Not a drop more: indigenous leaders tell the world what is happening in Brazil
The three-meter red sphere that hangs in the center of the New Academic Building, accompanied by a cluster of smaller steel spheres at its side, catches the eyes of passers-by on Kingsway. Inside the London School of Economics’ (not that) new construction, the large, high-ceiling, well-lit and quite empty lobby of the remodeled Edwardian building screams modernity, with its white walls and wooden parquet floor. The art work Elenchus/Aporia, by the Irish artist Joy Gerrard, is supposed to represent a dialogue between individuals — an inspiration for critical thinking.
On a Friday evening last November, the red sculpture — the only splash of color in an otherwise “neutral” setting — had to share its glory with Célia Xakriabá’s bright yellow headdress, with two blue feathers flanking a red one on the top of her head; with the alternating yellow, red and orange feathers of Erisvan Guajajara’s adornment; and with the blue and yellow flowers on Ângela Kaxuyana’s tiara. The three Brazilian indigenous leaders walked into a full Wolfson Theatre, to speak to an audience that surpassed the organizers’ expectations for a day when students tend to flee the campus as early as they can. Despite the bright garments, their countenances were in accordance with the subject they had traveled more than 8,000 kilometers to discuss: the growing threat to their existence.
On October 17th, 11 Brazilian indigenous leaders landed in Rome for a one-month journey around 12 countries in Europe. The goal of the “Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More” delegation, as Erisvan explains in the first of 32 videologs of the trip, was to “tell the other side of the world” what indigenous people are going through in Brazil. Still “troubled by the jet lag”, the leaders used the first day to organize their schedule of events for the following weeks. On the agenda were meetings with European governments, business representatives, journalists, students and grassroots movements — all of them as to discuss the effects of political decision and consumerism on their own existence.
The coverage of the journey was published on the social media pages of the Indigenous People Articulation (Apib, in Portuguese) and Mídia Índia, the news collective that describes itself on Instagram as “the voice of indigenous people, by us, for our ancestors, for the ones in the future”.
“I come from an indigenous land that has a common history in Brazil. An indigenous land that was expropriated to open space for a big venture. It was stolen by the state. We were torn from our traditional territory to give space to what people call development”, said Ângela Kaxuyana in Berlin, in the presence of representatives of the Green Party and of the Director General of the Federation of German Industries, Joachim Lang. “We are here to stop a process that is being repeated for the past 519 years and to reaffirm our fight and resistance.”
Almost half-way through the journey, yet another drop of blood stained the history books. On November 1st, Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot and killed by illegal loggers in the Araribóia Indigenous Territory, in the Northeast of the country. Known as “Bad Wolf”, Paulo was a young member of the “Forest Guardians” team, a group of indigenous agents who act as protectors of their lands and denounce invasions.
This was not an isolated case. In 2018, 135 indigenous people were killed in Brazil, a 20% rise in comparison with the number of registered murders in 2017. The report “Violence Against Indigenous People in Brazil — data from 2018”, organized annually by the Indigenist Missionary Council (a Catholic institution that has defended indigenous rights since the 1970s), also lists 109 cases of invasion, illegal exploitation of natural resources and damage to the patrimony in indigenous lands, in 2018. In just the first nine months of 2019, 160 similar cases were registered.
“Mister Raoni’s monopoly is over”, declared President Jair Bolsonaro in his opening speech to the UN general assembly in September. Instead of addressing and proposing solutions for the fires that, at the time, were already destroying part of the Amazon Forest, the president focused his deluded speech on lies about the preservation of the environment and on the 89 year old chief of the Kayapó people. Internationally known for his fight for indigenous rights, Raoni Metuktire also traveled around Europe at the beginning of 2019 and, to Bolsonaro’s annoyance, managed to gather support from authorities such as Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron.
Disqualifying Raoni’s leadership is part of the president’s strategy to undermine a 500-year fight for indigenous rights and, in doing so, normalize the idea that demarcated land is necessarily unproductive.
