Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement: resolute in times of crisis

Brazil's indigenous people face mounting threats under President Temer, yet recent collective, high-profile efforts have seen some success in the fight for their lands.

Christian Poirier
5 October 2017
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Brazilian indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara at a recent Terra Livre gathering. Image: Amazon Watch. All rights reserved.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

When Brazilian indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara gave a fiery speech on environmentalism and human rights at the Rock in Rio music festival in September 2017, alongside Alicia Keys, she captured the power and authority of Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement (Mobilização Nacional Indígena, MNI). “This is the mother of all struggles, the struggle for Mother Earth!” exclaimed Sônia to a massive, cheering audience. A lifelong advocate for the rights of the country’s native peoples and the integrity of the ecosystems upon which they depend, Sônia helps to lead one of South America’s most vibrant social movements, rooted firmly in resistance to an unjust government set on slashing fundamental socio-environmental protections. 

As Brazil lurches through a prolonged period of economic and political crisis, its indigenous peoples and irreplaceable ecosystems are paying a particularly heavy price. Under President Michel Temer, Brazil’s environmental safeguards and human rights standards have fallen under an attack that is unprecedented since the fall of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985. Largely dictated by powerful industry groups, his government’s policies have taken aim at the hard-fought land rights of indigenous peoples, as well as protections to the Amazon’s vast forests. Under the rubric of stimulating economic growth, Mr. Temer personally endorsed the freezing of indigenous land titling processes across the country, gutted the budget of the indigenous affairs agency FUNAI, and is poised to approve legislation that would allow extractive industry on native lands.   

It aimed to halt 748 pending cases to title tribal lands while stripping indigenous peoples of their constitutional rights

In July, President Temer’s Attorney General tried to impose a highly flawed legal interpretation of indigenous land rights known as marco temporal or “time limit.” The interpretation only recognised the land claims of indigenous peoples that have continuously occupied their territories since Brazil's 1988 Constitution was enshrined, ignoring common situations in which communities were brutally driven off their lands. It also aimed to halt 748 pending cases to title tribal lands while stripping indigenous peoples of their constitutional rights to permanent and exclusive use of their territories, claiming these rights cannot overrule "national interests" such as military operations, road construction, communications infrastructure and hydroelectric dams. In August, Temer signed a decree (known as the “Renca” decree) that opened an area of 46,000 km2 of preserved Amazonian forests – approximately the size of Denmark – to industrial mining operations.     

New media strategy, new alliances

Indigenous land rights stand at the crux of both fundamental human rights and environmental protections, as Brazil’s native peoples occupy titled ancestral territories spanning 14 per cent of the country’s extension, of which 98 per cent fall within the Amazon rainforest. Boasting highly conserved ecosystems, indigenous territories act as a buffer against rampant Amazon deforestation and a barrier against industrial development. It is precisely for this reason that these territories are under increasing attack, led by actors that hail from Brazil’s agribusiness and mining sector. The Brazilian government’s current assault on indigenous rights and forest protections is fueled by the promise of short-term growth, while exacting a devastating toll on human rights and environmental integrity in the world’s largest rainforest. 

In response to mounting existential threats, the MNI has built a network of supporters, from Brazilian political leaders to cultural icons. The Movement is backed by national and international NGOs and social movements that have helped to amplify the reach and influence of its message. Leaders like Sônia Guajajara have been consistently bringing the MNI’s message to global forums such as the United Nations, where they have gained considerable traction. 

Brazil’s indigenous peoples are highly familiar with the precedents to today’s assault and are prepared to fiercely oppose it. Indeed, the National Indigenous Movement’s methodical and determined resistance has inspired a spectrum of Brazilian civil society to join forces under the rallying cry “Demarcação Já!” (Land Demarcation Now!). Their annual Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Encampment) in Brasilia convenes allies from across Brazil and the globe to support the indigenous struggle for social and environmental justice, which is widely seen as a collective effort to defend imperiled human rights norms and guarantee ecological stability. Reflecting the urgency of today’s crisis, the 2017 ATL gathering was the largest in its history, bringing more than 1,600 people to the capital for four days of debates, cultural activities and protest. 

This year’s ATL also sought to forge new alliances with indigenous peoples from around the world

Savvy communicators, the MNI built an impressive assortment of memes and multimedia in the lead up to ATL. They broadcast livestreams of the encampment’s activities that reached millions on social media and launched a high-profile music video entitled “Land Demarcation Now!” featuring Brazil’s cultural luminaries such as Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethania. ATL’s media strategy elevated Brazil’s indigenous struggle to a global audience and built sympathy with the Movement’s cause. This year’s ATL also sought to forge new alliances with indigenous peoples from around the world, assembling leaders from Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia and Indonesia. It also worked to strengthen the representation and protagonism of indigenous women and youth, and strengthened ties with leaders from communities of descendants of escaped slaves (quilombolas), whose struggle for land, dignity, and auto-determination mirrors that of Brazil’s native peoples.

Yet when members of the ATL marched on congressional buildings to send a message that further rights rollbacks and violence against indigenous peoples would not be tolerated, police forces responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd of men, women and children. Such state violence clearly indicates the government’s inability to peacefully dialogue with its indigenous minority.  

"Our history didn't start in 1988"

Under today’s grim context, the National Indigenous Movement has needed to organise resistance on several fronts at once. By focusing on the plight of the Guaraní Kaiowá people, who are enduring one of South America’s most tragic human rights emergencies as they live in grinding poverty dispossessed of their lands and way of life, MNI leaders have traveled to Europe to request that the European Union consider barring the importation of agricultural products produced on their ancestral territories. While a long-term campaign, the MNI’s efforts have already yielded fruit: in 2016 the European Parliament approved a resolution that “condemns” and “deplores” the human rights violations suffered by the Guaraní Kaiowá people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. This strategy could have far-reaching implications for Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, as mounting denunciations could jeopardise key markets for their export of commodities like soy, sugar and beef.

Given its recent impressive and successful record at resisting an onslaught of attacks, Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement should inspire anyone resisting regressive governments

In July the MNI also mobilised to counter the move by the government to impose the “time limit” Interpretation of indigenous land rights. In a resounding series of high-profile protests under the banner of the meme “Our History Didn’t Start in 1988,” the MNI and its allies successfully elevated this polemic issue to the mainstream Brazilian and international media. With the world watching, Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the Attorney General’s opinion, dealing a major blow to this sweeping rollback and its advocate, President Michel Temer.

When Sônia Guajajara climbed on stage at Rock in Rio, she brought the message and the power of a resolute and effective social movement. Her call to defend the Amazon’s forests and communities inspired thousands around the world to act in solidarity, who in turned demanded that President Temer cease his reckless agenda. The MNI’s message was essential for the withdrawal, in late September, of the “Renca” decree.

Given its recent impressive and successful record at resisting an onslaught of attacks, Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement should inspire anyone resisting regressive governments around the world. It should also inspire generous support from around the world. While working foremost to defend indigenous rights and territories, the MNI also defends our collective wellbeing by helping to preserve the Amazon’s climate-stabilising forests. 

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