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Brazil's Indigenous Fight Back Against State Development

This post is part of our special coverage Dossiê Belo Monte (Belo Monte Dossier) [pt] and Indigenous Rights.

[All links lead to Portuguese-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

As Brazil's economy steamrolls forward on the momentum of mega-construction projects, many of the country's indigenous have found their homelands snatched away for the sake of development.

This land-hungry economic push under Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, including road construction, mining, hydroelectric plants, and the exploitation of natural resources, has led to violent clashes between activists and police throughout Brazil. Rousseff's indigenous policy has been the target of criticism from experts and activists who point out that such development is costing tribes their territory.

Some scholars such as Idelber Avelar go so far to consider Rousseff's government as the most retrograde in indigenous rights since the end of the country's military dictatorship, during which hundreds of indigenous people were tortured and killed by the state. It was the case of 2,000 of them from the tribe Waimiri-Atroari who vanished overnight for being on the way of “progress” or the so-called “Brazilian economic miracle [en]“.

Hydroelectric construction

The recent construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant is perhaps the most emblematic case of violence against indigenous people in the country.

On 2 May, 2013, communities from the Xingu River, which is the main river affected by the plant, protested the project by occupying the construction site. Among them, about 200 natives of various tribes issued a manifesto denouncing the violence to which they are being subjected:

Vocês estão apontando armas na nossa cabeça. Vocês sitiam nossos territórios com soldados e caminhões de guerra. Vocês fazem o peixe desaparecer. Vocês roubam os ossos dos antigos que estão enterrados na nossa terra.

Vocês fazem isso porque tem medo de nos ouvir. De ouvir que não queremos barragem. De entender porque não queremos barragem.

You are pointing guns at our heads. You raid our territories with soldiers and war trucks. You make the fish disappear. You rob the bones of the old who are buried in our land.

You do it because you are afraid to hear us. To hear that we do not want a dam. To understand why we do not want the dam.

Canteiro de Belo Monte ocupado em 6 de maio de 2013. Foto de Paygomuyatpu Munduruku, sob licença CC by-sa 2.0

Belo Monte construction site occupied on 6 May, 2013. Photo by Paygomuyatpu Munduruku, under licence CC BY-SA 2.0.

The indigenous people, who occupied the dam for three days, received the support of about 3,000 construction workers, who were threatened to be sacked and also staged strikes denouncing poor working and accommodation conditions. Some workers have also accused the Consórcio Construtor Belo Monte (the consortium responsible for the Belo Monte dam) and the National Force for having abducted workers, handled demonstrators with heavy hand and committed murder.

Journalist Ruy Sposati denounced the violence against the press on the site as well as criticized the project in a post shared by Idelber Avelar on Facebook:

Não é trivial. É a expulsão de jornalistas, em plena democracia, pelo aparato policial do Estado, do sítio de construção da obra mais cara da história do Brasil…., feita com dinheiro público, com seríssimos impactos humanos e ambientais, escassa demonstração de sua utilidade inúmeras acusações de violação da lei e, neste fim de semana, a incrível novidade de jornalistas expulsos por forças policiais, em plena democracia. Cabe lembrar que Belo Monte foi inicialmente orçada em R$ 4,5 bilhões e já se encontra em quase R$ 30 bilhões.

It's not trivial. It's the spell of journalists by the police apparatus of the state from the construction site of the most expensive work of the history of Brazil under a full democracy,….[a dam project] made ​​with public money, with very serious human and environmental impacts, scant evidence of its usefulness, [target of] many accusations of violation against the law, and on this weekend [4-5 May], the unbelievable novelty of journalists being expelled by the police, during a full democracy. It's worth to recall that Belo Monte was initially budgeted at 4.5 billion Brazilian reais (2 billion US dollars) and this is already almost 30 billion reais (13 billion US dollars).

Indígenas invadem canteiro de Belo Monte. Foto de Ruy Sposati, usada com permissão.

Indigenous people take Belo Monte construction site. Photo by Ruy Sposati, used with permission.

Indigenous groups have disavowed the Brazilian Intelligence Agency's espionage of the Xingu Vivo movement.

In the northern state of Pará, Munduruku people have also protested [en] against the presence of the National Public Security Force and the Army on 22 March, 2013. The security forces entered the territory to guarantee that 80 researchers of the Ministry of Mining and Energy could safetly assess the chances of a hydroelectric plant around the Tapajós river – the only major undammed river region in the country. This plan for a dam in the region is called operation Tapajós [en] and it has been suspended. The Munduruku people continue to resist.

