19 October, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

Be a global citizen. Become a humanitarian.

An Illegal Ruralist War on Indigenous Brazil

A depiction of the first contact between the Europeans and native Brazilians, 1922. (From Estado de Minas)

There are many words that could describe Brazilian culture, but one of the most precise is “diverse.” The modern state of Brazil began taking shape in the 16th century, when it was colonized by Portugal. Then, and over the course of centuries, foreigners, most of whom sought economic gain, arrived in lands already inhabited by Indigenous Brazillians. After a few decades of colonisation, a history of relatively peaceful Portuguese-indigenous relations was quickly overshadowed by the oppression, enslavement, and genocide indigenous groups at the hands of their European colonizers.

In the 19th century, the nationwide artistic and literary movement of romanticism grew to take center stage in Brazilian culture and discourse. During this period, Indigenous peoples  were for the first time represented as the first citizens of Brazil, after centuries of neglect. Great writers like Gonçalves Dias and José de Alencar wrote about the “first Brazilian,” the former telling in his famous poem Juca Pirama, the story of a brave indigenous person who fought and died for his honor during the colonial period. Iracema, a famous story written by de Alencar, reflects the new vision of the native people by describing the main character, a native woman, with florid adjectives and metaphors, comparing her lips to honey and her hair to the Graúna’s wing.

A representation of Iracema, a famous story written by José de Alencar, 1881. (From Picturing the Americas)

This new spotlight put on Brazil’s long history of Indigenous oppression (which soon not only enjoyed nationwide but international support), helped set the stage for different periods of progress: in 1910, the Brazilian government under the Peçanha administration saw to the founding of the Indian Protection System (SPI) in 1910, an organization that saw to administer Indigenous affairs, the first of its kind. Since then, indigenous people have gained political representation in Congress since 1983, who stood loyal to his democratic beliefs amidst the rise of a military regime. The 1988 constitution—Brazil’s seventh and current constitution, establishing presidentialism in the country after 21 years of dictatorship—gave Indigenous people more rights, and their political and social power has grown considerably since then.

Yet despite the new representation native people have fought for and achieved in the last century, Indigenous peoples are still disproportionately underrepresented, and their rights and culture are still at risk. Powerful political groups in Brazil like the ruralist bench, which lobbies for big ranchers’ and landowners’ interests, are proving themselves to be a menace to Indigenous peoples. Native areas in Brazil, reserved for both Indigenous ownership and the preservation of local ecosystems, are regularly illegally invaded by groups of cattle breeders and loggers.

An indigenous protest. Protesters demanded better representation in the national government and better protection of Indian rights and lands. Their banner reads: “The fight continues until the last Indian.” (from A Nova Democracia)

According to Folha de São Paulo, around 85% of all 561 native lands reserved for Indigenous communities suffer from invasions, in the most part from illegal loggers. The invasion of these lands brings several consequences for diverse areas. Violent conflicts are common, and often result in death. In 2019, for example, seven Indigenous leaders were murdered in conflicts in the north of Brazil, and more than 160 invasions were registered.

As a result of the huge involvement of the Ruralist Bench in the national economy, many environmental and anti-indigenous crimes go unpunished.

Even as Indigenous groups protest for the creation of more native reservations, their legal territory has not grown in size, and their culture suffers incalculable damage with each attack. Several Indigenous communities have resorted to unfair laws and local attacks with violence, sparking chaos and conflict in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. In 2016, four workers from the Belo Monte power plant were kidnapped as a form of “protest” by local Indigenous militant groups. While tensions ran high, ultimately no one got hurt.

Illegal invasions also affect Brazil’s natural lands and biodiversity, mainly at the Amazon Rainforest,one of the greatest symbols of Brazil and Brazilian culture. Despite this, it has been devastated by illegal invasions.

Swaths of land in the Amazon has been overrun by loggers and deforested for cattle grazing. These activities affect not only the flora and fauna of one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, but also have a major influence on rain cycles in South America.

According to Globo, the Amazon is home to around 20% of all fauna making it the single most ecologically diverse ecosystem in the world, supporting over five thousand species of animals and 40 thousand species of plants. Since the 1970s, almost 20% of its original volume has been devastated.

The current government (since 2018) does not help with natural preservation. President Jair Bolsonaro, in his first year of presidency, fused the agricultural and environmental ministries, nominating a ruralist bench loyalist to head this new ministry. Since then, both deforestation and illegal invasions have become more common.

Brazilian actorMarcos Palmeira poses with a sign as a part of the #TamuatéAki campaign, opposing the construction of a power plant on Indigenous lands. (from Uma Gota no Oceano)

Amidst rampant exploitation, violence, and deforestation, the creation and success of new initiatives are a sign of hope for many Brazilians.

In 2014, when the government was discussing the construction of a power plant on Indigenous territory, the #TamoatéAki campaign was started by an organization called Uma Gota no Oceano (one drop in the ocean). The campaign had several famous Brazillian figures, like Wagner Moura and Marcos Palmeira, who arguing that the construction was antithetical to the principles put forth in the 1988 constitution.

This campaign did more than just fight against the power plant’s construction; it was an act in support of Indigenous rights and protection of Indigenous areas in general. The campaign organized a petition that received over 4.5 million signatures, which was sent to Congress as an act of protest.

In addition, on June 4 of last year, one day before Brazil’s environmental day, Greenpeace Brazil organized an event with Caetano Veloso, one of the most important musicians in Brazil. The event was a huge success,  helping to promote 342 Amazonia, the first environmental activism app in Brazil. 

A recording of the June 4 Greenpeace Brazil event with Caetano Veloso as he sings Um índio (An Indian) in solidarity with the plight of Indigenous Brazilian peoples.

Brazil’s culture is characteristically rich—for its history and people. Today, the illegal invasion in Indigenous lands represents not only a threat to the environment and Idigenous people, but to Brazil’s culture at large.

The solution to these acts is relatively simple, but politically complex. The invasions are enabled by the governments’ inertia in prosecuting ranchers and farm owners. 

Although the economy is important, it cannot come before the people. The cause of this problem is politics. The search for power, which can be easily reached when favoring the economically privileged, is what moves all injustices—not only in Brazil, but in the whole world.

To combat the damage to Brazil’s culture and environment, politicians must comprehend that power should not be the ultimate goal. The same power that disrupted the political relations in Brazilian politics can be used to improve conditions for native people and for the environment. This is the only way to end minorities’ suffering for their rights.

Igor Baroni Cardoso was born in Lins, Brazil but moved to Curitiba when he was three years old. He has a great passion for his country, and always wanted to discover more about his culture and national history. He has always had an interest in the arts. He has played piano since 2017, which taught him about composers such as Villa-Lobos, that have had a big influence on him. He also writes poetry, something that helps him to comprehend the world, and am planning on publishing my first book in 2020!