“Bolsonaro’s discourse is that our lands are empty, they are not productive. It’s an outdated way of thinking that considers us hindrances to development”, explained Ângela Kaxuyana at LSE: “We are against a kind of development that tramples over people’s rights, kills us and destroys our territory. We want development that acknowledges our existence inside our own country”.
In an article published in The Guardian a few days before being demonized as national enemy, Raoni accused Bolsonaro of “encouraging the farm owners near our lands to clear the forest –he is not doing anything to prevent them from invading our territory”.
Speeches made in air-conditioned buildings in Brasília have consequences on the ground — especially on the humid and rich ground of the Amazon Forest. According to recent data disclosed by the Brazilian space agency (Inpe), 9,762 square kilometers of the Amazon Forest were devastated between August 2018 and July 2019 — more than six times the area of London. This represents an increase of 29.5% compared to the previous 12 months. When indigenous territories are focused on, the situation is even more worrying: deforestation increased 65% over the same period.
Turning a blind eye to the invasion of indigenous land is not just a matter of overlooking humanitarian and environmental needs, it is also illegal: the 1988 constitution asserts that, even though the territory belongs to the state, the right to its use is exclusive to the indigenous groups that traditionally occupy the area, including the use of its natural resources.
At the beginning of November, the delegation “Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More” arrived in Brussels to present its view on the EU-Mercosur deal to the European Parliament. Since the deal was agreed in June, the fires that have consumed part of the Amazon have served as a warning signal to some European governments, making the trade agreement’s ratification less certain than before. Although it declares that both parties agree to follow human rights guidelines, it doesn’t add a caveat for products that come from invaded indigenous land.
“It is impossible to guarantee our rights without giving special emphasis to our territorial rights”, argued Célia Xakriabá in London: “Besides, do you believe that a government that doesn’t abide by the constitution and international agreements will really respect the Mercosur deal?” Brazil has 1, 290 areas of indigenous land; however, 63% of these areas have yet to be fully demarcated and have some kind of legal dependency on the state.
Governments and businessmen were not the only targets of the indigenous mission — civil society is deeply implicated in the damage done to their lands and to the Amazon as a whole. “These agreements are a response to consumer demand in these countries; products often come from conflicted areas, from slave work”, said Ângela, who is member of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab).
The discourse of the climate change movements that are taking to the streets worldwide resonates with what indigenous peoples have been repeating for centuries. In his book “Ideas to postpone the end of the world”, published this year in Brazil, the journalist and indigenous leader Ailton Krenak reflects on the “sustainability myth, invented by corporations to justify stealing our idea of nature”. He argues that, for a long time, we were “lulled by the story that we are humanity” and, therefore, thought we weren’t part of nature. “The idea that we, as humans, are detached from the land, living in an abstraction of civilization, is absurd. It suppresses diversity, denies the plurality of life forms, of existences and habits.” For him, this “zombie humanity” doesn’t tolerate the intimate relationship of indigenous cultures with nature and “preaches the end of the world as a possibility to make us give up on our own dreams” (Extracts translated by me — book published by Companhia das Letras, 2019).
Surrounded by students, Célia Xakriabá called upon universities to admit their historical responsibility in trying to erase indigenous knowledge from the canon, “killing our way of thinking” and harvesting a “monoculture of thought”. “We learn from our land; that is why to defend indigenous territories is also to defend science and the production of knowledge”, said the anthropology researcher and professor, who has been an activist since the age of 13.
By the end of talk, the atmosphere was more relaxed; Célia, with her rhythmic and smooth voice, told the audience that what they missed the most from home was laughing loudly and “talking poetry”. The three indigenous leaders left as soon as the event was over; they had to prepare for two more days of intense work before boarding a plane back to Brazil. Under the red sphere of critical thinking, university and grassroots movements took one more step towards a (hopefully permanent) process of reconciliation.