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Brazil: On the verge of a civil war over indigenous land

While the world celebrates the rights of indigenous people this Indigenous People's Day, dispute over land in Brazil is bringing the country to the verge of a civil war. An historic land dispute between rice farmers and indigenous tribes in Roraima, a northeastern state that borders Guyana and Venezuela, has turned sour since April and violence has broken out, raising fears that the frequent confrontations will eventually escalate into a national domestic conflict.

A video released by the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR) and NGO Survival International shows the moment at which gunmen, according to the tribe people hired by a local farmer and politician, Paulo César Quartiero, attacked a Makuxi indigenous village.

Warning: This video contains images of violence and injuries which may be found disturbing.

An estimated 18,000 indigenous peoples from the Ingarico, Macuxi, Patamona, Taurpeng and Wapixana tribes live in the area known as Serra Raposa do Sol. The conflicts there intensified in 2005, when the government officially ratified the Raposa do Sol's current borders in the 4.2-million-acre reservation. The decree also ensured that the Armed Forces and the Federal Police should defend the territory. Since then, most ranchers and rice farmers have left the area, upon receipt of compensation from the government.

However, the demarcation process is being questioned by the Roraima State government which demands that it be reduced in size, claiming that 46 percent of the Roraima's territory is already in Indian hands, and a further extension to the indigenous reservation is an obstacle to the economic development of the state. Settlers have lived and cultivated the land for decades, since the first generation invaded the then non regularized Indigenous land. Despite the ratification, a small group of them refuse to leave and argue that they occupy just 1% or less of the land. Attempts to remove them were halted in April 2008, when violence broke out.

An August of grief

The government favors the indigenous peoples, but since the conflict began its indigenous policy has been widely criticized by many sectors of the population, including some military leaders. The decision is now in the hands of Brazil's Supreme Court, which is expected to decide this month whether the government should carry on the eviction of rice farmers or undo the demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol's Indigenous land. There is some concern that if the Supreme Court decides on behalf of the rice farmers, it will set a precedent and other already demarcated and ratified indigenous lands may be equally questioned.

Brazilian bloggers have divided opinions on the matter. Former president of Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), Mércio Pereira Gomes [pt] has been promoting an online poll to ask which outcome people expect Brazil's Supreme Court will come up with. As of now, 253 people have voted, with 34% of them thinking that the court will keep President Lula's 2005 ratification of the land, while 39% believe a new demarcation will be ruled:

Está todo mundo ansiosíssimo sobre o que sairá do STF. Basta ver ao lado o placar da enquete sobre esse assunto. Quase meio-a-meio entre os que acreditam que o STF vai manter e os que acreditam que ela vai mandar refazer a homologação de Raposa Serra do Sol. Hoje mesmo está havendo no Ministério da Justiça um debate com alguns antropólogos, o jurista Dalmo Dallari e o próprio governador do estado de Roraima sobre Raposa Serra do Sol. Debate para tentar influenciar a decisão do ministro Ayres Britto, que, segundo ele mesmo, a decisão e o voto já foram feitas.

Everyone is super anxious about what will come out of the STF [Brazil's Supreme Court]. You only need to check the scores of the survey on this topic to the side [of this blog]. It is nearly half and half between those who believe that the STF will maintain [the borders] and those who believe that it will rule for a re-demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol's land. Today there is a debate at the Ministry of Justice with some anthropologists, the lawyer Dalmo Dallari, and even the Governor of the state of Roraima on Raposa Serra do Sol to try to influence the Minister Ayres Britto, whose decision and vote, according to him, have already been made.

Aldenor Jr [pt] seems also to know the decision beforehand and fears there will be even more violence:

Enquanto os ministros não firmam uma posição definitiva, os ocupantes ilegais das terras públicas, incentivados pela meia dúzia de grandes rizicultores, preparam a guerra. Há denúncias de que, nas últimas semanas, teriam entrado na região armas, munições e um contingente ainda maior de pistoleiros, que ocupam posições ofensivas nas proximidades das aldeias Macuxi. A qualquer momento, sem qualquer aviso, a violência poderá explodir sem controle.

O intenso lobby a favor do esfacelamento do território indígena, realizado por políticos identificados com gananciosos e obscuros interesses, não parou de trabalhar durante o recesso, lançando sóbrias expectativas sobre o desenlace da polêmica em plenário. Haverá ainda tempo para inverter essa tendência?

