Why you should care
Indigenous communities are fighting back against the threat to open up protected rainforests for mining and agribusiness.
The Kayapó war cry resounds deep in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. Four dozen warriors, their headdresses made of yellow and red macaw feathers, stand in the village clearing, carrying shotguns and war clubs. Warrior women, the crowns of their heads shaved, sing high-pitched war cries and wave machetes in the air.
Kruwyt, the elderly male chief in the A’Ukre village, then leads them in the pry’ongrere— a battle dance for “chasing after the enemy.” Their declared enemy is none other than Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro. The right-wing former captain, who took office in January, has slammed what he sees as the excessive legal protection afforded to Brazil’s 305 ethnic groups and the “enormity” of their constitutionally mandated land reserves.
“We are ready to go to war against any misstep from President Bolsonaro,” Kruwyt tells the group, their bodies patterned with black fruit dye, a sign of war. “He wants to reduce our land, he wants to end our traditions, and we are warriors defending our rainforest, our river, our culture.”
Today, we are seeing the biggest attack on our rights in Brazilian history.
Joênia Wapichana, indigenous lawmaker
The 7.9 million acres of Kayapó land in the Xingú River Basin, in the heart of Brazil, form part of one of the largest mosaics of contiguous indigenous lands in the country. Over the past several hundred years, the Kayapó have fought Portuguese colonizers and their tribal neighbors as well as Brazilian loggers and gold diggers. Now they are standing up to a government that is keen to open indigenous lands to commercial activity.
The struggle of indigenous peoples to maintain their way of life, famously documented by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, is not new. But Bolsonaro has made access to this land a central part of his development policy, triggering an outcry at home and abroad. Earlier this month, the American Museum of Natural History scrapped an event to honor the president, citing concern about the Amazon rainforest.
In recent weeks, Bolsonaro attacked what he called “an industry of demarcation of indigenous lands” that “makes any development project in the Amazon unviable.” The president, who prides himself on his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, has added he would like to explore the rainforest for riches “in partnership” with the U.S. Shortly after taking office, he stripped Brazil’s indigenous agency of its authority in demarcating indigenous lands, transferring it to the Agriculture Ministry, which critics say is dominated by agribusiness interests.
Federal prosecutors warn that the measure is illegal, as the Brazilian constitution guarantees ethnic groups’ rights to their ancestral lands. “Today, we are seeing the biggest attack on our rights in Brazilian history,” says Joênia Wapichana, a lawyer and indigenous lawmaker. “To subvert indigenous policy to agricultural interests is absurd.” Bolsonaro’s critics accuse him of pandering to the conservative farming constituency that brought him to power. Brazil is one of the world’s largest soy producers and environmentalists see the crop as a driver of deforestation.
The heart of the matter, indigenous chiefs, anthropologists and environmentalists say, is access to land. Indeed, 12.5 percent of Brazil’s vast territory — an area the size of Venezuela — is home to more than half a million indigenous people, mainly in the Amazon rainforest, according to IBGE, the national statistics institute. Overall, indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of Brazil’s 210 million population. “This is our land, we were here before the kubên,” says Pat-i, A’Ukre’s young chief-in-waiting, referring to White people. “If we let them in they will destroy the rainforest and everything in it under the excuse we need ‘their’ development,” he adds.
Such development has not helped other Kayapó villages, he says, referring to nearby settlements that have fallen into the hands of illegal gold miners and been wrecked by deforestation, drinking and prostitution. There are frequent conflicts with miners, loggers and ranchers, says the Indigenous Missionary Council, an advocacy group.
Opening indigenous lands for development will ease such tensions by improving living standards, the government believes. “Are the Indians of Brazil all fine? They live in a poverty that is indigent. A country like ours, where the Indians have some 13 percent of the national territory and leave them in the poverty that they live? There’s something wrong,” Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Corrêa says.
The roughly 350 people in A’Ukre hunt wild boars for food and harvest Brazil nuts for sale. They have electricity from generators and clean water from a well. While there is a school in the village, literacy rates are lower in indigenous communities than in other parts of Brazil, IBGE says, and child mortality rates are higher, a 2017 study shows. The Kayapó would like access to better health care, but otherwise, says Pat-i, “I don’t think we are poor. In the cities, the White man lives with money. Here, we don’t; we farm, we hunt, we fish, we dance. With all of that, we are rich.” Nearby, children swim in the river draped in yellow butterflies.
“This is their land, they owe nothing to anybody,” adds Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist with the Emílio Goeldi Museum in Belém who studies the Kayapó. Crucially, he says, “without them holding the fort, deforestation would advance rapidly.”
Indigenous lands act as “gigantic barriers to the encroachment of deforestation,” says a spokesperson for IPAM, a research institute. Environmentalists warn that any attempt by the government to reduce the size of conservation reserves, ease environmental licensing and weaken indigenous rights would pose further threats to the Amazon. Already in the first two months of 2019, almost 21,000 acres of rainforest were cut down in the Xingú River Basin. This represents a 54 percent spike from the same period last year, says the Socio-Environmental Institute, an advocacy and research group, amid pressure from farmers and land grabbers.
For the Kayapó, the fate of the rainforest is inextricably linked with their own survival. “The jungle is the source of life,” says Panhba, a young female warrior. “If they cut down the trees now, there won’t be air or nuts or fruits or animals left for my children and grandchildren.”
Amid the cries of howler monkeys in the forest canopy, Ngreikamôrô, the A’Ukre’s female chief, puts it more forcefully. If the president opens up indigenous lands and does not stop “speaking ill” of indigenous people, she says she will go to Brasília to meet him and there she will put her machete flat against his cheek. “I will do that to defend our river, to defend our rainforest,” she says. Then “I will cut his mouth off.”
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