Indigenous In Bolsonaro’s Brazil 

Image: Kamikia Kisedje

What is it like to be Indigenous in Bolsonaro’s Brazil? 

Blog Post - April 2021

In the third episode of the Save Our Planet podcast, we spoke with Kretã Kaingang - Indigenous leader, activist, and co-founder of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). Kreta belongs to the Kaingang people, who are originally from the Atlantic Forest in the countryside of Paraná. Their territory is continuously threatened by loggers.

*Kreta was responding to our questions in Portuguese, his words were translated to English. 

 

What are the challenges faced by the Kaingang people?

 

We face a difficult situation, specifically due to miners and loggers. We have to denounce land invasion as much as we can, because we cannot count on the support from the state, making it pretty difficult to combat the issue. Nevertheless, we are strong and resilient in our efforts to stop the land grabbers and to increase links with international governments. 

 

What is the current political climate for Indigenous leaders in Brazil?  

 

Today, Indigenous leaders in Brazil face a dire situation. Not only from the direct threats and menaces against their lives and being falsely accused of committing crimes against the nation, but also from a strict surveillance by the Brazilian Intelligence Agency. They are being followed closely by the police and several other military agencies. There is an increase of enforcement against Indigenous freedom. Importantly, this is happening not only to the leaders on a national level - it’s happening all the way down the chain. Local community leaders and grassroots leaders are facing the same challenges of expressing themselves. It’s crucial to understand that we need to protect Indigenous lands and rights not only for the sake of Indigenous peoples, but also for the sake of all of us, as Indigenous communities are the last barrier against the wipe out of the biomes, which are crucial for Brazil and, of course, our whole planet.

 

Indigenous leaders in Brazil face a dangerous situation. Has it always been like this, or is it a new thing that has begun under Bolsonaro’s administration?

 

Right at the gate, it’s important to know that Indigenous peoples have always suffered and have always been in danger, regardless of the government. Since colonization, they’ve had major conflicts with all governments in their history. However, the current administration is completely different. It acts under racism, prejudice, and is against any kind of Indigenous expression. More importantly, it allows hatred and racism to be freely expressed against the Indigenous peoples and anyone who defends their land and their future. This has increased the degree of already profound suffering to a completely new level. 

 

Hatred and racism are visible not only in the president himself and among his voters - they are also obvious among the ministers. For instance, Bolsonaro’s Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, has openly admitted that he’s against Indigenous peoples. He said publicly that the government should take advantage of the pandemic to gain more access to  Indigenous lands. Another example is Abraham Weintraub, a former Brazilian Education Minister, who has been elected as an executive director of the World Bank. When serving as a minister, he openly claimed that he does not like the term “Indigenous peoples” and that he believes there are no Indigenous peoples in Brazil - there are only Brazilians. It’s a very dangerous claim to make. 

 

Kreta is an extremely active Indigenous leader. He helped create the Acampamento Terra Livre – ATL (in English: “Free Land Camp”), which is the largest form of the Brazilian Indigenous movement today. He is also one of the founders of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). 

 

 

How did the creation of APIB come about and what is its purpose?

 

The Free Land Camp was first founded in 2004, and it brought together three Indigenous communities from the south. This was the first instance of three different communities getting together to fight for a common cause. We were demanding an audience with the former Brazilian President, Lula. Although he has agreed to it, he has never fulfilled his promise... We agreed to travel for the Free Land Camp, in order to put pressure on the president. 

 

The first three Free Land Camps gathered Indigenous peoples in the capital of the country to collectively create a moment of Indigenous awareness. This contributed to the creation of APIB - the organization that represents many Indigenous groups coming together. 

 

Up until now, there have been 16 Free Land Camps. The most recent one involved over 5,000 Indigenous participants and marked an international provision. There were not only Brazilian Indigenous peoples, but also Indigenous peoples from all over the world. Those who could not be there, were celebrating the Free Land Camp as well, on their own territories.

 

During Lula’s administration, it was clear that Indigenous peoples did not have all the openings that we thought we had - we had to fight for that. The pressure came with the Free Land camps, which gradually achieved more structure alongside concrete achievements. The Free Land Camp enabled a very important Indigenous movement, and beyond that, it helped secure several different victories. 

 

For example, discussion over participation on Indigenous quotas in universities led to a creation of a specific camp, where Indigenous students could study and enable more policies to support Indigenous peoples. The movement contributed to a creation of a specific health agency - the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health. This was a major gain for Indigenous peoples. Another success was achieved during the Worker’s Party government, when the Indigenous Culture Ward was established by the Ministry of Culture. It aims to enable and create incentives for the extension of Indigenous culture in the country. 

