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Deciding how to decide: the Munduruku Indigenous Group and political participation in Brazil

The struggles of a variety of movements, peoples, communities and organizations have opened new and creative spaces for participation. Português

Cristiana Losekann Rodrigo Oliveira
2 June 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Tapajos River highlighted.

Tapajos River highlighted. Wikicommons/Kmusser. Some rights reserved.In Latin America, much is said about the democratic improvements brought about by participatory practices in government. But there are considerable constraints both to participation and its effectiveness when it comes to transforming hegemonic models, vested interests and political power, as exemplified by projects associated with the increased exploitation of natural resources.

These projects shed light on the limits of liberal representative democracies and also of recent extra-electoral institutional participation initiatives: such models do not guarantee political legitimacy to projects impacting on the local sphere, many of which affect groups who are ethnically different and who do not feel represented by the political entities of the state.

We need to construct mechanisms of direct and effective participation for these ethnic groups that are culturally adequate. “Prior consultation” (consulta prévia) was conceived as a promising mechanism to respond to this challenge. Nevertheless, the social and political organization and the traditional forms of decision-making of the people consulted must be respected to ensure that prior consultation does not turn into a bureaucratic space; thus the importance of the protocols and documents used by these groups to tell the government how they want to be consulted.

We discuss here the importance of the Munduruku Consultation Protocol in the context of the democratization of decision-making regarding extractive projects[1]. The Munduruku group consists in about 13 thousand indigenous people who live in more than one hundred twenty villages along the Tapajós River basin, one of the main tributaries on the right bank of the Amazon River in Brazil. The Munduruku people from the region live in three designated indigenous lands (Sai Cinza, Munduruku and Kayabi) and are fighting for the designation of the Daje Kapap Eypi territory (Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land). The act of designation represents the state's formal recognition of the territory's traditional occupation by indigenous people. For at least four years, they have battled against the federal government project to install seven hydroelectric plants in the Tapajós River basin, a development that threatens their territory and way of life.

We suggest that the importance of this participatory experience extends beyond this case, which can nevertheless be understood as illustrative of how public decision-making is not simply something to be imposed by the state but rather constructed in an interactive form as the conflict unfolds. Socio-environmental conflicts are marked by the limitation of social participation, because what is projected in hegemonic fashion as economic development involves a relationship of the exploitation of nature, understood as a natural resource, and brutal interference with the environment. The conflict emerges specifically from the collision of this way of valuing the economy with other factors that are also involved in our relationship with nature, such as leisure activities, scenery, spirituality, and well-being. These conflicts also confront varied ways of life and different world views. On the whole, powerful political/economic interests and socially vulnerable groups are in opposition.

Historically, such formal arenas of participation, as management boards and public hearings, have not shown themselves to be sufficient for handling this confrontation satisfactorily in the eyes of those involved. But the struggles of a variety of movements, peoples, communities and organizations have opened new and creative spaces for participation. This is the case with prior consultation. Convention number 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), created as an international agreement between countries belonging to the United Nations (UN), formalized the right of indigenous and tribal peoples to participate in decisions regarding changes in and use of their territories. Consultation allows groups that might be affected into the decision-making process.

Brazil, which is a signatory of this Convention, has never performed a consultation. Following strong political mobilization endorsed by a court decision, the first consultation must be performed with the Munduruku people, who have been threatened by the construction of the São Luiz do Tapajós Hydroelectric Plant, planned for the middle-section of the Tapajós River. However, performing a consultation does not in and of itself guarantee participation; it is necessary to open the decision-making process up and examine its precise terms.

Despite initial enthusiasm stemming from various institutions implementing new forms of social participation such as councils, hearings, and conferences, criticisms made by those directly involved and in the specialized literature are growing significant. In light of the disappointment with the innumerable participatory processes existing in Brazil and the experiences of performing consultations in the neighboring countries, the groups affected[2] by a wide variety of ventures fear that prior consultation may become a means of legitimizing ventures, emptied of its potential capacity for decision-making.

It is in this context that the Munduruku people call for "deciding how to decide". They drafted the Munduruku Consultation Protocol (begun in Brazil by the Wajãpi indigenous people, in Amapá), in which they told the government how they want to be consulted. They emphasize that they want to be consulted in their own territory, in villages of their choosing, and gathered in meetings with the participation of Munduruku people from all regions of the Tapajós. They also clarify that the decisions are to be made after a long debate, which shall take as long as necessary to achieve unanimous consent among the people.

