From Environmental Licensing to the License of Spirits

From the Series: Firestorm: Critical Approaches to Forest Death and Life

Fires burning across the North American West send smoke pouring into the Pacific, September 10, 2020. Image by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

Translated from Portuguese by Ruan Magalhaes Rodrigues, Ana Furtado, and Maron Greenleaf with assistance from Henyo Barretto

Many Apurinã,1 including my father Katãwiry, say that Tsura (a deity) first created the land, then created the rivers and streams, but in the end realized that the land felt ashamed of being naked and unprotected. He therefore created the forest, with its various trees and fruits, to cover it, leaving it more beautiful and joyful. So he asked human beings to take care of and protect his creation, to take from nature only what is necessary for their survival and sustenance. But unfortunately many people are doing the opposite, with harmful consequences for humanity.

From this perspective, which highlights our territories, we find the kymyrury2—respected and feared places—as Katãwiry emphasized:

The kymyrury, also known to us Apurinã as a “field of nature,” is a highly respected place. There, no one can mess with it or even get close. If they insist, they can be bewitched or killed. Only the shamans can enter that place. That is where our kiiumanhe [old, wise tree trunks] live. When the shamans remove this kãkyty [human] skin and wear the skins of hãkyty [jaguar], ymeny [serpent], or even of another creature—a moment in which many believe they have died—it is there [to the kymyrury] that they go. This is why that place is known as the home of the spirits. From there, the shamans protect our villages. They are many . . . so many that they cannot be numbered. They are the most powerful beings on earth. Nobody can overpower them.

My father always said that the kymyrury is the same as a village. Everything that is there is also here. The difference is that the residents there do not die because they are spirits. Let’s note that the values and meanings of these spaces are related to the occupation of different lives, in particular those of the shamans, who are the guardians of knowledge related to healing and of diplomatic relations with the spaces of earth, air, cosmic, and underground layers.

From this perspective, it is important to note that the shaman’s relevance is associated with the existence of these environments, natural resources, and other beings and guardians, because without them, such places will not continue to exist. However, let’s not fail to realize that these guardians, when disrespected, are dangerous in their reactions. In this sense, let’s see what other Indigenous thinkers say.

According to the Kisêdjê people (AIK 2015), white people are provoking the spirits of nature. They are destroying all forests and nature. And the spirits are not enjoying this, and they have already started to take revenge. We Indigenous people have known this for a long time, but your scientists are only now discovering this truth, calling it climate change.

For Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert (2015), the xapiri (animal ancestors or shamanic spirits) are truly numerous. They constantly approach us, without number and without end. They are the images of the animals that inhabit the forest with all their young. They are invisible beings that never die, who even in the face of the epidemics of the white man, epidemics that seek to devour them at any cost, will never disappear.

According to Francisco Sarmento (2017), the wai-mahsã are spirits from the cosmic layers and, therefore, are invisible in everyday life and to ordinary people but are visible or, rather, understood by ceremonial specialists. Such beings can be owners of places in diverse environments, and therefore, owners of the animals that inhabit these places. When humans enter these locations, capturing or preying on animals without prior ceremonial license, care or respect, the wai-mahsã can inflict disease or death on them when they consume these animals.

According to anthropologist Felipe Uirá Garcia (2010), the karawara (deities) circulate between heaven and earth so that there is a balance between living beings, human and nonhuman. The Awá-Guajá people and the karawara live in constant negotiation for the sustenance of earthly and celestial lives, both of which depend on these spaces to live fully. It is noteworthy that this cosmological, real, and contemporary relationship of alterity and interdependence occurs in the forest through its rituals and varied daily activities.

On the other hand, let’s note that human actions are compromising these relations and causing the accelerated destruction of the planet. Based on this fact, discussions about these phenomena have been growing recently. Such processes have received the attention of authorities, researchers, and activists, who—within what has been understood by Western scientists as climate change and more recently as the Anthropocene—treat them as ecological accidents, environmental catastrophes, and predictable or unpredictable phenomena.

Such subjects have been investigated and debated by authors and scientists from different disciplines. Anthropology, for its part, has researched different peoples, societies, groups, and themes over the years. One of its main fields of study has been Indigenous peoples, whose different societies have been investigated and analyzed mainly using Western concepts and dichotomies, such as nature and culture, humans and nonhumans, and dominant Western scientific knowledge and Indigenous knowledge.

These dichotomies reflects two forms of thought—that of Indigenous people and that of non-Indigenous people. Over the years, this has unleashed an asymmetrical relationship and serious damage to Indigenous populations, since their way of thinking, acting, and being in the world is unfortunately not taken into account—as in the case of administrative environmental licensing processes of enterprises.

Thus, the impacts of these enterprises and their construction on the environment, humans, nonhumans, and, mainly, on the kymyrury located in the Apurinã territories have brought harmful consequences to Indigenous populations and the planet. We know that enterprises and their different impacts affect, in different ways, Indigenous peoples above all—politically, socially, environmentally, economically, and culturally.

For although there is a set of laws that regulate, guide, and govern the procedure for an enterprise’s development—the production of documents, projects, and programs as a means to mitigate its impacts—we know that as a rule, actions are executed in a disjunctive, homogenous, and ineffective manner, restricting the participation and opinions of Indigenous peoples (see Zhouri 2008: Apurinã 2015, 2019).


1. The Apurinã people are part of the Tupi Guarani linguistic branch, of the Maipure Aruak linguistic family, of the Purus branch, calling themselves Pupỹkary (real people). Traditionally, the Apurinã occupy the margins of the middle Purus and its tributaries, connecting the municipalities of Boca do Acre and Manacapuru, both in the state of Amazonas, Brazil. It has a population of fifteen thousand people, distributed in twenty-six Indigenous lands (FUNAI / 2019) at different stages of land regularization.

2. Kymyrury are places that receive special treatment because they are sacred spaces. We believe them to be the heart of our territory because that is where the kusanaty and their spirits live.


Apurinã, Francisco. 2015. Nos caminhos da BR-364: povo Huni Kui e a Terra Indígena Colônia 27. Curitiba: Editora Prismas.

———. 2019. “Do licenciamento ambiental à licença dos espíritos os ‘limites’ da rodovia federal BR 317 e os povos indígenas.” Tese de doutoramento entregue Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social da Universidade de Brasília / Francisco Apurinã. Brasília-DF.

AIK (Associação Indígena Kisêdjê). 2015. Carta em Desfavor da Aprovação da Proposta de Emenda Constitucional (PEC/215). Canarana, Mato Grosso, Brasil.

Garcia, Felipe Uirá. 2010. Karawara, a caça e o mundo dos Awá Guajá. Tese de Doutorado. Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social. Universidade de São Paulo.

Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert. 2015. A Queda do Céu: Palavras de um xamã yanomami. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Sarmento, Francisco. 2017. “Povos indígenas e mudanças climáticas no Rio Negro (Amazonas).” Trabalho apresentado no Laboratório e Grupo de Estudos em Relações Interétnicas (LAGERI).

Zhouri, Andréa. 2008. “Justiça Ambiental, Diversidade Cultural e Accountability: Desafios para a governança ambiental. Artigo aprovado em abril/2008.” Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 23, no. 68: 6.