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‘Our rights are on trial in Brazil’: Interview with Indigenous movement pioneer Brasílio Priprá

Brasílio Priprá, one of the pioneers of the Free Land Camp, the largest event of the Brazilian Indigenous movement. Image by Amanda Magnani.

  • In an interview with Mongabay, Brasílio Priprá, one of the pioneers of the Free Land Camp, the largest event of the Brazilian Indigenous movement, looks back on its 20 years of existence.
  • Priprá, who has been active in the Indigenous movement for 40 years, has seen few changes, but enough to keep fighting for his rights.
  • Land demarcation has been the main demand over the two decades of the Free Land Camp. Since 2019, marco temporal, a legal thesis that aims to restrict Indigenous land rights, has made this demand more pressing.
  • Priprá shares his thoughts on the impacts of marco temporal on Indigenous rights, Brazil’s environmental goals and the future of the country for all citizens.

The “People of the Sun,” as the Xokleng Indigenous people of Brazil call themselves, are no strangers to conflict and violence. In the early 20th century, as the southern region of the country was colonized by newly arrived Germans and Italians, bugreiro militias hired by the imperial government decimated an estimated two-thirds of their population.

“There are accounts of bugreiros killing pregnant women and throwing babies and children up in the air to be impaled,” Brasílio Priprá, a 65-year-old Xokleng authority, told Mongabay at the Free Land Camp (Acampamento Terra Livre, ATL), the largest mobilization of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, which takes place every April in Brasília since 2004. He is one of the mobilization’s pioneers.

Priprá, who worked at Funai, the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples, before retiring, has been a part of the Indigenous movement’s fight for land over the past 40 years. It has now been almost 110 years since the defunct Indigenous Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção aos Índios) forced contact and the integration of the Xokleng people under the pretense of putting an end to the genocide.

But little changed for the People of the Sun.

The tutelage that followed turned out to be the institutionalization of violence over their lands, which peaked in the 1970s during Brazil’s military dictatorship. In subsequent years, the construction of the containment dam Barragem Norte displaced entire families and flooded a large portion of their territory. To this day, the Xokleng people still face public calamities caused by the dam during the rainy season.

Main tent at Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp). Image by Amanda Magnani.
Main tent at Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp). Image by Amanda Magnani.
Indigenous march on the last day of the Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp). Image by Amanda Magnani.
Indigenous march on the last day of the Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp). Image by Amanda Magnani.

Alongside people of the Guarani and Kaingang ethnicities, the Xokleng live in the Ibirama-Laklaño Indigenous Territory, in the state of Santa Catarina. They currently occupy around 14,000 hectares (about 35,600 acres) of a long-disputed 37,000-hectare (91,400-acre) territory that is mostly covered by the Atlantic Rainforest.

But their struggle only reached the spotlight nationally and internationally around 2019, when their legal dispute for territory went federal. That year, the Supreme Court determined that the ruling over the marco temporal, the main legal argument against the Xokleng, which stipulates that Indigenous peoples are only entitled to lands they physically occupied during the 1988 signing of the Constitution, would apply to all 733 Indigenous territories in the country.

The voting process that started in 2021 ended in September 2023, with a Supreme Court ruling that declared the marco temporal unconstitutional. Yet, less than three months later, the majority right-wing Congress approved a law that implemented the thesis. In spite of the Supreme Court ruling and of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s partial vetoing of the law, it is still in place, making for a legal imbroglio that, according to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, aggravates insecurity for Indigenous people. 

Twenty-six-year-old Hariel Paliano, who lived in the Bonsucesso community, inside Ibirama-Laklaño, is the latest fatality the Xokleng have experienced. While nearly 10,000 Indigenous people from all over the world, including his parents, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Free Land Camp, Paliano was brutally killed. Police are still investigating the motive and local leaders are awaiting the results before pronouncing themselves on the case. Paliano was vice chief of his community, and his house was the target of a shooting on a previous occasion.

During the Free Land Camp in Brasília, Mongabay spoke to Brasílio Priprá about life in the Xokleng Territory and the ramifications of the federalization of marco temporal.

 

Mongabay: How did you get involved with the Free Land Camp?

Brasílio Priprá: I was actually one of its pioneers, alongside many Indigenous leaders who are no longer among us. I started coming to Brasília on April 19th, 2003; we stood in front of the Justice Ministry, fighting for land demarcation. I’ve been here since the beginning. I’m retired and I didn’t have to be here, but I am still fighting. Oftentimes, I will pay from my own pocket or drive my own car so that I can be here. But to me it is always a pleasure.

