Sat, Mar 09, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Brazil’s indigenous groups unite to protect their land

Residents of Raposa Serra do Sol are determined to face down the threat posed by mining

By Dom Phillips  /  The Guardian, RAPOSA SERRA DO SOL, Brazil

“A united people will never be defeated,” Maria Betania Mota shouted, as the indigenous assembly in a partially burned-out agricultural college began.

Hundreds of voices roared back in approval.

Betania Mota is the women’s secretary of its organizers, the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR), which represents the majority of those living in the 1.7 million hectares of savannah and scrub that make up the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve in Brazil’s northernmost state.

It is home to 25,000 indigenous people who raise tens of thousands of cattle and crops on smallholdings and communal farms. Nearly half of Roraima is protected indigenous land.

Brazil’s 1988 constitution prohibits commercial farming and mining on indigenous reserves without specific congressional approval, but new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — who has described indigenous people as “like animals in zoos” — wants to change that.

He has singled out Raposa for its reserves of gold, copper, molybdenum, bauxite and diamonds.

“It’s the richest area in the world. You can explore it rationally beside the indigenous, giving royalties and integrating the indigenous to society,” he said in December.

The Brazilian National MIning Agency has 97 requests, some dating back to 1980, to prospect in the reserve.

Bolsonaro has also said reserves such as this contain niobium, a versatile metal used to strengthen steel that he believes could transform the Brazilian economy.

The government’s geological service said it had no record of niobium in Raposa.

The indigenous people at the assembly already felt threatened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. Some communities remember the devastation caused by artisanal gold miners called garimpeiros, others the domination by powerful rice farmers.

Then in January, a sudden, ill-explained visit by regional Bolsonaro allies raised suspicions that plans were already afoot.

“We are not fighting the farmer, a little garimpeiro. We are fighting the government,” Edinho de Souza, CIR’s vice coordinator from the Macuxi tribe, told the meeting. “We won’t let this land be destroyed.”

Raposa’s history is riddled with strife. In 2004, a Catholic mission was attacked and three priests kidnapped for two days.

Paulo Quartiero, a rice farmer who led opposition to the reserve’s creation and later served as a politician and vice governor, was accused of organizing and leading the invasion, but the case has not yet concluded.

A year later, a mob torched a hospital, church and other buildings, most of which are still gutted today. No one was ever convicted. Ten indigenous people were hit by gunfire in 2008. The rice farmers were finally expelled from Raposa Serra do Sol by a Supreme Court decision in 2009, four years after the reserve was finally created.

Bolsonaro won 71 percent of the vote in Roraima, but he lost to leftwing contender Fernando Haddad inside the reserve, where indigenous people are proud of running their own affairs.

“Life in Raposa Serra do Sol is better today than before the non-indigenous were removed,” Father Jaime Patias, a Catholic missionary, wrote in May last year.

The CIR was formed in 1990, but its first meetings date back to the 1970s. Its former lawyer, Joenia de Carvalho, from the Wapishana tribe, has become the first indigenous woman voted into the Brazilian congress.

After addressing the assembly, she said Bolsonaro’s threats, while legally difficult to impose, create “juridical insecurity.”

This story has been viewed 3071 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top