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Attack on Pataxó Hãhãhãi Indigenous leaders must be investigated



  • In January, two leaders of the Indigenous Pataxó Hãhãhãi community of Bahia State in Brazil were brutally attacked by a militia calling for a ‘repossession’ of their land, as police officers allegedly watched.
  • One was killed and the other badly injured in the attack, leading to calls from the community and rights advocates for police to be withdrawn from the territory and for the governor to take protective action.
  • “Who is at the helm of public security forces in the southern, southwestern, and far southern regions of Bahia? Who orchestrates and steers operations of the military police in this area?” a new op-ed says in asking for a thorough investigation.
  • This article is a commentary originally published by Mongabay, here. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Echoing the harrowing imagery of a Ku Klux Klan onslaught, a chilling episode unfolded on Sunday, January 21, showcasing the brutal reality of Brazil’s rural hinterland. In Bahia, two Indigenous people were thrown to the ground and surrounded by ranchers. One, a man wearing a traditional headdress; the other, a woman brandishing a maraca. The man was Chief Nailton Muniz, a prominent political leader of the Pataxó Hãhãhãi people. The woman was his sister, Maria de Fátima Muniz, known as Nega Pataxó, a shaman, vocalist and spiritual guide of her people. While Naílton sustained grave injuries, the tragedy caused the death of Nega Pataxó.

Both had been wounded by gunfire and, along with other Indigenous community members, were viciously assaulted by a ruralist mob, calling themselves “Zero Invasion.”

The spectacle of violence was orchestrated via social media. The preceding day saw the proliferation of a message, emblazoned with the movement’s insignia, across WhatsApp networks and groups. It was a rallying cry for what they termed the “repossession” of a farm, which had been occupied by Indigenous people that very day.

In light of these events, we ask the following questions; Who is at the helm of public security forces in the southern, southwestern, and far southern regions of Bahia? Who orchestrates and steers operations of the military police in this area? This situation is further complicated by the presence of armed civilian groups, evidently backed by police authority.

A WhatsApp message shared by “Zero Invasion” networks and groups which precipitated the violence, and which termed the event as the “repossession” of a farm occupied by the Pataxó Hãhãhãi people.
A WhatsApp message shared by “Zero Invasion” networks and groups which precipitated the violence, calling the event the “repossession” of a farm occupied by the Pataxó Hãhãhãi people.

The Invasão Zero militia, founded and nationally coordinated by Luiz Uaquim, a prominent landowner in southern Bahia, claims various properties within its domain, notably including ranches situated in Tupinambá de Olivença Indigenous Land.

The brutality of the ruralist militia, starkly highlighted by these tragic events, reveals a disturbing trend of impunity and disregard that is both outrageous and intolerable. In a joint public statement, the Public Defender’s Office of the Union, the State Public Defender’s Office of Bahia, and the Federal Public Ministry have expressed their concerns. They emphasize that for over a year, they have been urging authorities to take immediate action to prevent such violent occurrences.

The savage attack which took the life of Dona Nega Pataxó and critically wounded her brother occurred just a month after the murder of the young Chief Lucas Kariri-Sapuyá. This earlier tragedy unfolded in the Caramuru-Paraguassu Indigenous Land, in southern Bahia, the same region where Nailton and Nega resided. A report by the United Movement of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Bahia (MUPOIBA) and the National Association of Indigenous Action (ANAI) lays bare the relentless brutality plaguing this Indigenous territory. Despite its legal recognition in 2012 after a protracted decades-long wait for a verdict from the Federal Supreme Court, the region has witnessed 31 murders, with 8 homicides in the past year alone, including the deaths of Chief Lucas and Dona Nega.

The plight of the Pataxó Hãhãhãi people has been a matter of public concern in Brazil since 1997, following the nation’s shock at the brutal murder of Galdino Jesus dos Santos in Brasília. However, since that pivotal moment, the scale of violence has only escalated.