 

More recently, under Bolsonaro’s rule, the movement has made significant achievements as well. The most important of them is, by far, the judiciary amendment that was made in favor of Indigenous Peoples by the Supreme Court. It rules that the federal government must put an action plan in place to defend and keep Indigenous communities healthy during the pandemic. This came after the chaotic and even genocidal approach from the government, in response to COVID-19. This achievement was accomplished with help of high-level organization and a strong legal team within APIB.

 

The legal team provided the necessary insights needed to put a petition at the highest levels of Brazilian government and the Supreme Court. The passing of this judiciary amendment was one of the major victories for Indigenous peoples in the past decades, maybe in the past century. On top of that, APIB became the recipient for the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, recognizing our efforts to defend the biomes, as well as Indigenous rights and human rights in Brazil. It is also worth mentioning that APIB have built many connections around Europe, going to and talking with the governments of key countries, such as France, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands, to secure fair and reasonable fair trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur - one that will protect Indigenous lands and Indigenous peoples. 

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities in Brazil?  

 

The pandemic has been harsh on Indigenous peoples. For instance, in the south of the country, the corporations handling chickens and cattle were the main catalyst for spreading COVID-19 among Indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples, who live in urban areas, had to work in these companies and when they returned to their villages, they were impacting everyone there. The rate of infections was three to four times higher than Brazil’s average, which was already higher than the world’s average.

 

In other regions of the country, the army was the one spreading the virus. They were supposedly on missions to deliver hygiene kits, but they were carrying COVID-19 with them and spreading it to communities that were not affected yet. Once the virus was introduced to the Indigenous communities, the situation was terrible. 

 

There was a second even more difficult layer to all of these aspects. Due to the pandemic, Indigenous communities across the globe have lost their elders, who represent our ancestrality and who are the keepers of our wisdom. The elders are the libraries of Indigenous peoples, our history and our culture -  a little bit of it all dies with our ancestors. When the pandemic hit us, important community leaders in their 70s, 80s and 90s vanished. Week by week, Indigenous peoples were having that tough feeling of grief, mourning our losses, and mourning gigantic losses to our cultures, not only on the cultural and spiritual side, but also in terms of protections, as the leaders provided a better environment for Indigenous peoples to live in. Every single leader we lost, week by week, sometimes day by day, was a heavy blow. However, in the end this is our role as APIB - to keep fighting and honor the passing of the elders. 

 

What would be the best case scenario for Indigenous peoples moving forward?

 

The best case scenario is that the international community understands that Bolsonaro is a menace not only to Brazil - he is the enemy of the environment and our planet. He brazenly says that he will destroy the environment and the Indigenous peoples, who are the last defence line against that. It is important to understand that holding Bolsonaro accountable is not only about Indigenous peoples - it’s about the whole environment and the whole planet. The governments and specifically companies in the private sector need to understand that their investments in Brazil have a direct effect on enabling more deforestation and more conflicts with the Indigenous. Every single action that is commercial and business related is helping Bolsonaro right now, as he is destroying our own planet. This message has to be loud and clear. 

 

Indigenous communities in Brazil face so many challenges and hardships. Essentially, from the moment one is born, they’re under attack for who they are. How does Kretã find the motivation to continue with his work?

 

It is pretty tough, and it is indeed something that Indigenous peoples have to struggle with. And it goes within the physical as well as psychological dimensions. I have to bury my mind and carry the idea that I’m part of something that is bigger, that it comprises my family. My grandfather has literally fought for the rights of the land where my people live today, and my father was in the Congress when the Constitution of 1988 was being built, helping and establishing the importance of Indigenous life in this document that is still the law today. It is now my turn. I always knew it wouldn’t be easy, but my community has been fighting for generations. Those who came before us give us the strength, and those who will come after us - our sons and daughters - they are the future. I have to keep moving forward for their benefit. There is no other way than to simply ignore the hardship, even when the psychological aspect gets hard. 
 

What is Kretã’s message to an international audience, to people, who would like to support him from afar?

 

I think it is important for foreigners to have a clear sense that standing trees and healthy forest means Indigenous life. So when you see the biomes being destroyed for whatever reason, you’re also seeing the moment where Indigenous peoples in Brazil and South America are being wiped out. It’s not only the environment. Moreover, I want to make a call - I want people to understand who we are and for us to understand who you are. We never fight, and none of my previous generations fought by ourselves only, we truly fight for the collective view of the world and a place where we can share our cultures and diversity together. So our final message is: Get to know who we are. Let us know who you are. And be sure that standing trees and a healthy forest means Indigenous peoples are alive.”

 

 

To learn more about APIB and its work, visit the following link: APIB