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‘Hope is the last to die’: Q&A with Indigenous leader Jose Parava on land rights

In the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land, Jose Parava crafts a traditional skirt of the Chiquitano people using buriti palm straw (Mauritia Flexuosa), a species of palm native to the Amazon. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.

  • Jose Antônio Parava Ramos is a young leader of the Chiquitano people from the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land, in Mato Grosso state, west-central Brazil, bordering Bolívia.
  • The Chiquitano people are an Indigenous group divided by borders, and their largest population currently lives in the neighboring Andean country.
  • In Brazil, Parava’s land is the Chiquitano territory closest to completing its demarcation process; the people have waited more than a decade for this, and Portal do Encantado is just one of the many territories in the country in this situation.
  • In a Mongabay interview, the Indigenous leader, who is also a health worker, sheds light on the pressures of deforestation and land conflicts on his territory and highlights the importance of demarcation to preserve his people’s identity.

“Hope is the last to die. We are apprehensive about what happened, but we will fight.” These are the words of Indigenous leader Jose Antônio Parava Ramos, a member of the Chiquitano people whose territory sits on the border of Bolivia and Brazil. He was sharing his perspective on a revived proposal to restrict the legal recognition of Indigenous territories in Brazil. 

Parava, 37, from Mata Virgem village (in the Chiquitano language, Nochopro Matupama) on the Indigenous land of Portal do Encantado, spoke to Mongabay in late 2023 via video call.

In a significant setback for Indigenous land rights, his country’s original peoples witnessed what they consider the most extensive attack since the promulgation of the Brazilian Constitution more than 35 years ago: On Dec. 14, the National Congress overturned President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s previous veto, which had struck down the core of a bill that stated Indigenous peoples could claim rights to lands only if they had occupied them on the Constitution’s promulgation date: Oct. 5, 1988.

This move by lawmakers in Brazil’s National Congress challenges the Supreme Court’s prior decision declaring unconstitutional the controversial “time frame” proposition, known as marco temporal in Portuguese. Numerous Indigenous organizations denounce the thesis, asserting it overlooks centuries of forced displacement experienced by many Indigenous peoples in the country.

Backed by Brazil’s ruralist caucus, representing the interests of agribusiness and mining, marco temporal can “obstruct the demarcation process,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples José Francisco Calí Tzay said. He was referring to the process by which the boundaries of territories traditionally occupied by Indigenous peoples are identified and delineated, thereby ensuring the communities’ right to the land and guaranteeing the protection of that demarcated area. Across the country, Indigenous people in many territories, including Portal do Encantado, have long awaited the conclusion of their lengthy demarcation processes.

Spanning approximately 43,000 hectares (106,000 acres) with a perimeter of 121 kilometers (75 miles) in Mato Grosso, in west-central Brazil, Portal do Encantado Indigenous land borders Bolivia and is home to nearly 200 Chiquitano individuals. This Indigenous group was divided by borders in the past, and its largest population is currently in the neighboring Andean country.

Portal do Encantado is the Chiquitano territory in Brazil closest to completing its demarcation process, while the necessary administrative measures to regularize at least seven other lands claimed by Chiquitano people have not yet been taken, according to a 2022 report by the Catholic Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI). However, Portal do Encantado’s demarcation process has been in limbo for more than a decade, making the territory one of more than 800 Indigenous lands in Brazil with pending administrative issues, according to CIMI’s report.

The Portal do Encantado Indigenous land was declared as a permanent possession of the Chiquitano people in 2010 when Parava was only 24 years old. This declaration paved the way for the final stages of the demarcation process, including essential approval through a presidential decree and the formalization of the definitive registration of the Indigenous land. This marks the conclusive stage of the Indigenous land demarcation process in Brazil, providing legal and physical security for Indigenous peoples. 

Ever since 2010, however, it hasn’t occurred.

As a social worker, Parava’s job takes him 1,000 km (620 mi) away from his territory, to a special district for Indigenous health, or DSEI, serving the Xavante people in Água Boa. The Xavante people are considered to be the largest ethnic group in the state of Mato Grosso. There, he facilitates Indigenous access to health care in the city and various Xavante villages, work that often keeps him away from home for extended periods, leading a life torn between his territory and his role as a health worker.