A group of Pataxó
In June 2022, a group of Pataxó started the first of two occupations to reclaim their territory and expel plantation companies from their land. Image courtesy of Rodrigo Mãdy Pataxó.

Research among the Indigenous people of this region reveals a long history of struggle, resistance, and what anthropologist Maria Rosário de Carvalho from the Federal University of Bahia (one of the authors of this commentary) describes in her latest book as an “insurgent trajectory.” This resistance has deep roots in the 19th century and extended throughout the 20th. From the early 1980s to 2012, the Pataxó Hãhãhãi undertook a concerted effort to reclaim and legalize their lands, as detailed by anthropologist Jurema Machado from the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia (also one of the authors of this commentary). This protracted struggle culminated in 2012 with the Supreme Court’s definitive ruling, granting them rightful possession of their territories.

Considering this historical context, it is misguided to trivialize the Indigenous people’s fervent descriptions of 500 years of oppression and struggle, as conveyed in videos circulating online, as mere rhetorical flourishes. In reality, across this extensive timeline, their predicament has only deteriorated, with vulnerability intensifying, particularly in recent years.

Dona Nega’s funeral was a solemn gathering, graced by the presence of influential figures such as Sonia Guajajara, the Minister of Indigenous Peoples, federal congresswoman Célia Xakriabá, and Dinamam Tuxá, the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), all of whom are Indigenous. During their eulogies, they highlighted the dire consequences of the racist ‘time frame’ legislation (Marco Temporal), which has precipitated a surge in violations against Indigenous rights. It seeks to obstruct the legal acknowledgment of Indigenous peoples’ ancestral claims to their lands. This contentious issue has spurred protracted debates in the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutional guarantee of legal demarcation of these territories.

See related: With plantation takeover, Brazil’s Indigenous Pataxó move to reclaim their land

Pataxó women in Brasília during a demonstration calling for the demarcation and homologation of the Indigenous territories of Barra Velha and Comexatiba. Image courtesy of Finpat.
Pataxó women in Brasília during a demonstration calling for the demarcation of the Indigenous territories of Barra Velha and Comexatiba. Image courtesy of Finpat.

Despite the court’s ruling upholding Indigenous land rights, Congress controversially chose to retain the ‘time frame’ concept championed by ruralists, at the end of 2023. This decision has reignited the topic at the federal level, with fears that its legislative enactment might lead to systematic genocide. The likelihood of this contentious matter resurfacing in the nation’s Supreme Court this year seems inevitable.

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However, for those of us engaged in research on this subject and working within Bahia’s federal universities, several critical issues are particularly striking: the pervasive impunity; the routine complicity of the Bahian state police in acts of violence; the erosion of social ties and solidarity; the glaring inaction of the state; and the prevalence of organized militia groups in rural areas.

The escalating crisis in the Caramuru/Paraguassu Indigenous territory urgently demands decisive and immediate action. Indigenous groups, including MUPOIBA, ANAI, APIB, APOINME, and others, have made public pleas to this effect. The cycle of violence, fueled by unchecked impunity for numerous murders, continues to intensify. The failure to prosecute those who murdered Chief Lucas in cold blood on December 21, 2023, seemingly emboldened 200 ruralists to orchestrate an operation reminiscent of the most savage punitive raids, devoid of any social or political restraint.

In the wake of these atrocities, the governor of Bahia has notably omitted any reference to the involvement of the state police at the crime scenes in his speeches and responses. Furthermore, the absence of thorough investigations into these crimes continues to provoke shock, outrage, and dissent. This tepid response and apparent indifference to social justice raise pressing questions: Is there a collusion with powerful entities? A deficit in political leadership? The gravity of this situation is compounded by the fact that the governor himself claims Indigenous heritage and professes to champion the rights of Bahia’s Indigenous peoples.

In the days following the crime, and due to repercussions in the press, the government of Bahia sanctioned a law creating an Agrarian Conflict Mediation Company. However, so far no concrete measures have been taken concerning the participation of the state military police, whose involvement has been emphatically denounced by the Indigenous people who were victims of the attack.

