Fighting for their rights: Brazil at a crossroads
Ahead of Sunday's Brazilian election, Indigenous and urban activists are fighting violence, injustice and inequality
With his long black hair tied back in a ponytail, a beaming smile and his mobile phone in his hand, Tukumã Pataxó is easy to like.
I met him in April in Brasilia at the Acampamento Terra Livre, a gathering of more than 7,000 people from over 200 Indigenous groups across Brazil. Tukumã and other influencers like him are conscious of the power they can wield with just a smartphone and a story, racking up hundreds of thousands of followers (he has over 192k on Instagram alone) with stories of Indigenous culture and calls to action.
“People say, ‘how can you be an Indigenous person when you have a cell phone in your hand?’” he told me. “But we have to adapt to this modern world. We have to be connected, and the internet is a fighting tool, a weapon. Now it’s not only the bow and arrow, but also the cell phone.”
Tukumã has used his passion for Indigenous cuisine (he’s currently a culinary student in Salvador) as a way to highlight Indigenous culture more broadly, and his Instagram feed reflects the anti-colonial, progressive narratives that resonate strongly with Brazilian youth.
This new generation of Indigenous influencers (like Alice Pataxó, Vanda Witoto, and Samela Sateré Mawé (pictured below) are reaching audiences directly, bypassing traditional media and contributing to the success of startups like Midia India, a decentralised network of communicators located all around Brazil.
Brazil’s Indigenous groups stand at a critical juncture. They have suffered acts of violence and cultural genocide over many years, and the Bolsanaro government is seen by many as pouring fuel on the fire, downplaying Indigenous sovereignty by supporting illegal agrobusinesses and mining operations on Indigenous lands, as well as supporting the passage of the Marco Temporal, a bill that would strip the rights of Indigenous people to claim rights to historic lands where they have been dispossessed.
Violent struggles between narco-traffickers, illegal resource miners and Indigenous groups have already left catastrophic results, tragically highlighted by the murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira.
African roots and urban struggle
While Indigenous communities battle for the right to self-determination on traditional lands which are largely rural, the vast majority of the Brazilian population lives in cities. (The country is highly urbanised with an estimated 87% of its population living in cities.)
Inequality is built into the fabric of Brazil’s cities, especially the megacities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. While the elite tend to congregate in historic central districts (think Rio’s Copacabana Beach and São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista), the poor are relegated to enormous peripheral areas, far from jobs and opportunities. This divide between rich and poor can be easily seen from the air. What’s harder to see are the organisations working to create safe, thriving communities in liminal spaces, to occupy abandoned buildings and uplift these areas’ residents.
Roberto Gomes dos Santos is tall, with lightning-quick Portuguese, peppered with carioca (Rio de Janeiro) slang. He’s the de facto leader (although he stresses that decisions are made collectively) at the Quilombo da Gamboa, an independent housing community within the walls of an abandoned salt depot in Rio de Janeiro. Just a few hundred metres away are the remains of Valongo Wharf, built in 1811 and estimated to be the disembarkation point for over 900,000 slaves.
“For me it was really this: a reunion with my roots, rediscovering my ancestry, the reunion with the African heritages left here, and the responsibility of maintaining this space that I am going to call a sacred place,” he said.
Roberto grew up in Rio’s North Zone, feeling detached and alienated like many others, far from the glitz of the beaches of Copacabana and the postcard-perfect views of the South Zone. In a chance encounter on a public bus, he heard about the concept of an Occupy – a way for residents to semi-legally occupy abandoned buildings. Soon he was living in the centre of the city, constructing homes and organising a vibrant, caring community much closer to jobs and public transport.
While clearing the land at the salt depot, Roberto actually dug up the remains of slaves, including one still wearing manacles. He figures that they were probably transporting salt from the port area to the depot when they died.
“When we started digging and we came across that, I said ‘damn’. I was stepping on it, you know? It was a spontaneous fear, very fast, but then it passed. [I said] I’m stepping on my people! I mean, me, a Black man, stepping on another Black man...”
Deciding to call his community an “urban quilombo”, he said, was a conscious choice to continue the tradition of communities (called quilombos) that were originally organised by freed and escaped slaves. They feature heavily in the culture and language of resistance within Brazil.
Millions of slaves were imported from Africa to work the sugar plantations in Brazil, far more than any other country in the world. In Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia in the country’s north-east, Afro-Brazilian culture is strong and vibrant. Many Brazilians have a romantic view of the region, considering it a special and spiritual place, especially in terms of cuisine, music and religious practices. It’s here that the syncretic beliefs melded in the wake of the Catholic church meeting African spirituality are alive and well, with millions following the spiritual practices of Candomblé and Umbanda.
Although followers of Afro-Brazilian religions constitute a small percentage of the population – only 2% – believers suffer a disproportionate rate of religiously motivated attacks. Many people told me that these seemed to have grown in number and viciousness since Bolsanaro was elected, spurred on by evangelical groups emboldened by right-wing appeals to conservative Christian nationalism.
“Afro-Brazilian victims of religious intolerance in the state of Rio de Janeiro continue to view police and the judiciary as being indifferent, in general, to attacks on Afro-Brazilian places of worship,” reads the US State Department’s 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom.
The pandemic brought many countries to a reckoning with their conservative economic policies, and this included Brazil. The government embarked on a massive spending programme to augment the Bolsa Familia programme, which provides assistance to families in extreme poverty. However, with inflation hitting its highest levels in 26 years earlier this year, 80% of families living in favelas are struggling on less than half of their pre-pandemic income. Many worry that they are being forgotten and left worse off than before the pandemic, and almost everyone is fearful of what may happen should there be political and economic turmoil around the Presidential elections in October.
Community organisations, housing collectives and even the Church have rushed to fill in the gaps.
Joice Marquez is the founder of Casa Akotirene, an urban quilombo and place of Black resistance in Ceilândia, near Brasilia. “During the pandemic, the social movements had to organise themselves because we did not have any kind of state aid to [help us] serve these vulnerable families. We needed to unite these movements so that we could somehow combat this inequality within our communities,” she explained.
Ceilândia is a physical manifestation of inequality, an enormous planned community for the workers who built Brasilia to live after they were encouraged to leave the ‘Plano Piloto’, or planned city, in the early 1970s. But throughout the country, even in the most cosmopolitan urban centres, grassroots organisations offer a variety of practices and philosophies with one overriding priority – to put the people first.
“For those who are in this day-to-day survival [mode], sometimes these considerations [of inequality] fall into a very theoretical or elite space, which doesn’t connect with everyday reality”, said Tatiana Silva, co-founder of Fa.Vela, an entrepreneurial and educational organisation in Belo Horizonte. “So… a primary mission of our project is to ensure a dignified existence. Let’s think about it like this: I can’t ask myself whether the world is fair or not fair, or if such a thing is right, if my immediate concerns are about food, housing, or how I’ll get basic services in my daily life.”
Community hubs like Redes da Maré in Rio de Janeiro provide alternatives for residents to learn and pursue their projects, but also to dream. Making space for a nuanced narrative that isn’t focused only on crime and violence is an important part of the equation that many outside journalists miss.
“I think we try to avoid talking about this place in terms of violence, which somehow is what ends up leaking out the most,” said Karol da Silva, from Redes da Maré. “We always try to highlight our arts centre and other positive aspects of the local culture.”
This work was funded by the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, hosted at LSE/London School of Economics.
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