While the ministers don't come up with a final position, illegal occupants of public land, encouraged by a handful of large rice farmers, are getting ready for a war. There are claims that in recent weeks arms, ammunition and an even larger contingent of gunmen have entered the region and have taken offensive positions near the Macuxi village. At any time, with no notice, the violence could explode beyond control.
The intense lobbying in favour of smashing indigenous’ territory held by politicians identified with greedy and obscure interests has not stopped during the [court] recess, creating sober expectations about the outcome of the controversy in the House. Will there be time to reverse this trend?

On the other hand, José Correa Leite [pt] believes that only one result is possible. If the decision is different it would reveal what type of interests Brazil is heading towards:

A população de Roraima não chega a 400 mil habitantes. Para os cerca de 350 mil não-índios há quase 11 milhões de hectares de terras disponíveis, diz estudo do Instituto Socioambiental. Comparando, Pernambuco tem 9,8 milhões de hectares para cerca de 8 milhões de habitantes.
A defesa das nossas fronteiras na Amazônia sempre receberam grande contribuição das comunidades indígenas. Por exemplo, pela incorporação de seus jovens ao Exército para ações em áreas aonde ninguém quer ou sabe ir.
Assim, não há razão concreta, de natureza social ou de segurança, para desconstituir a terra indígena Raposa Serra do Sol. A decisão do Supremo, seja qual for, dirá algo relevante sobre o compromisso do Estado na defesa de uma das principais raízes de nossa identidade cultural, e sobre seu dever de protegê-la, mesmo contrariando interesses ou remando contra marés de incompreensão momentâneas.

The population of Roraima is no more than 400,000 inhabitants. For about 350 thousand non-Indians there are almost 11 million hectares of land available, according to a study by the Socio-Environmental Institute. Compare this to Pernambuco which has 9.8 million hectares for around 8 million inhabitants.
The defense of our borders in the Amazon has always received a great contribution from indigenous communities. For example, the incorporation of their youngsters into the Army for activities in areas where no one wants, or knows how, to go.
Thus, there is no concrete reason, of a social or security nature, for the indigenous land of Raposa Serra do Sol to be deposed. The decision of the Supreme [Court], whatever it be, will say something important about the commitment of the state to the defense of one of the main roots of our cultural identity, and on its duty to protect it, even if contrary to interests or if it meets with momentary misunderstanding.

Charge by Latuff

The other side

In a series of four long posts, Adelson Elias Vasconcellos [pt] explains why he believes that the government needs to review the criteria that led to approval in 2005 of the demarcation of the Raposa do Sol Reservation “with extreme urgency”:

E muito deste dolo se deve ao fato de Lula ter assinado, na ONU, em 2005, o protocolo que torna o Brasil signatário da Declaração Internacional de Autodeterminação das Nações e Povos Indígenas que, se homologadas pelo Congresso, será incorporada à Constituição do Brasil, e partir deste momento, toda e qualquer tribo, nação ou etnia indígenas, poderá declarar-se independente do Brasil. Em números reais, hoje seria 216 novos países que resultaria na perda de mais de 13% de nossa área geográfica, sendo que 90% disto em terras da amazônia. Dá para perceber o forte inteesse estrangeiro na questão da homologação de terras indígenas?

And much of this damage is due to the fact that in 2005 Lula signed Brazil up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which, if the protocol is approved by Congress, will be incorporated into the Brazilian Constitution, and from this moment, any indigenous tribe, nation or ethnic group may declare themselves independent of Brazil. In actual numbers it would be today 216 new countries that would result in the loss of more than 13% of our geographical area, where 90% of this land is in the Amazon. Can you understand the strong interest abroad in the issue of approval of indigenous land?

Fernando Rizzolo [pt] has a similar opinion:

Só quem não conhece geografia, mal intencionado, ou extremamente leigo, consegue dormir em paz deixando nossas fronteiras abertas numa região perigosa; e não preciso nem dizer porquê.

Only those who do not know geography, who are malicious, or extreme laypersons can sleep in peace while leaving our borders open in a dangerous region, and we do not need to say why.

