By Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham
Life is becoming increasingly difficult for the indigenous peoples of Brazil. The interim government has halved the budget of the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and is introducing amendments to the constitution that show an obvious disregard for the country’s natives and their lands.
The changes come as part of the new government’s economic strategy which president Michel Temer calls a “national salvation”. The strategy is supposed to pull Brazil out of its deep economic recession and includes radical austerity measures in the public sector while boosting agribusiness, hydro energy and mining investments.
Meanwhile, the population’s discontent grows (recent polls show that 63 percent are unhappy with the government) and a mobilization of resistance is brewing. Just before Christmas last year I participated in a meeting with over 160 representatives for 54 indigenous groups that gathered outside the Amazonian city of Porto Velho. The objective was to strengthen the indigenous movement by discussing the challenges ahead and how to tackle them together.
A sense of urgency is palpable in the meeting. Marcus Aripuna, who is later chosen to be spokesperson for the movement, is one of the first speakers. “Parentes,” he begins. Parente is the Portuguese word for relative. “This is a critical moment to maintain the rights that were conquered by our parents and ancestors.” Looking at the speed at which the policy changes are being approved it is hard to disagree. “What is happening is that our rights are being violated”, says Valdenilda, who is part of the Karitiana tribe and coordinator of indigenous questions at the local authority for Environmental Development.
And she is not the only one saying so. A special report on indigenous rights presented by the UN in September last year signals that not only is the situation in Brazil not advancing, but the protection of indigenous rights is actually moving backwards. The amendment to the constitution called PEC 210, for example, would open up indigenous territories (ITs) to mining, a notoriously damaging activity. Another amendment states that no new ITs can be demarcated, something that is a huge setback for those waiting for their ancestral lands to be recognized. What is more, the heavily criticized PEC 215 moves the power to demarcate new territories from the environmental and indigenous authorities over to the congress. This worries many because of the strong influence of lobbyism and corporate pressure.
The loosening up of environmental licensing regulations is another threat. Whenever a company wishes to build a dam, highway, aluminium mine or any other potentially harmful infrastructure project, they must pass through a process of licensing that includes an environmental impact assessment and a public consultation. Now the government is looking for ways to speed up and simplify these processes, something that will surely lead to further degradation of indigenous lands. Amnesty International is one of many voices expressing concern over the rapid expansion of these mega projects in the Amazon that often “lack dialogue and respect for indigenous communities”.
There is a general agreement in the meetings that coming together will be essential to resist the proposed changes. A man from the Tupari tribe emphasizes the need to evaluate and organize the indigenous movement and to articulate a mutual objective. Heliton Gavião, cacique (chief) of his village, resounds the same idea: unification will mark their presence.
There are, however, some internal conflicts that complicate and weaken the movement. The so-called Banda podre (directly translating to “the rotten band”) are individuals within the communities that make deals with illegal loggers and miners for personal gain. ”The indigenous are fighting a two front war”, says rainforest coordinator Bo Johansson who works for Friends of the Earth Sweden, ”one against external forces and one against those contributing to deforestation inside the communities”.
When Leonice Tupari enters the stage to speak she does little to conceal her contempt for the rotten bands. “Our movement is weak and there are too many men making deals with loggers and miners.” She continues by calling for indigenous women to speak up and say what they really think about it. “We need to think of how to defend our lands and forests for future generations. We need the forest for everything and we need more women in charge!” Her speech strikes me as perhaps the most important of the day. She is one of two women at the table of speakers. Later I ask her how a stronger female presence would change the situation. “Principally I think it would change the vision of the community,” she says. “our vision as women is very different from the men’s. It’s much wider.”
Differing cultures, customs, languages, and great geographical distances separate the groups. But despite differences they are facing the same discrimination and this is now, more than ever, bringing them together. The growing use of Facebook and WhatsApp has revolutionized their ability to organize, as they have become the most important tools for communication between the tribes. It allows an exchange of ideas and information that was previously impossible.
The meetings come to an end with a shared feeling that their mission is only just beginning and that it will continue to be an uphill struggle. But steps have been taken and this meeting has to some extent resulted in an alignment of their agenda.
The non-governmental organization that hosted the meeting, Kanindé, has worked with indigenous questions for almost 25 years. Neidinha Bandeira, one of the founders and coordinators, sees it as a historical event and believes it has helped create stronger networks between the indigenous communities.
I ask her how she sees the future. “I see a lot of struggle,” says the lifelong environmentalist, “not only for the indigenous but for the whole Brazilian population. Denouncing the government’s actions on Facebook and sitting in the office will not be enough. We will have to get out of our comfort zones and fight for our rights. Especially the women. It will not be easy, but we have to do it.”
“Is it possible to win?” I ask.
“Yes, I believe so, some things we can win.”
Afterwards Neidinha tells me that she received threats for her involvement in the meetings. But she says it with a shrug. She is used to it.
In the evening, I play with a little girl called Mayume Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and I cannot help but wonder what she will tell her children about this critical point in time. I think of the struggles she will have to face in the future, but also the victories that were won in the past. As we say our goodbyes something that was said on the first day of the meeting echoes in my mind: We will fight until the last one of us.
By Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham