- Neidinha, Almir and Txai Suruí are leading the fight against invaders destroying two of the most threatened Indigenous territories in the Brazilian state of Rondônia: the Sete de Setembro and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserves.
- Indigenous territories in Rôndonia have been the target of a recent wave of illegal activities such as land invasions, illegal mining and illegal logging, while their defenders have been threatened and even killed.
- The violence faced by defenders of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory has been captured in the documentary “The Territory” (“O Território”), released in Europe and the U.S. in August and in Brazil in September, in which part of the production team was made up of local Indigenous leaders.
In the Wild West comics that arrived in small planes in her village in the Brazilian Amazon, Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo would see Indigenous people depicted as villains who ended up being killed by white men. As a young girl learning to read with her mother, she questioned this recurring plot, which she found disgusting in the pages of old magazines such as O Cruzeiro and Manchete. She promised herself, “When I grow up, I am going to fight against this.”
Decades on, she’s made good on that promise. Now 64 and known as Neidinha Suruí, she’s an activist and Indigenous rights campaigner. She coordinates the Kanindé Ethnoenvironmental Defense Association, and has gained recognition for her work in campaigning for the environment and human rights in the Amazon. Her struggle has not come without its costs, however, and both Neidinha and her family have had to pay a high price.
Her feeling of belonging and her activism are shared, mainly, between two Indigenous territories in the state of Rondônia: the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory and the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory. In both, she witnessed scenes increasingly similar to those she used to see in the comic strips as a child, where Indigenous people would lose their lives defending the natural world, their people’s land, and their culture.
The Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory is home to the Paiter Suruí people, and gained worldwide renown for the leadership of Neidinha’s husband, Almir Suruí. An Indigenous chief, or cacique, Almir uses technology and software in his efforts to protect his people’s territory, one of the most deforested in the whole of the Brazilian Amazon. That’s made him Almir the target of countless death threats in recent years.
Almir has five children, two with Neidinha, all of whom were born in the territory. Among them is Txai Suruí, the young activist who shot to international fame after giving a speech at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last year. She spoke out against the violence committed against Indigenous peoples in Brazil, and since then has also been the target of persistent threats and intimidation.
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory is where Neidinha spent her childhood, leaving for the first time at the age of 12 to study in the state capital, Porto Velho. Her sense of connection to her community has remained strong over the years, locked in the struggle against invaders who threaten her village to this day. Even though she isn’t a direct descendant of any of the nine Indigenous groups who live there, Neidinha identifies with the Indigenous identity and culture of the territory. Her father used to work on what was the Ricardo Franco rubber plantation, which has later incorporated into the boundaries of the Indigenous territory as part of the official demarcation process that was approved in 1991.
Neidinha’s father hailed from the rural interior of the northeastern state of Ceará. He was one of the many thousands of northeasterners attracted to the Amazon region by government recruitment drives for so-called rubber soldiers. The campaign promised a new life working on rubber plantations in the Amazon, one of a number of resources the government had seized on as it sought to firmly establish its occupation of the region. Neidinha’s father first moved to the state of Acre, where he met her mother. After Neidinha was born, the young family moved to Rondônia, where they settled among an Indigenous community, adopting their way of life and becoming part of the community.
It was while she was looking into her family’s past, that Neidinha recently discovered the rubber plantation in Acre where he father had worked before she was born was later made part of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve. The reserve was founded in 1990, two years after the murder of the rubber tapper and trade union leader whose name it bears. “I want to go there and find out more about this period of my parents’ lives,” Neidinha says.
Indigenous resistance captured on film
As the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory comes under relentless pressure from outsiders, a group of community leaders have started receiving training on how to deal with the threats. Their tools include drones, cameras and other digital technology tools to develop strategies for community coordination and the monitoring and protection of their territory.
Such efforts have been made possible by partnerships with different organizations that have also allowed the communities to spread awareness about the threats they face. One of these partnerships is supported by WWF-Brasil, ensuring the online surveillance of invaded areas that would otherwise be difficult to access safely by other means.
