By Caroline Stauffer
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Fires have destroyed a fifth of Brazil's Maraiwatsede indigenous reserve in what some officials suspect is a revenge attack by non-Indians who were evicted from the soybean- and cattle-producing region late last year.
In the past week, government satellite images show more than 400 fires were ignited in territory belonging to Xavante Indians in Mato Grosso state, according to the indigenous affairs agency Funai.
The Maraiwatsede reserve, which Reuters profiled in a special report in April, has become an emblematic case of rising tensions in Brazil as farmers push into new territory, hoping to profit from the country's surging output of corn, soybeans and other commodities in recent years.
Hundreds of such land disputes have erupted nationwide, prompting President Dilma Rousseff to intervene to try to prevent violence. In Maraiwatsede, the federal government ordered some 7,000 non-Indian residents to leave without compensation after courts ruled last year that the land belonged to the Indians.
The government had officially made the land an indigenous reserve in 1998, but some non-Indian farmers and ranchers stayed on.
Violent protests by gun-bearing ranchers broke out when the evictions were ordered in October of last year, prompting federal troops to fire rubber bullets and tear gas.
The apparent arson in Maraiwatsede suggests former farm owners are still seeking revenge, and tensions may continue to escalate on remote agricultural frontiers.
Brazil's Indian affairs agency "believes it is quite possible that this is a retaliation against the evictions," said Tatiana Vilaça, the agency's coordinator for prevention of illicit activity, in a phone interview from Brasilia.
Brazil has followed a mandate in its 1988 constitution and set aside nearly 13 percent of its vast territory for Indian reservations to try to address historical wrongs. Enforcement has only become an issue since the crop boom. (Many of the reserves are in the uninhabited Amazon and aren't as controversial.) Rousseff, however, has pledged to protect private property and has occasionally been forced to send troops to disputed land.
State and federal laws frequently don't match up in Brazil, and farmers say they have legitimate property titles on land the federal government says was made into Indian reservations based on anthropological studies.
Rousseff's government has indicated it will start paying farmers and ranchers for territory on other existing reservations across Brazil and slow the approval of new territories.
Vilaça said firefighters dispatched to Maraiwatsede reported seeing outsiders with trucks near the flames. Funai lacks evidence of anyone starting the fires and has asked federal police to find the perpetrators and give the Indians more security.
Mato Grosso state police in Alto Boa Vista, a town bordering the reserve, said some residents had accused the Indians of starting the fires. State police do not plan to investigate as Indian reserves are federal territories, a spokeswoman said.
The government's environmental affairs agency, Ibama, said 31,000 of Maraiwatsede's 165,000 hectares, an area about the size of greater London, had been scorched by flames of "criminal origin" as of August 16. The agency said the frequency of the fires means they can't be natural, and the fact they are started close to roads suggests they were set by outsiders. No injuries have been reported.
"There is a risk of the fires losing control and spreading to fields and property outside of the reserve," Ibama said in a written statement.
Maraiwatsede straddles Brazil's Amazon rain forest and the dry, savannah-like Cerrado, which is prone to fire in the August dry season that precedes the start of soy and corn planting.
Between July 15 and August 15 Ibama reported 654 fires started on Indian lands in Brazil's top soy state, Mato Grosso, not all of them criminal. Funai's Vilaça said fires on Indian territory are common because tribes use flames for cooking and ceremonies, but Maraiwatsede was clearly a criminal attack.
Xavante Chief Damião Paridzané, who was taken away from the area by the Brazilian army as a young boy in 1966 and has spent much of his adult life lobbying authorities and protesting to recover ancestral territory, previously told Reuters he wants the deforested land to again become worthy of the name Maraiwatsede, which means thick forest in Xavante.
Brazil's powerful farm lobby sharply criticized Rousseff, a pragmatic leftist expected to run for reelection next year, for going so far as to bulldoze an entire city in Maraiwatsede and ordering productive farmland to be left to Indians, who want it to return to its natural state with only small-scale agriculture.
(Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Brian Winter and Prudence Crowther)