‘Resisting to exist:’ Indigenous women unite against Brazil’s far-right president

“But we are strong, we are resistant. And we are here in this… the 15th encampment, to show to the government, and to all society, that we are alive, that we are resisting to exist."

Image Credit: Karla Mendes/Mongabay.
  • Brazil today is home to 900,000 indigenous people, speaking 274 languages and with widely differing cultural traditions. Indigenous rights were enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 constitution, including the demarcation and protection of indigenous ancestral lands.
  • But indigenous people have felt seriously threatened since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, as illegal invasions of indigenous territories have rapidly escalated, and as the administration threatens to put policies in place to limit further indigenous demarcations, eliminate indigenous comments on infrastructure projects, and cut back on health services.
  • Many of the leaders in the fight against Bolsonaro’s policies are women; in this story, they give voice to their outrage at the danger to their homelands, communities and families.

In a country where women account for almost half of Brazil’s 900,000 native people, female indigenous leaders have now stepped boldly into the political spotlight. They are protesting the government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and new policies that threaten indigenous rights guaranteed by the country’s 1988 Constitution and recognized by international treaties.

During this year’s late April annual gathering of indigenous groups in Brasilia, called the Free Land Encampment, indigenous women from a wide range of ethnic groups, with homes in the Amazon and elsewhere, criticized changes that Bolsonaro has made to longstanding policies, including the indigenous land demarcation process and the availability of health services.

On January 1, the first day of his presidency, Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure (MP 870), shifting decision-making power for indigenous reserve demarcations from Funai, Brazil’s indigenous agency, to the Ministry of Agriculture – seen by critics as a conflict of interest, as agricultural elites have long eyed indigenous lands for possible exploitation. The measure also moved Funai (previously housed with the Ministry of Justice) to the new Ministry of Human Rights, Family and Women launched by Bolsonaro, a catchall institution that critics say will wield little real power.

The new government also announced plans to transfer the oversight of health services provided to indigenous peoples by the federal government since 2010 to a special secretariat known as Sesai. The services will now be overseen by municipal and state governments in some regions. Critics fear that the shift to local authorities could be intended as a way for the national government to abrogate its responsibilities.

“The policies adopted by the current government… violate all our rights and aim to destroy us,” Maria Eva Canoé, a leader of the Canoé indigenous group from Northern Rondônia state, told Mongabay during the indigenous encampment.

“But we are strong, we are resistant. And we are here in this… the 15th encampment, to show to the government, and to all society, that we are alive, that we are resisting to exist,” said the 51-year-old teacher, who is a member of the council of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB).

The COIAB representative believes that all of Bolsonaro’s new measures “are bad” but the worst is the land-demarcation power handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture. “Why is it the worst? Because acting this way no indigenous people… will have demarcated land anymore,” Canoé said, adding that indigenous peoples are not invaders. “In the past they lost their land and now they are claiming what belongs to them by right.”

Indigenous rights are guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous groups have the right “not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture” or be imperiled by “any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”

In addition, the UN and the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), of which Brazil is a signatory, requires prior indigenous consultation “before undertaking or permitting any programs for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to their lands.” There are also additional indigenous rights rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

But despite these international agreements, the Bolsonaro’s administration has made it clear that it won’t be allowing indigenous peoples comment on infrastructure projects affecting indigenous territories in the Amazon.

The Bolsonaro administration did not respond to requests for comment.

Indigenous leader Maria Eva Canoé notes that the reason the Canoé people are a minority within their region today is because they were decimated as a people during the colonization of Rondônia state in the 17th century; later the few surviving Canoé women had to marry men from other ethnic groups just to perpetuate their own group.

“The Brazilian State has a priceless debt with indigenous peoples… the Brazilian State will never bring back extinguished indigenous peoples, extinguished languages, destroyed territories [which] are deserts today,” taken over by cattle ranches or soy plantations, she said. Indigenous women march toward the Brazilian National Congress during the Free Land Encampment in Brasilia on April, 26, 2019. Image by Karla Mendes / Mongabay

Land invasions on the upswing

In the northeastern state of Maranhão, which was already seeing rapid deforestation, invasions of indigenous reserves by land grabbers have spiked since Bolsonaro took office, said indigenous women at this year’s April encampment.

“When this government started, we immediately felt threatened because the farmers, the loggers thought that they can encroach [on our land] and do whatever they want because he [Bolsonaro] allows them to invade our land,” without punishment, explained Cintia Maria Santana da Silva, a leader of the Guajajara/Tenetehara indigenous group from the Araribóia Reserve.