In his interview with Mongabay, the young Indigenous leader, born and raised in an undemarcated land, sheds light on the pressures of deforestation and land conflicts in a territory whose people yearn for the completion of its demarcation process, all the while facing the presence of farms that overlap with his territory. He touches on the history of cultural erasure he says his people endured in the past, highlighting the importance of concluding the demarcation of his and other Indigenous groups’ lands to preserve the identity of the Chiquitano people. Additionally, he shares what he misses most when away from home.

While the situation for Parava’s territory and others belonging to the Chiquitano people remains uncertain post marco temporal approval, he is adamant about the ongoing struggle to reverse the situation. 

Read the interview highlights, edited for length and clarity, below.

Jose Parava at the National Congress in Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.

Mongabay: What is the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land like? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: There is a lot of hunting, and many medicinal plants can be found. You come across a lot of armadillos, tapirs [Tapirus terrestris], red brocket deer [Mazama americana], peccaries and collared peccaries [Pecari tajacu]. There are lots of animals there. The territory is named because there is a mountain; according to our culture, only the elders can go there. In front of it, there is a rock shaped like a door, right on the mountain’s wall. That’s why it was named Portal do Encantado. In reality, spiritually, that’s where the enchanted beings are, our ancestors who practiced rituals, who went there. Today, no one has managed to reach there. Anyone who goes can’t reach there due to spiritual reasons, because they can’t go. People can’t cross it, or several things happen. That’s why this portal is a mystery.

Mongabay: What would you like the world to know about the Chiquitano people in Brazil?  

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: I would like to emphasize that the Chiquitano people are located on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Due to political reasons, our people were divided in the past and concentrated more in Bolivia. On the Brazilian side, there is a very small population, which is us, fighting for the demarcation of our territory. Often, people are not familiar with our history because we, as Indigenous peoples, have always lived migrating from territory to territory. With the division of the countries, we concentrated more in three municipalities [in Brazil]: Porto Esperidião, Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade and Pontes e Lacerda. Cáceres also has a large population of Chiquitanos, but there is the issue of our people having lived under constant threat. Many of our relatives did not identify as Chiquitano to preserve their own lives.

Mongabay: As an Indigenous person from a border region, how do you perceive the borders?

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: For us Indigenous people, borders have never existed. Previously, we lived freely. We didn’t even know that it would be a Bolivian territory and that we were within Brazilian territory. We Indigenous peoples have never had borders because we have always migrated. The Chiquitano people have a culture like this: We have always lived from hunting, fishing and what we produce. Our ancestors, grandparents, uncles, always planted. This is a strong culture within the Chiquitano people, the traditional agriculture aspect.

We would arrive at the edge of a river, build our house, plant there, fish, hunt. When we saw that there was no more game or fish and our food was no longer produced, we moved. That’s why for us, there has never been a border, just like other peoples have never had borders.

Mongabay: What would you like the world to know about the struggle your people have already faced?  

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: We were prevented from practicing our culture, our language in our territory. We lost almost 90% of our mother tongue. Around the 1960s, our grandparents, our uncles, were prevented from practicing our culture, even from speaking our language, by the Brazilian Army. We lived under their dominance, subordinate to them for a long time. I still experienced a bit of that. When I was 6 years old, I often saw my parents, grandparents, uncles going to the army area, working for them for free, a week, two weeks, often not eating well. This is a story that needs to be told. People need to know. 

Often, people say, ‘Oh, you don’t speak your language, so you’re not Indigenous.’ It’s not like that. Each people have a different story, and ours is this. For our parents, our grandparents, because they didn’t practice, our language was not passed down to the children. But this was for the preservation of their own lives. If they continued [speaking], maybe my parents and grandparents wouldn’t have existed, for disobeying the rules that the army imposed within our village. All of this is an issue that must be told, must be written, as you are doing.

Today, we don’t have these impositions within our territory. Today, our children have a specific class about our mother tongue. We are gradually rescuing [our cultural identity], and in the future, the new generation will already speak the Chiquitano language fluently. For decades, we lived under military rule, with the imposition of the army, living subordinate to them, unable to practice our culture, our tradition. The demarcation of our territory not only preserves our identity but also our forest, our fauna. That’s what we expect, what we’ve been fighting for, for a long time, so that we can live in our territory with dignity.

A map showing Indigenous territories in Brazil, including the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land, which is the homeland of Jose Parava and his Chiquitano community. Image by Andrés Alegría/Mongabay.

Mongabay: When you are in your village in Portal do Encantado Indigenous land, what do you enjoy that you miss when you are away? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: I miss being with my people, with my parents, with my uncles because everyone there [in the village] is like a family. I was raised with my grandfather. My father had houses near my grandparents, but we stayed more at my grandparents’ house. I say that my grandfather taught me a lot about nature, about respecting it. He told me that nature has limits that you can’t go beyond. You always have to work in harmony with nature because, in our culture, everything we do, we ask permission from nature.

If we are going to plant our crops, we ask first, talk, explain why we are doing it — that it is a matter of survival. When we go hunting, fishing too, we do the same. I grew up hunting with my grandfather, fishing, so I miss having this contact with nature. In the city, you don’t have contact with nature. What I miss the most is being by the river fishing, bathing, hunting.

Jose Parava and his grandmother/godmother, as she guided him on how to craft the traditional clothing of the Chiquitano people. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.

Mongabay: What do people do in your territory, and how do they survive? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: Chiquitano culture is strong in traditional agriculture; everyone plants. Today, we depend more on the market, but before, we never depended on the market. We always planted rice, beans, bananas, corn; everything we needed to survive, and we always survived from hunting. We worked on farms many times, more to buy clothes, shoes; but when it came to food, the Chiquitanos always produced a lot.

Today, most people are already employed. There are teachers; we have a health team where most people are already [working], and education as well. Most have their fixed jobs within the village. Our entire people work right there.

Banana and corn plantation surrounding Jose Parava’s village in the Indigenous land of Portal do Encantado. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.
Jose Parava’s parents amid a corn plantation in the Mata Virgem village, located in the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.

Mongabay: What motivated your decision to become a social worker and work in health care? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: I started in the Indigenous movement at 12 or 13. Even being a minor, I was always involved with the community. They began to see how I worked with them and began to give me credibility to go out. Sometimes I would attend a meeting in the municipality, or I was involved in a project within the community.

In reality, I wanted to study social work precisely to work on these social issues, besides the issue of rights. This has been the case since childhood. I always liked attending meetings, and from all the meetings I attended, I liked to bring information to the community. This made me more eager to work with people. Being a social worker is working with people, fighting for the cause. As I was already in this movement; it just added value to me.

Mongabay: What is the reality faced by an Indigenous land like Portal do Encantado, which has long been waiting for the conclusion of its lengthy demarcation process? What threats are faced? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: We are in a border region, between Brazil and Bolivia, and with that comes the issue of trafficking. Besides, there is the issue of human rights violations. The competent authorities are not concerned. There are several violations that we denounce and that have no results. 

We also had a problem with the Tarumã River. We reported that the farmers had fenced the river and the water flowing to us was contaminated. They dammed the river upstream, and as they raise cattle, the water was coming contaminated. Sometimes, an animal died in the river, and contaminated water was flowing downstream. We made a complaint, but we see this omission from the public authorities regarding this. We suffer from this frequently.

Another worrying issue is that most of the farms around [the territory] — as they know this is already a declared territory, which will be demarcated we hope next year — are increasingly degrading, destroying everything. This ends up impacting our medicinal plants, the animals themselves, the animals we hunt. They are directly affecting the headwaters of the rivers. This is very worrying. Even though it is in the surroundings, it somehow directly affects our territory.

Another concern is threats [by farmers in and around the territory]. We are denouncing [the violations]. It is a critical situation, and we live like this. With demarcation, the faster it happens, we will be ‘calmer.’ We won’t have this kind of situation anymore, of course, but there will be others, that’s a fact.

Mongabay: Could you explain to people who are not familiar with this issue why the entry of people into your territory is a problem? What kind of outsiders are these? What is their purpose for entering the Indigenous land?

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: There are two types of situations. Since the territory is not yet demarcated [and physically marked with signs], it remains freely accessible. Another situation is that, as there are farms within our territory, many [farmers] pass through our villages to reach their farms, and in doing so, other non-Indigenous people also enter. The invaders are these individuals who come from outside, relatives of the farmers, considered invaders as well. Their purpose is to go to their farms to carry out pasture clearing, causing degradation.

Mongabay: How do you envision the future if your territory’s demarcation process is completed? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: I believe that threats will never cease to exist. However, we will have more assurance if the territory is demarcated. When it is demarcated, it will be identified where people cannot enter, which is our territory, our right. We will have a bit more assurance. 

But in most territories that are demarcated, threats do not disappear overnight. Knowing other demarcations, I believe ours will not be different. But what we have to do is ensure, take care and be vigilant within our territory because it won’t be like, “demarcated, everything’s calm.” It’s a process. Over time, it has to end, but it takes time.

Chiquitano Memorial, located in the center of the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land’s villages. On the white banner, it is written. “God made the Earth for everyone, not just for the white.” Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.
Chiquitano youth in traditional welcoming dances at the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.

Mongabay: We see that there have been many changes in Brazilian politics with this new government, including efforts to demarcate new territories. From your point of view, what has changed since President Lula took office? How do you see the future in terms of the struggle for land demarcation? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: Looking at it from a macro-political perspective, I strongly believe that many territories will be demarcated. Especially due to the presence of Indigenous people in power today. We have the president of Funai [the national Indigenous foundation] who is Indigenous, and the minister [of Indigenous peoples] who is also Indigenous. I don’t know if all [territories] will be demarcated, but I believe that the majority will be.

This is a process, and four years pass quickly. We don’t know if in four years it will be the same government continuing. We are fully aware that if this government leaves, other governments will not continue. Therefore, today, many peoples, especially those without demarcated territory, are organizing, mobilizing to have their territory demarcated by this government. This is a concern for other territories because, besides Portal do Encantado, we have other territories that still don’t have working groups [to study and delimit them]. In four years, no one guarantees that this will continue.

Mongabay: How do you view the overturning of Lula’s vetoes to the marco temporal, and what implications does this have for the Chiquitano people? 

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: This was already expected, both in the lower House and the Senate; we expected this could happen. But we cannot stop fighting. We believe that now we need to appeal to higher instances, in this case, the Supreme Court. APIB, the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, will represent in the Supreme Court to see what will happen. Hope is the last to die. We are apprehensive about what happened, but we will fight, we will mobilize to see if we can reverse this at higher levels.

For us [Chiquitanos] it’s still an indefinite situation, but we will fight. We believe we can reverse this.

Mongabay: How could the conclusion of the demarcation of your territory contribute to biodiversity preservation and conservation efforts?

Jose Antônio Parava Ramos: I believe that not only my territory but also others for which we fight for demarcation can contribute a lot [to conservation]. Today, the squatters, whom we call farmers living within the territory illegally, are fully aware that they will lose what they conquered, what they invaded. As soon as it is demarcated, and the squatters are removed, I believe, for sure, over time, everything will return to normal. It’s not overnight that you will rebuild a forest, but this is already a positive point: not having people who were there before, destroying. In terms of vegetation, it will only grow. This contributes greatly to the issue of climate change. 

Indigenous people in the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land participating in a project led by Jose Parava during his college years. The initiative aimed to revive the traditional clothing of the Chiquitano people. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.
Jose Parava accompanied by his uncles. In the photo, they were going to gather buriti palm straw to craft the traditional clothing of the Chiquitano people. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.

Banner image: In the Portal do Encantado Indigenous land, Jose Parava crafts a traditional skirt of the Chiquitano people using buriti palm straw (Mauritia flexuosa), a species of palm native to the Amazon. Image courtesy of Jose Antônio Parava Ramos.

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