When hundreds of Indigenous groups congregated in the Brazilian capital at the end of April it was with an explicit agenda: to advance the historic institutional representation that Indigenous people had secured through president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s fledgling administration, and to ensure they don’t just survive but thrive.
Brasilia’s 19th Free Land Camp or Acampamento Terra Livre (ATL) drew an estimated 6,000 people, the largest annual gathering of Indigenous peoples in the world, according to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil – APIB in the initials of its Portuguese name. They danced and they sang at the site where, just three months before, supporters of ousted president Jair Bolsonaro had camped after a violent insurrectionist attack on the headquarters of the Brazilian government.
For Vanda Witoto, a prominent leader from north-western state of Amazonas, the goal of the camp was to get the federal government to implement “policies that respect our autonomy and our way of life”.
Last year’s ATL – after a two-year Covid hiatus – had largely been a political rally ahead of Brazil’s presidential election in October. Indigenous groups were part of the broad coalition of activists who fought to end the violence and social injustice of the Bolsonaro years, and to help oust Bolsonaro from office.
But this year, the ATL wanted to entrench the institutional gains made under Lula. Foremost among these are the new Ministry for Indigenous Peoples, headed by prominent campaigner Sônia Guajajara. Lula also appointed another Amazon defender Marina Silva as Brazil’s environment minister.
Indigenous leaders told openDemocracy that, while important advances had been secured during the early months of Lula’s government, more needs to be done.
“We’re satisfied with what has been proposed and the structures put in place to date,” said Dinamam Tuxá, an APIB coordinator who serves as legal advisor to Indigenous groups in Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo and north-eastern Brazil.“Many things were destroyed by the previous government. We realise that the reconstruction this country needs to go through now takes time and, although it’s a slow process, it is happening.”
But what the Lula administration needs to do “with the utmost urgency”, said Tuxá, is “to begin implementing its public policy pledges, principally, the recognition and demarcation of Indigenous territories”.
Territorial demarcation is now the “number one priority” for Indigenous peoples in Brazil, he stressed.
In January, just days after Lula took the presidential oath of office, his government promised that 14 territories would be legally demarcated for Indigenous peoples “before other people take over” or “invent false documents” to claim ownership rights. It was one of Lula’s key campaign pledges to Indigenous groups for his first 100 days, even though the Bolsonarista-dominated Congress was expected to put up stiff opposition.
At the closing plenary of this year’s ATL, Lula announced to rapturous crowds that the Indigenous people would have six newly-demarcated territories, or nearly 800 square miles.
Lots of work ahead
For each Indigenous leader who spoke to openDemocracy, one thing was abundantly clear: the very existence of Lula’s government is cause for celebration after the all-out assault on Indigenous communities’ land rights and their self-governing bodies during Bolsonaro’s tenure.
Bolsonaro had also, during the 2018 presidential campaign, pledged to “scythe” and “deal a blow to the neck” to the Indigenous affairs agency or FUNAI, which is tasked with protecting Indigenous rights and governance of their lands.
These four years represented “one of the worst moments in the history of our communities,” said Witoto, from Amazonas state.
After the Bolsonaro years, she added, “a lot of the government’s early efforts have, understandably, been directed towards the humanitarian emergency that the Yanomami tribe has been undergoing”.
Lula and his Indigenous peoples’ minister Guajajara made an emergency visit to the Yanomami enclave in the Amazon after thousands of illegal gold miners had descended on the area during the Bolsonaro period. It was one of their first acts after the presidential inauguration.
Despite such interventions, it’s not clear how Lula will be able to balance his pledges to protect Indigenous territories with tight legislative margins as well as competing economic pressures. Doubts persist as to how Guajajara and Silva will be able to deliver on their respective portfolios.
Public institutions still don’t understand indigenous people’s rights
Witoto said while it was important to mark the end of four horrific years, the celebrations have not distracted the Indigenous peoples from the pressing need to entrench their historic foothold in Brazil’s national institutions.
Indigenous groups still need “more concrete responses” from national institutions, she told openDemocracy. Despite the welcome change in the federal government, she added, her communities continue to face threats on a number of fronts.
“We want the government to come out against the construction of hydroelectric dams and associated infrastructure in our territories,” she said. “We want the government to position itself against [state-owned Brazilian oil company] Petrobras’ exploratory work in the Amazon. We want to see a real commitment to our communities from the state.” That is what it would look like if Indigenous peoples secured their rights within Brazilian institutions, Witoto said.
In the weeks leading up to the ATL, there had been some concern that Guajajara’s and Silva’s offices were not working together enough, despite the crossover in their remits.
“It’s early days still,” said Tuxá of APIB, “but Sônia Guajajara’s office needs to be doing more to develop effective public policy with a number of other ministries around hers.”
A good example of a way the new ministry could deliver for the people it was created to serve, according to Tuxá, would be to earmark funds for biome governance and protection. He added: “Ultimately, the success of her ministry will largely be determined by the extent to which she is able to strengthen the autonomy of Indigenous communities.”
Properly resourcing the Indigenous peoples’ ministry will be key, Witoto agreed, as heavy rains lashed Brasilia on the ATL’s penultimate day. She added that an important struggle for Indigenous people now was the strengthening of democratic institutions, “whether that is Guajajara’s office or at the FUNAI level. We need to see these structures reinforced… We need cross-cutting policy reform in areas like health education to be secured.”
The overarching goal, say Witoto and other Indigenous leaders, is to ensure that their communities are consulted on policies and their ways of life are at the centre of any programmes. “Public institutions still don’t understand Indigenous people’s rights,” she said. “They have historically worked against us…so it’s extremely important that they now take an interest in our peoples.”
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