Reclaim and resist – the only way, say Brazil’s Indians 

Last month, indigenous groups in Brazil made headlines (if not much headway), with their week-long protest at the National Congress in Brasília. The demonstrations, timed to coincide with the Dia do Índio (Day of the Indian – 19 April), largely voiced the indigenous opposition to PEC 215, an alarming constitutional amendment that has already been approved by various government commissions. The basis of PEC 215, which is fiercely supported by Brazil’s landowner-come-politicians, is to shift the powers for the marking out and ratification of indigenous lands from FUNAI, Brazil’s government body for indigenous policy, to the National Congress. Supporters of the amendment argue that the move would make decisions over land more democratic. In reality, it is clearly a calculated move to put the fate of indigenous communities in the hands of their greatest adversaries: Congress’s landowner lobby (a bancada ruralista).

It follows Portaria 303, passed last year, which, among other things, allows other actors, such as the military and agri-business, to install themselves on indigenous land without the authorisation of the Indians.

Sassá Tupinambá in war paintFollowing April’s protests, Correio da Cidadania (CC) interviewed Sassá Tupinambá (ST), a Brazilian indigenous rights activist and social movement educator. Tupinambá stressed the damage of recent and upcoming legislation, which aims to limit the size of indigenous territory, to dictate the way it is used, and to expropriate indigenous territories which have been unoccupied since 1988. He expressed the indigenous communities’ dismay with the way the PT has stalled the land demarcation procedure, which has left countless indigenous territories stuck mid-process or even led to the annulment of the procedure, in order to appease the country’s “agribusiness elite”. In view of this painfully bleak outlook, Tupinambá insisted that for Brazil’s indigenous “the only option left is to fight”, to re-conquer, to resist and to mark out their land themselves. 

CC: Between 13 and 19April, Articulação dos Povos Indígenas Brasileiros (APIB), a national indigenous network, led the national week for indigenous struggle. What are your reflections on the week of protests? 

ST: It was really important, mainly to give some visibility to the indigenous struggle and to demonstrate that we indigenous people are not fragmented or regionalised in our plight. About 1,500 indigenous people from all over the country gathered in Brasília. However, we were ultimately unsuccessful in that the government rejected all dialogue with us.

CC: There was no meaningful exchange with the government? No breakthroughs regarding the policy towards indigenous groups in Brazil? 

ST: No, nothing worthwhile, no real dialogue. So much so that APIB expressed its disappointment through a statement entitled “Government’s lame response disappoints indigenous”. So, we really made no progress. Pressing for the demarcation of indigenous lands is at the heart of the indigenous struggle, the central aim. And the government has made it very clear that it has no intention of marking out our lands. I’ve already lost count of the number of territories that are awaiting final approval; mainly in Mate Grosso do Sul and Bahia. Also, throughout the whole country, there are lands that have completed the demarcation process, but still haven’t been officially recognised, with the process stuck either in the presidential office or in the ministry of justice. 

CC: What are your thoughts on the government’s recent approval of the Arara lands in the Xingu region of the Amazon? Do you think it was a calculated move? 

ST: Since 1988 [the year the new Constitution was approved], we’ve been waiting for our lands to be marked out, with conflicts all over Brazil. The Arara territory is Indians at the demonstration in Brasiliahome to two indigenous groups and, although they have been waiting for their land to be marked out for many years, it hasn’t been a pressing priority for them, in comparison to other indigenous demands. In Mato Grosso do Sul alone there are 12 territories awaiting demarcation, for the Guarani Nhandeva and Kaiowá groups. Others in a similar predicament include the Terena and Kadiwé. 

The Tupinambá have been waiting for final approval of their lands in Bahia since 2009. The paperwork is complete and the deadlines have long passed, but the justice minister has yet to approve the demarcation. Also, in the Amazon, we are waiting for the approval of the Setemã territories. So in reality, the demarcation of the Arara lands has shown that the government will only approve territory that has no value to agribusiness. That’s very clear. In the future loggers or mining companies might be attracted to this land, but agri-business is not interested in it. Today, the key lobby halting demarcations and forcing indigenous groups from their territories is agribusiness, which unsurprisingly was also the group providing most funding in the recent elections. 