You can see that Indigenous lands are the most well-preserved in Brazil. They are nearly untouched. So, our goal of land demarcation is not only for us, Indigenous people. What I do is but a drop in the ocean. We really need the support from all of Brazilian society, otherwise we’ll get to a point where we have money but no water to drink and no [clean] air to breathe. That is why I’m still here, still striving to make sure our federal Constitution will be respected.

Xokleng youth at the Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp) march with a banner protesting the marco temporal. Image by Amanda Magnani.
Xokleng youth at the Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp) march with a banner protesting the marco temporal. Image by Amanda Magnani.

Mongabay: This year, the Free Land Camp is completing 20 years of its existence. What has changed during this time?

Brasílio Priprá: I think very little has changed. But the change that did happen gives us hope to keep fighting. This movement was started by Indigenous people in the south of Brazil in 2003, with around 150 people [it later officially began in 2004]. Our main goals have been the same ever since: land demarcation, health and education. Here, today, we are so many more.

Besides, there are many other people and entities who are sensitive to nature and who understand that Indigenous peoples are the only way out for the environment, so they have been supporting our cause.

But we still need a lot of help, especially in terms of intervening within Congress, making our representatives understand that preserving the environment isn’t important only for Indigenous peoples and that laws such as marco temporal will destroy a patrimony that belongs to Brazilian society as a whole.  

That is why we are here. Very little has changed, but what we have accomplished has been crucial to at least slow down the devastation of our nature. If it wasn’t for our legal fights, for our demands at the Supreme Court, our country would be entirely at the mercy of the destroyers of Brazil by now.

Mongabay: What is life like in your territory? And what has changed with marco temporal?

Brasílio Priprá: What I am going to describe to you is not only real for my territory, but for Indigenous territories in general. I have traveled to many Indigenous lands in Brazil, so I can tell you that the Indigenous way of life is something that non-Indigenous will never be able to understand.

When we think about the now, we think about guaranteeing that our environment will be preserved so we can continue to live a quiet life. Because if the environment is preserved, our community will have fish in the river, will have freshwater, will have the forest, will have the animals.

Animals are Indigenous peoples’ most important partners when it comes to reforestation. They are the ones who spread the seeds. My house is close to many tall trees, and when it’s bird season, they come with fruit pomace and leave carrying seeds that will plant new trees somewhere else. Everything is natural. I, for instance, don’t drink tap water. I drink the natural one, fresh from the river.

In our communities, we don’t just visit our family and friends on holidays or during the weekend. We do it any day of the week, at any time. Our lives gravitate around the community.  We don’t share that modern society thought of wanting to have 10 buildings while some people have no place to live. In my community, all of our houses are pretty much the same and, oftentimes, people in positions of leadership end up being the last ones to have their own house. We have equality — and that is something I also see among other Indigenous ethnicities.

We live peacefully, and that is very important because the peacefulness of our people pacifies the forest, pacifies Brazilian society, pacifies the world.

But the marco temporal has been affecting us. Because non-Indigenous people know our rights are on trial, we are receiving many threats. This violence has accompanied the marco temporal since the 1990s when the thesis was actually proposed, and it’s been lingering through different governments, working against us Indigenous peoples. This is a concern not only for the Xokleng people, but for all Indigenous people in Brazil.

Brasílio Priprá, one of the pioneers of the Free Land Camp, the largest event of the Brazilian Indigenous movement. Image by Amanda Magnani.
Brasílio Priprá, one of the pioneers of the Free Land Camp, the largest event of the Brazilian Indigenous movement. Image by Amanda Magnani.

Mongabay: How do Xokleng people relate spiritually and culturally to the territory?

Brasílio Priprá: Not only the Xokleng, but all Indigenous peoples have a very strong connection to the ground where our ancestors walked. It is like a mother. You don’t treat Mother Earth; you feel Mother Earth. And only the people from that land are able to feel it. You may leave, but that is your mother. I have lived in São Paulo, in Curitiba, in Florianópolis, but none of it matters to me: It’s when I get back to my land that I feel I’m inside my nest. I get emotional talking about it. I’m here in Brasília now, but I’m looking forward to going back home. I even expedited my flight. I need the peace and quiet I can only feel when I’m at home. The birds that sing to me, they don’t charge anything, and I love to hear them.

We, Indigenous peoples, have this particularity that is so uniquely ours, that the non-Indigenous have a hard time understanding. In modern societies, people buy land with the intention of exploring its resources. As for us, what we want is to conserve it as best as we can.