The aspects up for discussion and the means of conducting the consultation take the Munduruku's way of thinking into account. They do not want to be simply focused on the problems of the pariwat (the word in the Munduruku language referring to non-indigenous people), but rather on their own demands. They want to coordinate the meetings, as they have their own participatory systems, and children, young people and the elderly are also part of these.

They demand respect for their conception of time and their social dynamics, and, finally, they claim the final word on the proposed measure. It is important to mention that the Munduruku's acts of resistance infringe upon many institutional boundaries of legality, but these practices cannot be criminalized since they are legitimate traditional political forms.

The constitutive process of deliberation involves many other elements that go beyond rational decision-making, as imposed by our democratic mechanisms. The gestures, expressions, and experiences of feelings and moralities that play a role in the public dynamics of the decision are as important as the rational basis of the argument. Rather than insults to well-being and democracy, direct actions and other forms of expressing different reasoning, as well as those roles played by the Munduruku people, can be understood as what Giorgio Agamben calls "counter-apparati" (or desecration of the apparatus), as they reveal the circumstances in which democratic mechanisms become inadequate, or authoritarian and violent. One cannot consult an “apparatus” that organizes acts in terms of binary oppositions such as legitimate/illegitimate, tolerated/criminalized.

Plush-crested jay on the Tapajos River.

Plush-crested jay on the Tapajos River. Flickr/Rennett Stowe. Some rights reserved.It is equally important to include other forms of agency, like the participation of nature as a "natural agent", for example. The construction of nature in a social, spiritual and aesthetic dimension based on local cosmologies needs to be possible in these arenas. The observation of changes in the dynamics of water or in the behavior of fish, as well as nature's other forms of expression, may introduce significant evidence for making the decision. According to Paul Little, the natural agent can be considered a type of actor that participates in environmental conflicts and, thus, changes the processes of collective action. But this process needs to be open beyond the natural forms of agency understood by the western model and to consider the multiplicity of knowledge and meanings recorded in any one space. The Munduruku protocol calls attention to the importance of traditional knowledge in the identification and questioning of environmental impact (“Because we are the ones who know about the rivers, the forest, the fish and the land”, as the Protocol says) and rejects compensation for damage to the environment based on ethnocentric thinking.

The Munduruku people are giving the government an opportunity to act differently. Inclined to maintain resistance to the project that threatens them, they delivered the Protocol to the government in February 2015. The government has two options: respect the decision (and the means of deciding) of the Munduruku or resume the authoritarian and antidemocratic way in which it has been treating culturally different groups.

As Jacques Rancière reflects, affirmation of equality is a precondition for the exercise of politics and democracy. In the face of otherness, there is no democracy in processes regulated unilaterally by the norms and institutions of the state. The Munduruku people hope that the government will not once more behave “like the giant anaconda[3], which slowly tightens, wanting people to lose all their strength and to die without air”. Meanwhile, they have made it clear that the struggle will not cool down any time soon.


[1] In the current Latin American context, extractive projects were defined by Eduardo Gudynas within what would be a “neoextractivist” model, which is characterized in part by the large-scale exploitation of natural resources for the production of commodities that stock the international market with grains, minerals, petroleum etc. These projects involve a high-impact chain of production (running the gamut from extraction itself to transport) that uses the natural resources to the point of their exhaustion, taking the territory of indigenous peoples, people living near rivers, fishermen, and farmers, among others.

[2] For a bit more than a decade in Latin America in general, we have observed a growth of movements entitled “affected” emerging from environmental conflicts created by development mega-projects whose impact on local populations is dramatic. The most common ventures are mining, large hydroelectric plants, gas pipelines, ports, etc.

[3] Sucuri is a species of cobra that lives in South America. The metaphor with the government is due to its size (its length can reach 10 meters) and to the way it attacks its prey, circling the body, suffocating it and breaking its bones to then eat it.

How to cite:
Oliveria R., Losekann C. (2015) «Deciding how to decide: the Munduruku Indigenous Group and political participation in Brazil», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 2 June. https://opendemocracy.net/cristiana-losekann-rodrigo-oliveira/deciding-how-to-decide-munduruku-indigenous-group-and-political-

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