The UN Assembly has stressed the importance of dealing with the indigenous predicament in Latin America. Brazilian groups have already attacked the Dilma’s government for failing to carry out the demarcations. The approval of the three small Arara territories that agribusinesses and political campaign funders have no interest in doesn’t solve anything. It’s just a way for the government to defend itself, to claim that they are marking out some territory. 

CC: What are the chances for other indigenous land claims, including those that have already been approved? Do you foresee any progress under the current government? 

ST:  None whatsoever. In fact, the only option left is to fight. And reclaim the land ourselves. The only chance indigenous groups have of re-conquering their land and A strong police presence during the demonstrationsgetting it marked out is to do it themselves. It’s our only choice. The Guarani M’bya are re-occupying their land (and being evicted), here in São Paulo, as well as in Jaragua to the west. The Guarani Parelheiros, to the south of the city, are doing the same. These peoples have also taken back territory on the coast, in São Vicente, Santos, Itanhaém, Peruíbe … as well as in the Ribeira Valley, Bahia. Many groups are resorting to this; the Tupinambá has done so more than 100 times. The Pankararu are also forcing invaders out and reclaiming their territory, all by themselves. Even so, it is the Guarani Kaiowá who offer the best example of this kind of proactive resistance. 

That really is the only option now, because what will our future be, if we don’t do this? The PEC 215 and Portaria 303. The Supreme Court is also getting involved, annulling previously demarcated land. Through such legislation, we have lost five indigenous territories: Yvy Katu, of the Guarani and Kaiowá (Japorã, which borders Paraguay); Guyraroká, of the Guarani Kaiowá (MS); Porquinhos, of the Canela-Apãniekra (MA); Limão Verde, belonging to the Terena (Aquidauana, MS); e Tuxá (Rodelas, BA).

There is no hope for the land demarcation process; it’s not in the interest of the government, nor the Brazilian state as a whole. We need to emphasise that the Brazilian government has always been anti-indigenous. That has been shown by the 515 years of resistance, war, genocide and ethnocide against these peoples. 

CC: Overall, what do you make of Brazilian government policy since 2003, when the PT came to power?

ST: As I said, all that is left to do is to fight, because this government has made it very clear that it has no interest in demarcating indigenous lands. The government prioritises agribusiness and projects from IIRSA (Integration Initiative of the Regional Infrastructure in South America), all favouring mining, industry and agribusiness. Those are the priorities of Dilma’s government. The commitment to these infrastructure projects keeps her campaign funders happy, the companies which build all the hydroelectric plants, highways, railways and ports.

We find ourselves in a situation where all we can do is to fight. Indigenous peoples can’t retreat; we must push forward. And by that, I mean take back land and get involved in legal battles. We need to band together with the many excellent indigenous lawyers, like Joênia, Aaron Guajajara, Luis, the Rodira Tupinambá, who are prepared to take on judges and ministers at a federal and state level. 

Regarding the PT (Workers’ Party) government, when you add up the number of demarcations made in their first three governments, as well as those during its current fourth term, the figure comes to less than the total under under previous governments, even though these had shorter spells in office. Lula carried out a tiny number of demarcations and Dilma only three and these for show. For indigenous peoples, the PT’s time in office has been one of the most difficult periods in recent history. Mainly because it has been so frustrating … in 2002, we had genuine hope for land demarcation, as that’s what we had been promised. But since 2007, we’ve witnessed increased sugarcane production on indigenous lands, followed by growing numbers of eucalyptus plantations. In 2010, Belo Monte was approved, as well as the hydroelectric power plants on the Tapajós and Madeira rivers … That’s what we got in the end. That’s how the PT fulfilled its campaign promises. 

Throughout Brazil’s history there has been a continual betrayal of indigenous peoples. They have never been defeated, always betrayed. The confederation of Tamoios defeated the Portuguese, but was later betrayed by them. Ever since then, the indigenous have been endlessly betrayed by the Brazilian state, in favour of government interests, agribusiness, the mining elite and so on. Ultimately, for the indigenous, the PT government has turned out to be just another traitor.  

Find the original interview in Portuguese at: http://www.correiocidadania.com.br/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10726:manchete300415&catid=34:manchete

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