This type of networking has also given the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community the opportunity to share with the world their story of the waves of violence faced by those living on the Indigenous territory. This struggle is depicted in the documentary The Territory (O Território), released in the U.S. and Europe in August and in Brazil on Sept. 8, after three and a half years of filming. A Brazilian, Danish, and U.S. co-production directed by Alex Pritz, the documentary features young Indigenous leaders such as Bitaté Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, both in front of and behind the camera: starring in the documentary’s main scenes; filming the threats they face themselves; and working on the production team, as was the case of Txai Suruí, who is credited as an executive producer. The film has received international recognition, winning both an audience award and special jury award at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Restrictions on movement imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic saw the residents of the Indigenous territory take on the responsibility for filming scenes inside their community, while the rest of the production team filmed outside the territory. That helped contextualize the land invasions threatening the territory. “The invaders thought they could take the land without repercussions. Poor people were used by the rich to invade [the land]. They told them that the [boundaries of the] Indigenous territory had been reduced [in size],” Neidinha recalled.
The filming process was marked by two events that shook the community. The first of these was the pandemic, which badly affected Indigenous communities across Brazil and also caused much personal anguish for the Suruí family. Neidinha and her husband both lost their mothers to COVID-19, meaning their children lost both grandmothers in traumatic circumstances as the health crisis overran the community. The pandemic also claimed the lives of many of Neidinha’s other friends and relatives. She estimates that at least 50 of her closest contacts were lost to the disease.
The second event that shook the community to its core was the killing of Ari Eu-Wau-Wau, a teacher and local figurehead for the defense of the community’s territory. Two years have passed since his death, and the clamor for justice continues to echo through the community.
“The news was a real shock for us. We all lived alongside him. My children grew up with him,” Neidinha says, visibly moved as she recalls the events. “He features in the film. [What happened to him] was a barbaric crime.”
Txai Suruí spoke of him during her speech at COP26 in Glasgow. Authorities in Brazil arrested a suspect in his killing in July this year, but still haven’t released his identity or motive for the killing — something that has been met with protest by Indigenous organizations.
In a statement to Mongabay, the Federal Police in Rondônia said the suspect remains in custody and that according to the ongoing investigation, “the possible motive for the murder was that the suspect of the crime was bothered by Ari’s presence in the region.”
Police also suggested that Ari had been drugged before he was killed. “The [victim’s] body did not show signs of self-defense, therefore, one of the lines of investigation being looked into by the Federal Police is the hypothesis that the perpetrator of the crime offered the victim a substance that, once ingested, left Ari unconscious, allowing the physical assaults that culminated in his death to take place [without resistance]. The body was later taken to another location.”
The police statement also made clear that the suspect had not confessed to the killing to investigators. “He confessed the criminal practice to other people by narrating details that were only verified by forensics, such as, for example, that the place of death was not the same as the place where the body was found. It is also worth mentioning that the [perpetrator] is accused of other crimes, including murder, and has a history of committing violence,” the statement said.
Police added that they expected prosecutors to keep the suspected in pretrial detention pending a trial. “The final report is quite robust and contains evidence of authorship, motivation and materiality,” the statement said.
The psychological impact on the family
Because of the intensifying threats, Neidinha Suruí now lives surrounded by security devices — so many that she says she feels like a “prisoner inside my own home.” Every time she ventures outside she has to implement defensive measures that take a physical and emotional toll on her. “People don’t stop to think about how people who face this kind of pressure have their lives changed. I live in a constant state of jitteriness because of the death threats,” Neidinha says.
At one point the threats were so severe that Neidinha and Almir had to live with a military escort between 2010 and 2014. “We were all shaken, sick. We couldn’t go to a restaurant, like any normal family would. Everyone looked at us. It seemed like we were the criminals,” she recalls. The toll on their physical and psychological health was enough for them to give up living under state protection. “We get protection from support groups. But we are afraid to invite friends to our home,” Neidinha says.
Asked how she feels about being the mother to a young female activist such as Txai Suruí, who has taken up her parents’ social and environmental struggles, Neidinha says she has mixed feelings. “I am proud to have a daughter who is fighting for the planet, but at the same time I am afraid of the risks she faces. She has also suffered many racist attacks and death threats. All of this keeps me up at night.”
But there’s another reason to be proud: the revenue raised by the documentary film will be used to fund the headquarters of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory’s community association. The plan is to set up a digital media training center there, allowing the Indigenous residents to keep records of events and issue communications. The project has been approved by local leaders, and architects and engineers are already working on it.
As for the future, Neidinha vows to continue to fight “to change the way that nature is treated in our country, and [to fight] for the rights of those who suffer the consequences of a society that has no regard for life.”
Banner image of Indigenous activist Txai Suruí, courtesy of Alex Pritz/O Território.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 13, 2022.
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