Brazil’s Indigenous peoples survived Bolsonaro. Now Lula has won, what next?

Bolsonaro’s genocidal policies devastated Indigenous communities. After four years of trauma, they can breathe again

By Sarah Shenker.  Published 2-3-2023 by openDemocracy.

Indigenous women in Brazil have led protests during Bolsonaro’s rule.. Photo: Survival International

The news broke on 28 October 2018. Through the crackle and hiss of the radio, we made out one sentence: “Jair Bolsonaro has been elected president of Brazil.”

It was a long way from Brasília to Maçaranduba, an Indigenous community in the Amazon rainforest, but the significance of the news was clear. Some of our Awá and Tenetehar friends paced up and down, others held their heads in their hands. One let out a visceral scream, before reaching for a bottle of sugarcane spirit.

Two men arrived after dark, crossing the river in a dugout canoe, the final leg of their nine-hour journey back from delivering the community’s ballot papers. As they approached the village they absorbed the scene and knew the news they most feared had arrived. They pulled up some stools and sat down, deflated.

I sat with them, thoughts running through my head as we began to process the colossal significance of this moment for Brazil’s Indigenous people.

A coming-of-age party had been planned for that evening, in honour of a girl whose first menstruation marked her passage into adulthood. Should the ritual go ahead? This night is not a night for festivities, some said and stayed home. “The party is on!” others retorted, “we can’t let a karaiw [a white man] stop us.”

A firecracker launched high into the sky marked the start of the party. People began to gather under a large thatched shelter, holding hands and dancing in circles – round and round, in and out – to the rhythm of Tenetehar song and the rattle of seeds in dried gourds. We danced for hours, no need for conversation, the grip of each hand growing tighter as the night turned to dawn.

The next four years were to be the most brutal for the Indigenous peoples of Brazil since the military dictatorship. The president-elect was openly, unapologetically racist. “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians,” he once said. And: “The Indians are evolving; more and more they’re human beings like us.”

In December 2018, a month before Bolsonaro was inaugurated and took office, gunmen opened fire on dozens of Indigenous Tremembé families in their homes in Maranhão state. It would be a chilling portent of what was to come.

Invasions of Indigenous territories skyrocketed, the land-grabbers emboldened by Bolsonaro’s promise to protect the criminals, and by his genocidal calls for legislation to ease the theft of Indigenous lands for industrial exploitation. Fires raged, gold miners poisoned rivers and people with mercury, forests were felled, and vast fields of soya and sugarcane spread as far as the eye could see, the smell of pesticides lingering in the air. And when the pandemic hit, the loggers and miners brought Covid into Indigenous communities, the disease killing them at a much higher rate than non-Indigenous Brazilians. It was hellish to see, hear and smell this destruction.

“Bang!” “Bang!” “Bang!” Shots rang out as I sat with Guarani friends in southern Brazil. We were in their community, a collection of tarpaulin-covered huts by the side of a busy highway. It was the only place left to them since their forest had been turned into endless plantations of sugarcane. Gunmen employed by the “landowner” regularly targeted them and during the Bolsonaro government the attacks grew more frequent and bloody.

The community’s leader, Damiana, dived into her hut to shelter when she heard the gunfire but soon emerged, undaunted. “We’re refugees in our own country,” she said. “They stole our land and they want to kill us. They’ve taken everything from us, except the hope we’ll return to our land one day.”

But many on the front line didn’t survive. Among them was our close friend Paulo Paulino Guajajara, an Amazon Guardian, whose unassuming readiness to take action against illegal loggers was an inspiration to so many.

And Ari Uru Eu Wau Wau, who led forest protection activities in his people’s territory. And Arekona and Original Yanomami from near the border with Venezuela; Vitor Fernandes Guarani killed by military police in the Guapo’y massacre; Indigenous rights expert Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Phillips, killed in the Amazon’s Javari Valley; and so many more; and, quite possibly, uncontacted Indigenous people against whom attacks usually go unseen by outsiders, with news sometimes taking years to emerge.

“It’s been nearly four very intense years. I’m here in resistance. Good luck in the fight,” Bruno said in the last voicemail message he left us before he was killed.

In those four dreadful years, we grew horribly accustomed to a grim routine. The initial trickle of communication hinting that something terrible had just happened. Then the flurry of WhatsApp messages: What’s happened? How many have been killed? Who? Where? By whom? Are we sure? Then phone calls with Indigenous relatives or allies in the next town, or to the local hospital to check for news. Photos of the victims. The emergency calls and emails with government officials, the UN, and other agencies in Brazil and outside it. Liaising with journalists to try to ensure the crime didn’t go unnoticed by the outside world. Lobbying with supporters around the world for those with the responsibility (but not the will) to send out search parties for the missing, put the criminals behind bars and tackle the problem at its root.

It was a constant storm attempting to batter all in its path. Some asked how it was possible to carry on fighting. The answer was that there was no choice; giving up was not an option.

Indigenous people’s determination to defend their territories against these threats shone brighter than ever. Their lives depend on their lands, which are their food, shelter, medicine, and religion. Indigenous Guardians conducted expeditions to evict loggers invading their forest. In the legislature, Brazil’s first Indigenous congresswoman Joenia Wapichana valiantly fought the constant political and legislative attacks. And Indigenous people protested nationwide in myriad ways for their right to exist and live in the way they choose.

Indigenous peoples’ allies in Brazil and around the world fought non-stop by their side to stop Brazil’s genocide. During Bolsonaro’s first month in office, thousands took part in the biggest-ever international protest for Indigenous rights. We ensured international visibility. We received and broadcast a growing number of Tribal Voice, videos from Indigenous people across the country who wanted their demands heard far and wide. We lobbied ministries and encouraged politicians in several countries to do the same. Supporters in more than 100 countries expressed alarm on social media channels and sent thousands of protest emails. We shared evidence with the UN and other international bodies. We lobbied supermarkets outside Brazil which, by buying products from Brazilian agribusiness, were fuelling the genocide. We provided direct support to Indigenous peoples on the front line. And more.

Against all odds and amid the tragedies, there were some victories. Some of the deadliest of the Bolsonaro-backed bills and constitutional amendments were stopped in their tracks. Land protection orders shielding the forests of uncontacted tribes were renewed, despite fierce pressure from ranchers and politicians to scrap them. In several parts of the Amazon, Indigenous Guardians stopped loggers, burned their equipment, and sent them away.

And on 30 October last year, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidential election. “Bye bye Bolsonaro,” thousands of Indigenous people shouted, weeping with joy and relief that they would not have to endure another four years of constant warfare.

Lula has promised a change in direction. His pledges to support Indigenous peoples and uphold their rights are welcome, but his team will need determination. They will have to undo the deep damage that’s been done to the institutions charged with protecting Indigenous territories and take on the many anti-Indigenous politicians elected to Congress – more so as the global markets’ greed continues to fuel the ferocious destruction of some of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Indigenous peoples, their allies, and their supporters around the world will hold Lula’s government to account. We’ll do all it takes to ensure he upholds national and international law; blocks big infrastructure projects that could destroy Indigenous peoples’ lands and protects Indigenous territories so that the people don’t just survive, but thrive.

And Indigenous people on the front line will continue to resist. They have been doing so since the days of Columbus. “We’ve stood strong since 1500 and we won’t stop now,” as the Tenetehar said the night Bolsonaro won.

But for now, finally, we can all breathe again.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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