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Facing genocide, again

Threats to indigenous peoples in Brazil

Marielle Mendes


Munduruku people protest in front of the Ministry of Justice (by author)

The indigenous peoples in Brazil are living times of turbulence. Their bodies, culture and territories are threatened by the victory of the far-right candidate in the general elections. The inauguration of the former member of parliament and army captain, the conservative Jair Bolsonaro, poses a direct threat to the lives and to the advancement of rights of the more than 300 different ethnic groups that inhabit the different biomes in Brazil.


Of the millions of indigenous people who inhabited the lands of Pindorama - the way the Tupi peoples call Brazil before the arrival of the Portuguese - about 900.000 have survived, speaking more than 150 languages, living in cities and in the 722 indigenous lands and reserves that are demarcated or in process of regularization by the Brazilian State.

In recent decades we have celebrated a vigorous demographic increase of the Brazilian indigenous population, contradicting discourses and state policies that affirmed that the Indians would cease to exist in the twentieth century. This increase in population is due to the historic achievements of the Indians themselves and their supporters in terms of health, education and territorial guarantees.


Today we know more and more about the diversity of indigenous peoples living in Brazil. The richness of their practices and knowledge about forests and rivers is well known, and their philosophies and ways of thinking broaden the global cognitive richness in relation to biodiversity and socio-diversity. We follow their daily struggles to maintain and spread their cultures and we are positively astonished by their ways of managing the landscape and their political actions in national and international forums that contribute to mitigate and combat global climate change. Indigenous peoples are, and always have been, "global players" - to use fashionable terms - in movements to protect environments.


The advances of the promulgation of the Federal Constitution of Brazil in 1988, which recognizes and enshrines the differentiated cultural and territorial rights of indigenous peoples, undoubtedly contributes to the perpetuation of the "indigenous world". However, it does not seem to have been enough, and because of the constant violation of the constitution, various peoples are in a constant fight to maintain their ways of life and territories.


Even now with the Constitution being more than 30 years old we still have dozens of territories in the process of regularization and the exponential increase in murders and violence. Indigenous territories have been invaded and occupied by loggers, mining companies, farmers and ranchers, generating conflicts and considerable environmental impacts. At the same time, which may explain this institutional inefficiency, Brazil still has difficulties in recognizing genocide against the various peoples and the role of indigenous peoples in the historical, cultural, economic and social formation of this country.


The election of Bolsonaro at the same time represents a retrocession of the weakened Brazilian democracy and the unprecedented intensification of an open war against the indigenous peoples by the national state throughout history. Bolsonaro came to power with frighteningly racist, homophobic, and misogynist discourses, and with the support of groups representing agribusiness, mining, and evangelical Christians, notoriously opposed to the values, achievements, and indigenous demands described above.


Before being elected, it was common for Bolsonaro to treat the indigenous peoples as animals, to assert that their lands threatened national sovereignty and that their territories should not be demarcated, but rather should be given to those who "produced", the lords of agribusiness. Bolsonaro updates, amplifies and intensifies the racist prejudices rooted in the imaginary of the Brazilian non-indigenous population, who usually classify these peoples as being backward, primitive, savage and averse to work: a way of inciting hatred and violence against indigenous peoples and ensuring support of conservative groups. See this example in a speech by Bolsonaro, still as a member of parliament, expressed on the floor of the parliament, in 1998:


"The Brazilian cavalry was very incompetent. Competent, yes, was the American cavalry that decimated its Indians in the past and nowadays does not have this problem in their country. "


Bolsonaro and his supporters elected indigenous peoples as one of the nation's enemies. Nothing is more symbolic than his first act when he took office as president of the republic: on his first day as president, he passed a law that dismantled the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the governmental agency responsible for the Brazilian indigenous policy. The law removed the responsibility of indigenous land demarcation and environmental licensing from FUNAI and handed this over to the Ministry of Agriculture, under the command of agribusiness entrepreneurs (1) (2). On Twitter, Bolsonaro has emphasized the need to integrate indigenous peoples in Brazilian society, pointing out that they live in isolated territories rich in natural resources that need to serve economic purposes.





The current president, with clear intentions to attack indigenous rights, directed his subordinates not to recognize a single centimeter of indigenous lands during his government (3) (4). To make matters worse, in the last few days, the Bolsonaro administration has begun a process of dismantling indigenous health, when it announced changes in health care. Several indigenous peoples made resistance to this by blocking the highways and protesting in the cities, and the government retreated.


It is in this toxic context that we observe the denunciations in the social media of a series of articulated attacks and invasions against the indigenous lands, persecution and expression of racism and intolerance to peoples and their lives. Many of these were covered by the press (5) (6), others not so much.


The attack on the culture and lives of indigenous peoples and their rights is not something new or even exclusive to the current government. Policies contrary to the indigenous peoples have also taken place in the previous government administrations, both within the scope of the Federal Executive, Legislative and Judiciary spheres. I would go even further and say that it is a practice that begins with the occupation and colonization of pindorama 518 years ago and continues with modern ideas and practices of development and progress. But Bolsonaro's government is a new time: we are faced with the unprecedented increase in ethnocide, ecocide and genocide.




However, indigenous peoples are aware of the bad moments that permeate this great country of the tropics. Removing the fear, they call to active resistance: which they have done for a long time before Bolsonaro and will continue doing after his passage. We must remember that indigenous peoples resisted confinement and Catholic conversion in the days of the Portuguese Jesuits, many peoples were extinct and others survived the so-called "just wars", undertaken by the colonial power. Throughout the twentieth century, they were resilient to the "modern" civilizing practices of invisibilization, confinement, privatization of their territories, and extractive appropriation of the nature they depended on and revered.

The indigenous peoples are alive, active and in the search of allies to a joint wisdom struggle. And it is on this path that they are organizing the Terra Livre Camp (ATL), the largest Assembly of the indigenous peoples of Brazil, this April in Brasilia. Organized by Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), it is expected that more than 10.000 people will be present, both indigenous people and partners. On the APIB website there is a call: "Indigenous blood, not one more drop!".


Marielle Mendes is an independent journalist and anthropologist

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