some without any publication record. The then-Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles (PL-SP), made the same observation in 2019.
An audit from the division states that the millions in resources reached 160,000 people—this in a universe of more than 20 million inhabitants. In other words, the funds were probably not effectively used against deforestation or to assist indigenous people or protect wildlife. One very suspicious case involves the Green Option Foundation. The CPI has documents indicating that the NGO owns land in the Amazonian municipality of Coari, along the Solimões River. The city is home to the Urucu oil province, Brazil’s largest reserve of oil and natural gas. The NGO’s leader reportedly acquired over 100,000 hectares of land—equivalent to 100,000 soccer fields. However, residents report that, as there is no official demarcation, this number is underestimated and could be four times higher.
Additionally, during a public hearing in the CPI, Ricardo Salles, now a Deputy, denounced an influence-peddling scheme involving NGOs, universities, and the Executive branch. According to Salles, public servants sympathetic to NGOs work in various governments. After a time, they move on to work in universities to produce work favoring the third sector, and those who were in academic institutions move to the government. “It’s a merry-go-round,” he observed. “A merry-go-round in which one writes a check for the other and legitimizes the colleague’s discourse (…). Sometimes they work in governments, sometimes in universities. One gives money to the other and digs up opportunities for the other.”
According to Salles, those in government are dedicated to sending money for the research of a colleague in academia. “The colleague in academia produces studies to support the political view of those in government and the economic interests of those who claim to be defenders of ‘relevant causes.'”
The alleged scheme also involves journalists. According to Salles, the Climate and Society Institute is one of the main sponsors of seminars and other foreign events attended by press professionals. They stay in luxury hotels and receive some perks.
In the 1980s, carnival artist Joãozinho Trinta said, “Those who like poverty are the intellectuals. The poor like luxury.” Today, in addition to intellectuals, it’s possible to include the NGOs. Although those enjoy, indeed, to condemn to poverty the indigenous people of the Amazon.
The Oeste Magazine’s reporting team traveled to São Gabriel da Cachoeira on a Brazilian Air Force flight, at the invitation of the CPI on NGOs, which carried out an inquiry in the region.