"We Are Fighting": 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

"A united people will never be defeated!" shouted Maria Betânia Mota, as the indigenous assembly in a partially burned-out agricultural college began. Hundreds of voices roared back in approval.

Betânia Mota is the women's secretary of its organisers, the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR), which represents the majority of those living in the 1.7m 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 Brazil's new hard-right 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. Brazil's 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 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, the 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 padres 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 organising 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% of the vote in Roraima, but he lost to the 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 last May.

The CIR was formed in 1990 but its first meetings date back to the 1970s. Its former lawyer, Joênia 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".

"People who covet indigenous lands and have a certain dispute with indigenous lands start to believe this and start to initiate conflicts," she said.

The changes brought by Bolsonaro's election win were the theme of the annual assembly. Local chiefs called tuxaua and other delegates were unimpressed by declarations from him and his conservative allies – who include landowners, military officers and fundamentalist evangelical Christians – about progress and promises to integrate them into Brazilian society. They heard similar arguments during Brazil's military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985 as it forcibly developed the Amazon.

"We are here to fight to the last indigenous person, be it verbally or physically," said Julio da Silva, 18, a Wapishana community security guard.

Representatives from five tribes and 200 communities had travelled far to be here, bouncing down dirt roads to sling their hammocks between trees, in dormitories and on verandas. They queued patiently for communal meals and debated their final resolution late into the night, voting phrase by phrase as it was projected on to a wall from a laptop.

Mariana Tobias, 71, a Macuxi shaman, said the indigenous people living on Raposa had no interest in western-style progress. The land gives them what they need.

"The land is our mother. You plant, you take from her, you use her but you respect her, taking care of her," she said, adding that white people "don't respect our nature".

The school trains indigenous students in sustainable agriculture, said its coordinator Bleide de Souza, 36, a Macuxi, at the site of Quartiero's former farm. Rice farming had compressed the earth and cleared bushes and trees. Pesticides decimated wildlife. "As we only do organic farming, we can't farm here," he said.

Raposa's borders with Venezuela and Guyana and its mineral wealth give it strategic importance. Bolsonaro accused the "first world" in 2015 of using the UNto turn reserves such as Raposa into independent nations.

Orlando da Silva, 73, a Macuxi leader from the indigenous community of Uiramutã, rubbished such concerns. "We are original Brazilians, no one put us here," he said.

When he was made chief at 19, his community just a few kilometres from the Guyana border was overrun with garimpeiros. He banned alcohol and parties where white farmers' sons danced with indigenous girls but their daughters were not permitted to dance with men of the tribe.

He voiced his concerns over a hastily arranged visit his community received from a group of Bolsonaro supporters including a missionary with connections to Damares Alves, the evangelical pastor who heads the ministry which now houses Brazil's indigenous agency, Funai.

Alves co-founded a religious group that has been accused of using its campaigns against infanticide to incite hatred of indigenous people. She recently admitted her adopted indigenous daughter was never legally adopted.

There was also a retired army colonel. "He said there were mineral riches and oil," Da Silva said.

The men in this group of Bolsonaro allies complained about the long car journey to Uiramutã along worsening dirt roads that spiral into the hills below Mount Roraima. It sits just 500 metres from a small town also called Uiramutã where non-indigenous Brazilians said they supported Bolsonaro and wanted mining to spur development. "Uiramutã is rich with minerals so it would be good," said Gadelha Martins, 35, a labourer.

Some indigenous leaders agree. "I am in favour of mining as long as it is well controlled," said Altevir de Souza, a Macuxi and president of a group called Sodiur that represents a minority of the communities in Raposa Serra do Sol.

Ostensibly, the visit was about indigenous medicine. Orlando da Silva's daughters, some of whom are indigenous health workers, are specialists in natural indigenous remedies. His daughter Iolanda, 46, a traditional midwife, was given a medal for her work by former Brazilian president Michel Temer and said she had been invited to address a UN event in Europe about her work along with others in the group.

But the hastily organised meeting caused ill-feeling because other indigenous leaders were not invited. Da Silva's son José Lima, 19, was so suspicious he recorded it. "They want to observe what we are like, what is our thinking, to start their project," said Da Silva's daughter Lidiane Pereira, 38, a health adviser.

Two of the men in the group of visitors, Adriel da Conceição, an indigenous man known as Kokama after his tribe and chief of a community near the city of Manaus, and Walter Mota, a retired army lieutenant colonel and high school teacher, are Bolsonaro supporters who stood for congress in October's elections but both candidacies were ruled invalid. Kokama appealed.

The group told the community they wanted to use private funding to build a cultural centre. There were plans for a virtual library, said Uiramutã's mayor Manoel Araujo, who believed the group included federal government and UN representatives. Kokama told the meeting he had a permanent invitation at the UN.

Kokama told the Guardian he worked on sustainable agricultural projects for indigenous communities. "Where I arrive, progress happens," he said, adding that his UN invitation came because "this is its year of indigenous medicine".

In fact, this is the UN's year of indigenous languages. A spokeswoman for its organisers, Unesco, said: "Mr Adriel Kokama does not have an official relation to Unesco." From 5 to 7 April his group has a slot at a cultural festival in Austria with no UN connection. Its Geneva-based organiser, Geise Perrelet, said she is organising a conference and cultural events for them but as yet, nothing is confirmed.

Another member of the delegation was Francisco Costa, a French-Brazilian who works with technology working on a "progress project for indigenous areas", Kokama said, adding that he is a missionary and friend of fellow evangelical Alves.

Mota said that along with Iolanda da Silva the group met Alves the previous week, an encounter not listed on her official agenda. They discussed raising money to pay for their travel to Europe and other projects, he said. The ministry said projects for the "protection of children and teenagers" were presented.

On his his YouTube channel, Mota has saved films about niobium and precious stones. He said he believes Bolsonaro will create an "economic-ecological zone" in Raposa Serra do Sol, a category where economic activities are allowed if they adopt environmental protection measures. "Those areas can't just be left there with the indigenous living in the 15th century," Mota said.

Many in Raposa's indigenous communities are unimpressed by such sentiments. The CIR's assembly produced a letter demanding Bolsonaro and his ministers respect the fundamental rights of indigenous people, as laid out in the Brazilian constitution. Its final demand: "Not one more drop of indigenous blood."

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