Land invasions on the upswing

In the northeastern state of Maranhão, which was already seeing rapid deforestation, invasions of indigenous reserves by land grabbers have spiked since Bolsonaro took office, said indigenous women at this year’s April encampment.

“When this government started, we immediately felt threatened because the farmers, the loggers thought that they can encroach [on our land] and do whatever they want because he [Bolsonaro] allows them to invade our land,” without punishment, explained Cintia Maria Santana da Silva, a leader of the Guajajara/Tenetehara indigenous group from the Araribóia Reserve.

“Indigenous lands belong to the federal government, but [government officials] forget that we are there, taking care [of it] and [providing] surveillance,” the 50-year-old leader said.

“Indigenous lands belong to the federal government, but [government officials] forget that we are there, taking care [of it] and [providing] surveillance.” — Cintia Maria Santana da Silva, a leader of the Guajajara / Tenetehara peoples in the Araribóia Reserve in Maranhão state. Image by Karla Mendes / Mongabay

There are more than 300 indigenous groups throughout Brazil today, speaking 274 languages and with widely differing cultural traditions. Officially recognized indigenous reserves — in different stages of demarcation — represent about 13 percent of Brazil’s land area. However, many indigenous ancestral territories remain unprotected and not demarcated due to the very slow speed with which the government has titled ancestral lands — despite the dictates of the 1988 Constitution.

Bolsonaro “is fulfilling [his promises] and trying to destroy our rights set by the Brazilian Constitution. We are highly concerned because we fought a lot, we [won] our rights, and now they are under threat. And we don’t have peace in our territories,” Silva said.

In the Governador Indigenous Reserve, also in Maranhão state, the Gavião people have likewise seen an upsurge in illegal invasions and deforestation since Bolsonaro took office, said indigenous leader Maria Helena Gavião.

“I think that [ruralist] people are feeling more well represented by this government, so they are not ashamed anymore of entering indigenous areas,” Gavião explained. She doesn’t feel Bolsonaro is doing “anything good” for indigenous peoples, but the worst thing he has said so far is that “not one centimeter of land will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.”

“This is an affront to us, this is a violation of our rights.… This government is anti-indigenous. We are not happy with him, with what he has been doing,” the Gavião leader said.

At least 14 cases of illegal invasions of indigenous lands occurred in Brazil from January to March 2019, mostly in the Amazon, a jump of 150 percent since Bolsonaro took power, according to a report released by NGO Amazon Watch in late April, citing statistics gathered by Conselho Indigenista Missionário, the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), a monitoring group that is part of the Catholic church.

According to Amazon Watch, these encroachments can be linked to “the virulently anti-indigenous rhetoric emanating from Brasília, signaling a much more serious and widespread assault on natives lands and lives in times to come.”

Women prominent in land fight

Indigenous women are rising fast into leadership positions in Brazil. Among the most prominently heard nationally and internationally are Joênia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman ever elected to the Brazilian Congress, who took office in January; and Sônia Guajajara, the leader of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, the National Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). But countless other native women are on the frontlines defending their native homelands. Canoé, Silva and Gavião are good examples; all are land defenders in their Amazonian ancestral territories.

“There was a deepening of female leadership with the increase in land conflicts, but this prominence always existed. Women are fundamental in the land fight and in the fight for rights overall,” said anthropologist Lauriene Seraguza, a researcher who focuses on indigenous land issues in Mato Grosso do Sul state.

“Women play a very important role in the political and family organization… and are fundamental in the processes of recovery of land because they are the ones who keep the family, who organize the space…. So they suffer a lot of the impacts of not having their lands demarcated,” said the researcher, who is doing post-graduation studies on the role of Guarani-Kaiowá women indigenous leaders in Mato Grosso do Sul.

“Indigenous women work together with men in the defense of our land — that is our home, our education, our health. So we’re always fighting together with men, trying to help somehow to bring visibility to the problems that are happening inside our indigenous territories,” Gavião said.

There will be a first ever march by indigenous women in Brasilia on August 9-12, under the theme “Territory, Our Body, Our Spirit.” It will be held in conjunction and solidarity with the Marcha das Margaridas (Daisies’ March) led by women rural workers annually since 2010.

“We just want to live freely in our territory, in our way,” Silva said.

Banner image caption: Indigenous women played a prominent role in the protests at this year’s Free Land Encampment in Brasilia, and they say they will play an even bigger role in the future. Image by Karla Mendes / Mongabay.

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Article published by Glenn Scherer
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