In an interview with the Teia dos Povos (People’s Web) movement conducted in a hospital while he was recovering in the days following the attempt on his life, Chief Nailton said that the police had inspected the Indigenous camp the day before, going so far as to take cell phones from the people and acting violently in order to intimidate them. During the attack, he reported, “Everything was organized between the landowners, militiamen and the state military police.” And he added: “The police are supposed to provide security for society and we were left unattended, with no help. The ranchers arrived escorted by police vehicles, and most of the members of Invasão Zero are militiamen, including policemen out of uniform.”

See related: Murders of two Pataxó leaders in 2023 prompt Ministry of Indigenous Peoples to launch crisis office

A member of the Pataxó community.
A member of the Pataxó community. Image by Karenalmeid via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The chief appealed to the state governor to withdraw the military police from areas occupied by Indigenous people, who, according to Brazil’s federal constitution, should be protected by the federal police. Regarding the Invasão Zero militia, he defines it as “a cover for violence that has carte blanche to take the lives of human beings.”

Ideildes Fernandes, an Indigenous woman who’s an important religious leader and a nurse, also claims to have been attacked by militiamen and military police. She had traveled to the reoccupied Indigenous area to monitor the health of pregnant women and the elderly, and as a result of the attack, suffered a broken arm and collarbone. In addition to the violence, she lost all her documents and will have to stay away from her Indigenous health duties for three months. For her, the event represented not only a structural tragedy, but also personal tragedies with very direct consequences for everyone’s lives.

Ultimately, who but the state bears the responsibility to safeguard the Pataxó Hãhãhãi people’s wellbeing, to thoroughly investigate, and to hold accountable those behind the rural militia’s actions, including any complicit state agents?

Conversely, it’s crucial to acknowledge the profound respect and recognition awarded to the Pataxó Hãhãhãi’s knowledge and talents by significant sectors of Brazilian society. Nailton Muniz and his sister Maria Mayá Muniz were honored with the title of Doctor of Notable Knowledge by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) appointed Mayá Muniz as a visiting professor. Nailton, Mayá and Nega’s niece, the artist Olinda Yawar, who is of both Pataxó Hãhãhãi and Tupinambá heritage, has her works featured in major Brazilian museums, including MASP and PINACOTECA, and she has been invited to exhibit her artwork at the Venezia Biennial of Arts in 2024. These young talents draw from the inspirational legacy of their ancestor’s history and struggles.

The Pataxó territory overlaps with Monte Pascoal National Park in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Image courtesy of André Olmos.
A man in Pataxó territory. Image courtesy of André Olmos.

Dona Nega was renowned for her political and ritualistic endeavors. She was the sibling of Nailton and Mayá Muniz, and daughter of the revered spiritual leader Lucília Francisca Muniz. Born outside their traditional territory, from which their ancestors were expelled, Mayá, Nega, and their siblings were imbued with a strong sense of identity through Lucília’s rituals, even while living apart from their land and kin. These rituals, involving wood fires, pipes, tobacco, songs, and prayers, were instrumental in instilling a deep understanding of their rights and heritage, further solidified through the family’s pivotal role in the 1982 reoccupation of Fazenda São Lucas. This event marked the beginning of several reoccupations of their ancestral lands by the Pataxó Hãhãhãi, eventually leading to their legal recognition.

The tragic losses of leaders like Nega Pataxó and Chief Lucas Kariri-Sapuyá are severe setbacks in a long history of violence. However, these losses will not extinguish the Pataxó Hãhãhãi people’s resolve to seek justice, defend their land, and preserve their existence.

Felipe Milanez, Maria Rosário de Carvalho, Cecilia McCallum and Felipe Cruz Tuxá are professors at the Federal University of Bahia; Jurema Machado and Ernenek Mejía are professors at the Federal University of the Recôncavo da Bahia.