“Indigenous lands belong to the federal government, but [government officials] forget that we are there, taking care [of it] and [providing] surveillance,” the 50-year-old leader said.

Indigenous lands belong to the federal government, but [government officials] forget that we are there, taking care [of it] and [providing] surveillance.” – Cintia Maria Santana da Silva, a leader of the Guajajara / Tenetehara peoples in the Araribóia Reserve in Maranhão state. Image by Karla Mendes / Mongabay

There are more than 300 indigenous groups throughout Brazil today, speaking 274 languages and with widely differing cultural traditions. Officially recognized indigenous reserves – in different stages of demarcation – represent about 13 percent of Brazil’s land area. However, many indigenous ancestral territories remain unprotected and not demarcated due to the very slow speed with which the government has titled ancestral lands – despite the dictates of the 1988 Constitution.

Bolsonaro “is fulfilling [his promises] and trying to destroy our rights set by the Brazilian Constitution. We are highly concerned because we fought a lot, we [won] our rights, and now they are under threat. And we don’t have peace in our territories,” Silva said.

In the Governador Indigenous Reserve, also in Maranhão state, the Gavião people have likewise seen an upsurge in illegal invasions and deforestation since Bolsonaro took office, said indigenous leader Maria Helena Gavião.

“I think that [ruralist] people are feeling more well represented by this government, so they are not ashamed anymore of entering indigenous areas,” Gavião explained. She doesn’t feel Bolsonaro is doing “anything good” for indigenous peoples, but the worst thing he has said so far is that “not one centimeter of land will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.”

“This is an affront to us, this is a violation of our rights.… This government is anti-indigenous. We are not happy with him, with what he has been doing,” the Gavião leader said.

At least 14 cases of illegal invasions of indigenous lands occurred in Brazil from January to March 2019, mostly in the Amazon, a jump of 150 percent since Bolsonaro took power, according to a report released by NGO Amazon Watch in late April, citing statistics gathered by Conselho Indigenista Missionário, the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), a monitoring group that is part of the Catholic church.

According to Amazon Watch, these encroachments can be linked to “the virulently anti-indigenous rhetoric emanating from Brasília, signaling a much more serious and widespread assault on natives lands and lives in times to come.” “This government is anti-indigenous. We are not happy with (Bolsonaro), with what he has been doing.” – Maria Helena Gavião, a leader of the Gavião people in the Governador Indigenous Reserve in Maranhão state. Image by Karla Mendes / Mongabay

Women prominent in land fight

Indigenous women are rising fast into leadership positions in Brazil. Among the most prominently heard nationally and internationally are Joênia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman ever elected to the Brazilian Congress, who took office in January; and Sônia Guajajara, the leader of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, the National Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). But countless other native women are on the frontlines defending their native homelands. Canoé, Silva and Gavião are good examples; all are land defenders in their Amazonian ancestral territories.

“There was a deepening of female leadership with the increase in land conflicts, but this prominence always existed. Women are fundamental in the land fight and in the fight for rights overall,” said anthropologist Lauriene Seraguza, a researcher who focuses on indigenous land issues in Mato Grosso do Sul state.

“Women play a very important role in the political and family organization… and are fundamental in the processes of recovery of land because they are the ones who keep the family, who organize the space…. So they suffer a lot of the impacts of not having their lands demarcated,” said the researcher, who is doing post-graduation studies on the role of Guarani-Kaiowá women indigenous leaders in Mato Grosso do Sul.

“Indigenous women work together with men in the defense of our land – that is our home, our education, our health. So we’re always fighting together with men, trying to help somehow to bring visibility to the problems that are happening inside our indigenous territories,” Gavião said.

There will be a first ever march by indigenous women in Brasilia on August 9-12, under the theme “Territory, Our Body, Our Spirit.” It will be held in conjunction and solidarity with the Marcha das Margaridas (Daisies’ March) led by women rural workers annually since 2010.

“We just want to live freely in our territory, in our way,” Silva said.


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Karla Mendes is an award-winning Brazilian journalist working as a Rio de Janeiro-based contributor for Mongabay since April 2019. She has been working as a correspondent for international outlets since 2015 and in the last two years she specialised in covering environmental, land and property rights issues. She worked as a land and property rights correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation between August 2017 and December 2018. Prior to that, Karla was a business reporter for over 10 years in Rio, Madrid, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte, including with newspapers O Globo, O Estado de S. Paulo, Expansión and news agency S&P Global Market Intelligence. Karla has a Master in Investigative and Data Journalism from the University of King’s College, Canada, and an MBA in finance from São Paulo’s Fundação Instituto de Administração (FIA).