It is commonplace in Brazil for people or institutions to make a symbolic gesture towards an Indigenous community, and then frame it as a major advance for their rights.
One familiar example, for instance, is a museum paying Indigenous people to build a traditional structure of theirs on its site. Or, a person showing up at an Indigenous settlement and saying hello, taking school kids to visit, or buying jewellery from communities – as if any of these things were a major political statement. They’re not. They’re basic decency, like paying for goods and services, or treating someone else as a human being.
Instead of seeking applause for everyday actions, perhaps a more effective way of bringing about change would be to focus energy elsewhere. Indigenous people have their own way of life, and they have persevered for centuries as a result of their own efforts, not ours.
Leaving people alone doesn’t mean doing nothing. Indigenous people don’t need to be saved, but they do deserve reparations. One way of ensuring that happens is to challenge those who try to destroy Indigenous populations.
Among conservatives in Brazil, it is commonplace to argue that Indigenous people practice infanticide, bury babies alive and practice other unimaginable cruelties. They claim that international NGOs act to preserve these ‘backward’ and ‘savage’ cultural practices, by working to demarcate and protect Indigenous territory. This, in turn, they argue, takes valuable, resource-rich land out of the hands of Brazilian entrepreneurs and the Brazilian state.
As they assert the right to profit from and exploit the forest, conservatives also aim to subjugate Indigenous communities and their culture. The process of domination and resource extraction is essentially the same as it was during the era of colonialism – but this time, it’s done through modern institutions. In Brazil, this means a combination of the state, businesses and NGOs.
Businesses enjoy tax-deductible donations, which allow them to target their money at causes that might directly or indirectly boost their profits: think of a peanut butter company donating to peanut allergy research, for example. The state doesn’t mind, because NGOs fix problems it has failed to solve. Meanwhile, NGOs get to raise money without having to rely on election cycles and state bureaucracies.
The situation becomes even more complicated with hybrid structures that mix profit-making businesses with non-profit foundations. Humans in the Loop, for instance, is a social enterprise based in Europe that trains refugees and people displaced in war zones to do remote work annotating images on behalf of AI companies. It is both a profit-making recruitment agency and a non-profit foundation that trains people to enter the workforce. This model was replicated in Latin America, by a Humans in the Loop partner organization called DignfAI, to cope with mass Venezuelan migration into Brazil, much of which is of Indigenous people.
In this ‘hybrid’ scenario, the people Humans in the Loop works with are being trained to enter a booming new industry – the manual sorting of data used in AI, adding the human touch to machine learning. The project not only helps generate profits for companies that need qualified workers, it also mitigates the effects of warfare. In other words, it’s the third sector channelling human resources into the business sector, while providing a palliative solution for the aftermath of war, which should be the concern of the state.
Indigenous people in Brazil mirror the situation of those displaced by war, in the sense that they don’t comply with the principle of dividing up land according to property ownership or national borders. For that, they are effectively internally displaced within Brazil. The NGO sector, although it purports to help, actually sustains the same colonial principles of exploiting people who were displaced by the violent occupation of their territories, through its role in the wider system. This is obscured by the powerful narrative that the developed West is saving the underdeveloped Other, rather than exploiting people.
Perhaps instead of trying to save Indigenous people from destruction, we ought to stop destroying. This is work we have to do for ourselves.
Brazilian conservatives who claim that Indigenous land demarcation is a scam may have good reason to question the work of NGOs. But when that is conflated with a desire to eradicate people with ‘inferior cultural practices’ through assimilation, the picture looks quite different. It looks like a ploy to force displaced people to comply with the national values of property – the cornerstone of a for-profit economic system. Indigenous people are being used as pawns in this struggle.
The right-wing narrative goes even further, arguing that Indigenous people ‘want’ to assimilate but can’t because they are trapped by a conniving third sector. The only possible scenarios seem to be ones where Indigenous people have no will of their own and are at the mercy of whatever Western institutions decide to do with them.
Supporters of Indigenous people and their rights may end up unconsciously endorsing this fallacy – where it is us who need to grant them space within our institutions. We think we can do that by validating them, giving them a thumbs-up, and publicly displaying our support. But perhaps we ought to be trying to stop these institutions from meddling with their lives, their lands and their livelihoods.
Violence against Indigenous people is not a natural disaster, and we shouldn’t merely try to rescue them from it. To be rescued from violence doesn’t end violence – it only temporarily keeps certain people safe. In Europe since 1945, for instance, anti-fascism has been effective when it has aimed at dismantling fascist groups and the racism on which they thrive, not through ‘rescuing’ people who are the targets of racism by debating their worth.
In Brazil, we are yet to coin a term for the segments of the population and the government that are most hostile to Indigenous people. We need to eradicate that hostility, and change our ways of working, more than we need to tell Indigenous people that we validate them.
Get our weekly email