It is a crucial time for Brazil’s more than 300 indigenous peoples.
Once a coffee plantation, the 72-hectare plot is currently occupied by three families from the Guarani community who moved onto the land in July 2014 after it was recognised as traditional Guarani territory by Funai, the federal agency for Indian affairs. they now face eviction after a judge granted a court order to the landowner, Antônio “Tito” Costa, a lawyer and former local politician. In his petition to a local court calling for their eviction, Antônio Costa writes of the Guarani at Itakupe with scorn, calling them unemployed and unproductive, and describing the traditional dress they sometimes wear as “ridiculous fancy dress”. At Tekoa Itakupe, wearing a feathered headdress and a buriti-fibre skirt that he has put on to receive visitors, cacique Karai shows off his crops: the families are cultivating corn, manioc, sweet potato and mango. In contrast to the difficult conditions in the villages below, Itakupe has fresh water from dozens of springs, expanses of secondary growth Atlantic forest, a waterfall, and a set of 10-metre-tall mossy ruins buried deep in the valley, thought to be from the time of the bandeirantes, Brazil’s colonising pioneers. On the other side of the valley stands a long swathe of eucalyptus, a plantation kept by Costa who says the land has not been permanently inhabited by Indians, as the constitution states it must be in order to be eligible for the constitutional protection of indigenous culture and custom. “Indians have never lived on the land in question,” he told Brazil’s R7 news last week. “Or if there was ever an Indian village at Jaraguá, as they claim, those were other times. It’s over.”
Ari Karai, the 74-year-old chief or cacique of Tekoa Ytu, one of two established Indian villages at the base of the peak, says the group intends to resist. “How can they evict us when this is recognised Indian land?” he asks. “Our children have become afraid of the forest,” he says. “There are things we can teach them down there, but they know nothing about planting crops.” A number of the families from Tekoa Pyau and Tekoa Ytu plan to move to Itakupe, he says, if the right to remain can be established: “We don’t want anything from this land other than to live on it and take care of it.” His face crumples suddenly as he speaks. “There is no joy for us in any of this,” he says. “But we’re going to resist, whatever happens. What choice do we have? We have to guarantee the future survival of our people and our culture.”
Earlier this month, more than a thousand indigenous leaders met in Brasília to protest and organise against PEC 215, a proposed constitutional amendment that would shift the power to demarcate indigenous land from the executive to the legislature – that is, from Funai, the Ministry of Justice and the president, by decree, to Congress. The Indians’ opposition to placing demarcation in the hands of Congress is easy to understand: some 250 members of Congress are linked to the powerful “ruralist” congressional caucus, representing interests including agro-business and the timber, mining and energy industries. In contrast, there has been only one indigenous member of Congress in the entire history of Brazil: Mário Juruna, a Xavante cacique, who served from 1983-87 in Rio de Janeiro.
If approved, PEC215 would “put the fox in charge of the hen-house” Fiona Watson, the research director for Survival International which campaigns for indigenous people, said, “Many Indians consider PEC 215 a move to legalise the theft and invasion of their lands by agri-business. It will cause further delays, wrangling and obstacles to the recognition of their land rights.”
The demarcation of Brazil’s indigenous territories, specified in the country’s 1988 constitution, was supposed to have been completed by 1993. Twenty-seven years on, the majority of territory has been demarcated, with 517,000 Indians living on registered land mainly in the Amazon region, but more than 200 applications are still in limbo. Under President Dilma Rousseff, fewer demarcations have been decreed than under any government since 1988.
Tekoa Ytu is Brazil’s smallest officially demarcated indigenous reserve, where some 600 Guarani Indians live on 1.7 hectares of land in squalid conditions. Tekoa Pyau, similarly impoverished, is still making slow, very uncertain progress through the demarcation process. The strain shows on the face of Tekoa Pyau’s young cacique, Victor F S Guaraní, 30, who says that without demarcation the community has no future. “It’s so complicated,” he says, grimacing. It’s all they have, but the village is hardly the kind of the place they would live if they had a choice, says Guaraní. It’s cramped and extremely poor. Many of the village families are in receipt of the bolsa família, a federal benefits payment to those living on low incomes, but other than that, the community receives minimal assistance from the state, says Guaraní. Confined to cramped villages and often dismissed as backward, the poverty of Brazil’s urban Indians, their inward-looking culture and a longstanding lack of political and social agency combines to make them invisible to many of their fellow Brazilians, even when they’re standing in plain sight. During the first of a series of anti-PEC 215 protests in São Paulo last year, he says, bystanders were asking why Indians had come all the way from the Amazon to protest, unaware of the Jaraguá reservation just 15km north of the city centre, or of the Guaraní living at Parelheiros, 40km to the south. “By the end of those protests, there were whites marching with us,” says Guaraní. Similar resistance is taking place all over Brazil, often in the face of extreme adversity and even violence. In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in particular, impoverished Guarani Indians live in crowded reservations, crammed between immense soy, sugar and cattle farms, or clinging to the margins in squalid roadside camps. They suffer violent attacks, assassinations and a desperately high suicide rate, particularly among adolescents. “In São Paulo we don’t have any direct contact with farmers,” said Guaraní. “But in Mato Grosso and Espírito Santo, the struggle is dangerous: they kill caciques, they kill children.”
Indian resistance is rapidly coalescing, he said. At street protests and online, alliances, strategies and a sense of empowerment are being forged between Brazil’s more than 300 indigenous groups, and with the quilombola communities whose members are descendants of escaped slaves, and whose right to a homeland is also threatened by PEC 215. The movement is going to need every bit of solidarity, support and motivation it can muster this coming year, which will almost certainly see a vote on PEC 215. If passed, as it seems will likely be the case, the amendment also allows for the review of previous demarcations, and introduces exceptions to the exclusive use of protected land, including leasing to non-Indians and the construction of infrastructure, “in the public interest” – read “commercial interests.”