In addition to that, Munduruku people affirmed that representatives of the Brazilian government missed the meeting scheduled for 25 April, 2013 and that the police force was used as a tool of intimidation, reports journalist Ruy Sposati while interviewing Waro Candido, President of the Association Pusuru, a representative entity of indigenous people, in an article published on the website of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI):

O indígena disse que, por três dias, Jacareacanga esteve sitiada. “O governo trouxe mais de 200 policiais pra cá, o pessoal da cidade viu chegar pelo menos sete caminhões, helicóptero, avião, caminhonete, carro. Ficou igual em Itaituba [local onde teve início a Operação Tapajós]”, explica [Cândido Waro]. “E queriam que uma comissão [de lideranças indígenas] saísse da aldeia e fosse encontrar com eles na cidade, cheia de polícia. E isso a gente disse que não, foi uma decisão do nosso povo durante a assembleia de que queríamos receber o governo, mas tem que ser na nossa terra e sem policiais” [afirma Waro].

“O governo disse que estava com medo de ser atacado, e os vereadores disseram que eles pessoalmente cuidariam da segurança de todos os representantes. Mas aí eles falaram que só viriam se fosse com Força Nacional, Polícia Federal dentro da aldeia, que o Gilberto Carvalho [ ministro-chefe da Secretaria-Geral da Presidência da República do Brasil] falou isso pra eles” [disse Waro].

Assembleia Munduruku em Jacareacanga. Foto de Ruy Sposati, usada com permissão.

Munduruku assembly in Jacareacanga town. Photo by Ruy Sposati, used with permission.

The indigenous person said that during three days the Jacareacanga town was besieged. “The government brought more than 200 police officers out here, people from the town saw at least seven trucks, helicopter, plane, truck, car arriving. It was just like in Itaituba [where Operation Tapajós [en] began]”, explains [Candide Waro]. “And they wanted a commission [of indigenous leaders] to leave the village and meet them in the town center, full of police. And so we said no, it was a decision made by our people during the assembly that we wanted to meet the government, but it has to be in our land without police “[says Waro].”The government said they were afraid of being attacked, and the aldermen said they would personally take care of the safety of all representatives. But then they said that they would only come with the presence of the National Force and the Federal Police in the village, that Gilberto Carvalho [Chief Minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency of Brazil] said it to them “[said Waro].

The Brazilian government, on the other hand, published a note on the official website of the General Secretariat of the Presidency saying representatives of the government attended the meeting on 25 April, 2013. Munduruku people denied that the meeting took place in an open letter:

Exigimos que o governo pare de tentar nos dividir e manipular, pressionando individualmente nossas lideranças, caciques ou vereadores. Lembramos que quem responde oficialmente pelo nosso povo são as coordenações das associações Munduruku, chamadas Pusuru e Pahyhy, as entidades representativas de todas as comunidades Munduruku. [...]

Também exigimos que nossos direitos constitucionais sejam garantidos, sem que sejam usados como moeda de troca. E reafirmamos: somos contra as barragens e queremos todos os nossos rios livres. E nós vamos lutar por eles.

We demand that the government stop trying to divide and to manipulate us, by pressing our leaders, chiefs or city councilors individually. We remember that those who respond officially by our people are the coordination of the Munduruku associations called Pusuru and Pahyhy, entities representing all Munduruku communities. [...]

We also demand that our constitutional rights are guaranteed, without being used as a bargaining chip. And we reaffirm: we are against dams and we want all our rivers free. And we will fight for them.

2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games preparations

In March 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian riot police violently evicted a group of indigenous people from a former indigenous museum that they had occupied, known as Maracanã Village [en], to make way for a walking area for fans during the 2014 World Cup and eventually the Olympic Museum.

On 26 April, 2013, there were more demonstrations of resistance against that eviction. YouTube user patrickgranja published a video showing police aggression toward the demonstrators:

Indígenas despejados da Aldeia Maracanã sob as ordes da presidente Dilma Rousseff, do governador do Rio Sérgio Cabral e do bilionário Eike BAtista, futuro dono do espaço. Cartum de Carlos Latuff, uso livre.

President Dilma Rousseff observes an indigenous person being removed from the Maracanã Village by Rio de Janeiro State Governor Sérgio Cabral and the city's Mayor Eduardo Paes accompanied by the 2014 World Cup mascot and billionaire Eike Batista, who owns the company that is part of the consortium that won a bid to privatize the Maracanã complex. Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, free to use.

“Ruralist” lobby

In the federal state of Mato Grosso do Sul [en], the Guarani-Kaiowá, Brazil's second largest indigenous group, continue [en] to fight against the massacre perpetrated by gunmen, police and large state owners also called ‘ruralists’ in the country. They have been suffering due to the interests of cattle, cane sugar and soy estates in the region and the threat of losing lands already demarcated as reservoir because of the lobby led by the ruralists in the Congress.

And in April 2013, hundreds of indigenous people stormed the National Congress [en] to protest against the a proposed constitutional amendment (PEC 215) which would hand over the power to demarcate indigenous lands from the executive to the legislative ones. With the powerful ruralist lobby's influence in Congress, indigenous groups fear that amendment would pave the way for ranchers to take more of their homelands.

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