Different from the traditional idea of an indigenous village, the 'Aldeia Maracanã', as it is known here, is a village created and maintained by more than one Brazilian ethnic group. It is located inside and around an old ruined mansion, not far from Rio de Janeiro's city centre and just a few minutes away from the giant Maracanã football stadium. The property had been completely abandoned for decades when the first Indians arrived, in the early 2000s.
The indians' arrival in the village is often described as an 'occupation' but 're-appropriation' is the term its residents and supporters prefer to use. After a failed attempt in 2004, the village was finally created in 2006 when there was a large number of Indians and supporters to occupy and maintain this important historical building and to struggle to prevent its demolition. It is currently considered a key reference point for other non-indigenous supporters – people who recognise the value of both material and immaterial traditions.
In addition, the village hosts an 'Indigenous Cultural Centre', that functions as a meeting point for ethnic groups coming from different areas of Brazil and abroad, and the Indians would like the building to become the first indigenous university in Brazil, to instruct and accommodate indigenous people from all parts of the country.
I have been trying since 2011, when I first heard about it, to follow news about this extraordinary urban indigenous village located in Rio de Janeiro. Then in the UK, most of the information I could obtain was sent by a sociologist friend, who is researching the village, or came from the not-so-frequent articles published in alternative Brazilian media websites and blogs. Now, with the 2014 World Cup approaching, to be held in Brazil, more tension and thus more coverage has started to emerge.
My visit to the “Aldeia”
Before visiting the place, I had read and heard various comments regarding the village's leaders and residents. Some mentioned power conflicts between different ethnic groups, others said that some leaders had become depressed. The harsher comments threw doubts on the ethnicity of some of the leaders, because of their non-tribal clothing or fluency in Portuguese, or accused the Indians of opportunism for setting up the village to attract public attention with the approach of Brazil's World Cup.
But many of these charges are ill-founded. By researching the issue, I found out that when the village was formed, about seven years ago, Brazil hadn't yet been chosen to host the world's most famous football event. Moreover – and perhaps this was the most important thing I found out – the building's historic significance was, in fact, the main factor behind the decision to create the Maracanã Indigenous Village. After finding out all this about the village, I decided that I really did want to visit these people next time I visited my family in Brazil.
The 19th Century Imperial Mansion
Built in 1862, the village's imperial house has witnessed numerous important projects and decisions for Brazil's indigenous people. Originally owned by the Portuguese Duque Saxe, it became the property of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Trade in 1889, when the Republic was installed. Around 1910, it was home to the first institute of indigenous cultural research in Brazil. Soon after, it became the main office for the Indian Protection Bureau, today FUNAI – National Indian Foundation – founded by the renowned Marechal Cândido Rondon, its first director and the person responsible for the creation of the Xingu National Park. In addition, until 1978, it was the first headquarters of the Museum of the Indian People in Brazil, created by the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, another notable Brazilian indian expert. It is clear, I believe, that no single factor or act of resistance accounts for the importance of the 'Aldeia Maracanã'. A significant part of the white and Indian people's history in Brazil is found under that roof.
2014 Brazil's World Cup
It was after FIFA's decision that Brazil would host the 2014 World Cup that the risk that the building would be demolished became much greater. The 'Maracanã Complex' project was established, which sought to demolish, along with the village's imperial house, other buildings around the stadium, including a school, a water sports centre called 'Parque Aquático Júlio Delamare', and the Célio de Barros stadium. These buildings were to be destroyed to make way for a giant car park, big enough for 2,000 vehicles, the modernization of Maracanãzinho gymnasium, the building of a shopping mall area with bars, restaurants and shops, and the construction of a Football Museum. According to the Brazilian Science and Technology Institute, the plan was to invest about R$800 million (over £260 million) of public funds in this refurbishment. Moreover, the management of whole installation was to be handed over, through a 35-year concession, to a private company.
Rio de Janeiro state government give up the demolition
On 28th January 2013, after a long, bureaucratic and complex court case, the State of Rio de Janeiro conceded that the imperial house at Maracanã Indigenous Village would not be demolished. It was an obvious decision, many would say, since most relevant organisations were against this demolition: Crea (Brazilian Engineering and Agronomy Regional Council), DPU (Brazilian Public Defence), Alerj (Rio de Janeiro's Legislative Assembly), NGOs, architects, urban planners and even FIFA, even though many of these had earlier been cited by the Rio government as among those pressing for the demolition. Coincidently, the decision was taken only 16 days after the police had tried – and failed – to evict the residents’ eviction, an undertaking which caused another scandal after it emerged that the police had blockaded the building for 12 hours, even though they did not have an official eviction order.
What about the Indians?
The village, that has sheltered over 70 indians from more than 17 ethnicities, is frequently visited by large numbers of indian and non- indian supporters. Most of those living there or visiting the building have migrated across the years to the city of Rio or near-by, looking for better education, health assistance or to escape from land conflict issues in their home villages.
Now that Rio's government has guaranteed the protection and refurbishment of the imperial mansion, the focus has turned to the question of the indians staying at the location which, due to its historical character, seems to be the best way for ensuring continuity to the existing and future projects. But, not surprisingly, in view of all the human rights abuses and illegal evictions in the favelas in the preparation of the mega-events, Rio's governor, Sergio Cabral, has said that he is against the indigenous people staying in these premises, calling them 'invaders' of that long abandoned and emblematic public property.
On 16th of February, I finally visited the 'Aldeia Maracanã'. There is still a question in my head: is it really fair to think about the future of the building without linking it to these people and their ideas?
Check out the video below to see the 'Aldeia' and to listen to some of its voices.