Fieldwork landscapes: a piece of Mato Grosso

As I mentioned in the last post, about the Leticia triple border area on the Amazon river, my fieldwork sites are on a very different landscape. The Panará live on their demarcated indigenous land right on the border between the states of Pará and Mato Grosso.

2016-06-20 07.29.57

Just a regular street in northern Mato Grosso.

This is what remains of their traditional land, where they lived in up to 9 villages until 1973, when they were contacted due to the construction of the BR-163 highway. Decimated by contagious diseases, the surviving members were evacuated to the nearby Xingu Park, from which they managed to come back in the mid 1990s. During those 20 years the rest of their land had been ravaged by gold prospecting or turned into fields for crops and cattle, with newly founded cities growing like mushrooms all over the area. This is the part of Brazil that I get to see during my trips to the field, the frontier between the newly colonized lands and the preserved forests mostly inside of demarcated indigenous lands.

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A ranch in northern Mato Grosso, with forest and hills at the back.

The Panará’s old land is at the north of a flatland that extends south of the Cachimbo mountain range (Serra do Cachimbo) all the way into the Pantanal wetlands, and roughly between the Tocantins to the east and north-central Rondônia to the west. This is the Mato Grosso Plateau (or the Central Plateau). Situated in the Amazon basin, between its easternmost tributaries, the landscape is quite different from what we usually think of as Amazonian bush.


Physical map of Brazil, taken from here.

The Mato Grosso Plateau (Planalto do Mato Grosso) was home to a series of indigenous Brazilian groups, such as the Xavante, the Arara, the Juruna, the Munduruku, etc. as documented by explorers like Nimuendajú or Ehrenreich. Panará presence in the 20th century is documented as south as the city of Colíder, stretching down from the Cachimbo mountain range (Serra do Cachimbo) between the states of Pará and Mato Grosso.

The landscape of this area has changed enormously in just a few decades. As an example Sinop, the main city in the north area of Mato Grosso, the “Nortão”. With approximately 120.000 inhabitants, it’s also the fourth largest city in the state. Sinop was not called this after the identically named Turkish city, but after the private company that was tasked with colonizing this entire area, Colonizadora Sinop, today sort of renamed Grupo Sinop. This image from 40 years ago gives us a good idea of what the now urbanized area of the Mato Grosso Plateau was like before colonization:

Sinop 1973

Sinop, MT, in 1973. Public domain.

Today, 43 years later, Sinop has gone from being a piece of forest at the very beginning of a process of colonization to being the thriving capital of the Nortão, with a strong economy based on the exploitation of land for cattle ranches and fields of soy, cotton or corn:

Sinop Area-Pablotabile

Sinop city centre today. Source.

The last town that I visit before being off to the field is Guarantã do Norte, named after the Portuguese name for a tree (Esenbeckia leiocarpa) common in the area. It was founded ten years later than Sinop, and it’s a little behind in terms of urban development. Its industry is based even more directly on the ranches and fields that fill the area. Presence of indigenous people from the surrounding areas is a lot more visible than in Sinop, although not as much as in Colíder, the epicentre of indigenous foundations and organizations in the area.

guaranta do norte

Guarantã do Norte. Public domain.

Another day we’ll look more closely at this northernmost region of the Peixoto area: the Cachimbo range and the Iriri river.


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