In our territory, we have the Itajaí River. But there’s the Barragem Norte dam, which overflowed, making the entire community very sad. People look at it and cry because we have a very strong connection to this river. That’s a river where I used to bathe at any time. The water was so clean that you could see the fish swimming 2, 3 meters [about 10 feet] deep. You could literally choose which fish to catch. After so long, it is sad to remember and see how the river has been destroyed.  

Mongabay: How do you see the law 14.701, approved by Congress in December 2023, which besides the marco temporal also implements other rules for Indigenous territories, such as the possibility of developing economic activities in partnership with non-Indigenous entities? Is there any merit to this proposal?

Brasílio Priprá: No, I don’t think there’s any merit to it. In fact, it’s our greatest fear, and that is why we are here today. If the marco temporal is approved, it’s open season for the destruction of forests in all of Brazil, you can be sure of it. If approved, it will interfere in the work of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, and it might modify our conservation laws. It will be a Brazilian tragedy.

Marco temporal is a threat to Indigenous peoples and to our forests, to all of our biomes: the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, the Cerrado, the Pampas. The forests have so much to offer to Brazilian people. There are still so many medicines and other things to be discovered by science in them. We need to preserve them for the world. We might not be here tomorrow, but our children and grandchildren will. So, I take this opportunity to leave a message to those who have political and economical power: Take a stand against marco temporal, or it will destroy the beautiful country we live in.

Mongabay: What is your opinion about the agribusiness lobby over Congress? Particularly, how do you see the argument that vetoing marco temporal would bring insecurity for land owners?  

Brasílio Priprá: I have made my mind, especially because I’ve been almost everywhere in the country, and we see that agribusiness doesn’t represent all of Brazil; it represents a small group of greedy people who want to destroy Brazilian forests. They have no shame when it comes to disrespecting forests, rivers. … It is sad. People who don’t love the forest don’t love themselves. They don’t want to live; they only think about today.

As for judicial and property insecurity [which landowners and Indigenous peoples face], when the lobbying agribusiness sector applies pressure over Congress, it’s a way of pressuring the federal government against demarcating Indigenous lands. Demarcating Indigenous lands must take place among other things to preserve our rivers, which they too need, as agribusiness employs such large amounts of water. I don’t know what their logic is but unfortunately that is what we see. This whole thing about judicial and property insecurity is basically about not demarcating Indigenous lands [as they affect landowners’ property]; these are the terms they use to pressure Congress to insist on approving marco temporal.

They are not thinking it through… Today, it’s all about agribusiness, about tearing everything apart, but they don’t think about the future. But the lobbying they do over Congress, this notion about landowners’ property being insecure, it isn’t real.

Art installation in celebration of 20 years of Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp). Image by Amanda Magnani.
Art installation in celebration of 20 years of Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp). Image by Amanda Magnani.

Mongabay: How has the federalization of marco temporal affected Indigenous people in other biomes like the Amazon?

Brasílio Priprá: The mere debate of marco temporal, which started during [former President] Michel Temer’s term in office, has already devastated Indigenous communities. The humanitarian crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is strong proof of it. The invasion, the environmental destruction, the decimation of peoples’ lives. Marco temporal has become a wall, an obstacle to the application of the Constitution. Even though it’s not yet established, it has already brought death to the communities. It is still being discussed and yet so much land has already been destroyed on the grounds that it might at some point be approved. That is very dangerous. If under debate it is already being used as a license to deforest, to kill Indigenous leaders and to steal land; can you imagine what might happen if it is actually approved? That is a very sad thought. And this is true to Indigenous lands in the whole country. So many of them have had their demarcation process delayed because of this ongoing debate.

Mongabay: If Marco temporal is overthrown for good, what are your plans for your land? How do you plan to preserve it? 

Brasílio Priprá: Our main goal is indeed to preserve our territory. We will not devastate the land planting tobacco, as is done here, and showering it with litters of pesticides that will end up in the river and be later consumed. You can be sure that the river will be poison-free; we will not harm the environment, and even our foes will have access to clean water.

Besides, the Atlantic Rainforest has great strength. It is capable of regenerating itself. Of course, it will need some support after over 50 years of tobacco plantations and pesticides that have been here. You have to plant some trees, you have to protect the river and its tributaries. But I believe that, gradually, over the course of some 15 years, the forest will start to go back to normal. We live in a wonderful country, which we will fight to preserve for as long as we possibly can.

 


 

Banner image: Brasílio Priprá, one of the pioneers of the Free Land Camp, the largest event of the Brazilian Indigenous movement. Image by Amanda Magnani.

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