Bob Back [pt] also believes that something beyond indigenous rights is at stake:

A região tornou-se alvo de interesses estrangeiros, de mineradoras e até de governos, que alimentam a esperança de conseguir arrancar uma lasquinha fresquinha do Brasil. Atuam ali ONGs com interesses excusos.
Colocando-se de ponta-cabeça o mapa do Brasil, este assemelha-se a um imenso presunto, de quem a comunidade internacional busca tirar um pedacinho, alimentando em nossos índios a esperança de tornarem-se em breve uma nação independente do Brasil.
Por iso, convém dizer que só pode haver soberania onde há autoridade. A reserva Raposa do Sol tornou-se terra-de-ninguém, em clima de verdadeiro faroeste.
Até que o cherife apareça para pôr ordem na casa e dizer a que veio…

The region has become the target of foreign interests, mining and even governments, which has nurtured the hope of getting a fresh little piece of Brazil. There are NGOs working there with unkown interests.
Putting the map of Brazil upside down, it looks like a huge piece of ham, of which the international community seeks to take a bit, feeding to our Indians the hope of soon becoming an independent nation from Brazil.
Because of this, it should be said that sovereignty can only happen where there is authority. The reserve Raposa do Sol has become a noman's land in true western film fashion.
Until the sheriff pops in to put the house in order and say what he came for…

Debate and mobilizations

Altino Machado [pt], together with the Makunaima Grita collective, is one among many bloggers promoting an online petition in support of the indigenous peoples of the Raposa Serra do Sol, which has been signed by over 2,000 people so far, and should be sent to Brazil's Supreme Court before Wednesday August 27, the date on which the fate of the land is set to be decided:

Enfatizamos na petição que a Constituição completa 20 anos em outubro e a decisão do Supremo Tribunal Federal no caso da Raposa Serra do Sol precisa honrá-la, resgatando a dignidade aos povos indígenas, fortalecendo nossa democracia pluralista e o Estado Democrático de Direito no Brasil.

We emphasize in the petition that the Constitution celebrates 20 years in October and the Supreme Federal Court's decision on the Raposa Serra do Sol case needs to honor it, rescuing the dignity of indigenous peoples, strengthening our pluralist democracy and Brazil's democratic state.

In a highly relevant article, Sakamoto [pt] reviews the way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media and comments on the heated debate which is now taking place:

O debate está assumindo níveis de ignorância explícita. Já ouvi jornalistas afirmarem que se trata de uma “interdição” de uma área do tamanho de Sergipe para uma populaçao indígena de alguns milhares, comparando a situação com a de trabalhadores rurais sem-terra que esperam a reforma agrária. Primeiro, é um grande erro comparar culturas tão diferentes e tão díspares. Índios caçam e para isso precisam de uma grande área, enquanto nós podemos escolher nossos produtos industrializados e com conservantes nas prateleiras de qualquer supermercado. Isso sem falar das mudanças de roçado e nas suas áreas místicas. E não são as reservas indígenas o entrave da reforma agrária no Brasil. Sabemos que o problema está mais para a política do que a para a antropologia.

The debate is reaching levels of explicit ignorance. I have heard journalists say that this is a “proscription” of an area the size of [the state of] Sergipe for an indigenous population of a few thousand, comparing the situation with that of the landless rural workers who hope for land reform. First, it is a big mistake to compare such different cultures and very unlike ones. Indians hunt and to do so they need a large area, while we can choose our industrialized, preservative-filled products on the shelves of a supermarket. Not to mention their crop rotation and their mystical areas. And the indigenous reserves are not the obstacle to agrarian reform in Brazil. We know that this problem has more to do with politics than with anthropology.

Sakamoto [pt] finishes off his piece with a dose of irony, by saying that in Brazil “Indians have been traded by cattle with the support and connivance of civil society”:

Índios vem sendo mortos freqüentemente. Assim como árvores são transformadas em tábuas. E nunca ninguém precisará saber ao certo quem faz isso porque, na verdade, não estamos mesmo interessados. Que a vida siga como ela sempre foi: nós com nossas reservas intocadas sem gente, os estrangeiros com suas mesas de madeira maciça, carne em abundância e soja barata, os latifundiários com grandes pastos, políticos com férias em Angra e os trabalhadores com seus empregos efêmeros. Do que nos interessa a vida de um grupo de índios, empurrado de um lado para outro, cumprindo pena por ter subvertido a ordem nacional?

Indians have often been killed. Just as trees are turned into boards. And nobody needs to know for sure who does this because, actually, we are not really interested. Let life go on as it has always been: us with our untouched reservations with no people, foreigners with their solid wood tables, meat in abundance and cheap soyabeans, landowners with large grasslands, politicians on holiday in Angra and employees with their ephemeral jobs. Why would we be interested in the lives of a group of Indians, pushed from one side to another, penalized for having subverted the national order?

About 11 percent of Brazilian territory and nearly 22 percent of the Amazon is in Indian hands. The 1988 Brazilian Constitution declared that all Indian ancestral lands must be demarcated and turned over to tribes within five years.

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