The indigenous peoples in Brazil fight against President Jair Bolsonaro

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The indigenous peoples in Brazil fight against President Jair Bolsonaro


Jair Bolsonaro is in power, but the Sateré indigenous people are not giving in. Sue Branford writes from the Brazilian Amazon.

The young indigenous man was in serious pain. After a while he came out of the circle of chanting people and threw himself on the ground.

With a dozen others, in Bermuda shorts and t-shirts, he was going through the ritual of the tucandeira. This is a ritual when Sateré-Mawé youths pass from childhood to adulthood. They must suffer bites from many bullet ants. The bite causes pain like a gun shot. The bite goes deep and the ant is so powerful it can cut through tree branches. Its bite goes deep and the poison causes terrible pain. Afterwards the fever, sickness, and swelling can last for many days, but the people make a full recovery.

The ritual changes the lives of the young men. They must go through it at least 20 times in their lives, but the first time is the most important. They become grown up. They can now marry, have a say in the life of the community, and be leaders. After their first menstruation, Sateré-Mawé girls go through a ritual. They must be alone in a hut for a month and they only see their mothers, who bring them food. Afterwards they are also grown up and they are ready to marry.

The ritual we saw was in the village of Fortaleza, on the Andirá river in the Amazon forest, in the state of Pará, not far from the border with Amazonas state. The ritual is especially important this year because a group of men and women from the community decided to occupy a part of the forest. Their ancestors lived here before. And this will give their growing population more land and stop the loggers and the land thieves destroying it. They may face violence and the men believe that the ritual makes them stronger.


Benito Miquiles suffers bites from ants.

Picture: Matheus Manfredini

Losing rights

Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 and it is clear that he is against indigenous people. The Sateré people know that he won’t support them. Some of them heard him say on television that he didn’t plan ‘to give one centimetre of land’ to indigenous groups and he hoped to get control of the land some indigenous people have already. He seems to want to destroy the indigenous Amerindians people with their different culture. Some of the younger people have smartphones and they saw what the president said on Twitter: ‘Over 15 per cent of national land is in the hands of Indians and quilombolas [groups of runaway slaves]. Less than a million people live in these areas. We are going to integrate these people.’ And by integrate, Bolsonaro means making the indigenous people part of the stronger white culture.

Everyone knows that Bolsonaro likes the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. He gave his vote to impeach Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ultra. He was the leader of the terrible DOI-CODI torture unit, where they tortured Rousseff herself. Now he is president he is bringing back the military into government. He has given over 100 military officers jobs in his government. But it is still a shock to see that he is following the military’s old indigenous policies. In 1976 Maurício Rangel Reis was Interior Minister in the military government with its leader, General Ernesto Geisel. Maurício Rangel Reis said: ‘We plan to reduce the indigenous population from 220,000 to 20,000.’

Thousands were killed but he was not talking about killing them but about making the indigenous people into members of the stronger white culture. The military did not achieve this. The indigenous population resisted, with the help of progressive groups of people. They suffered a lot during the dictatorship, but Brazil’s indigenous people survived and did well. Their population has increased to 900,000 today.

Now Bolsonaro is talking once again about making the indigenous people part of white Brazilian society. Throughout the world people have said this is wrong. He said that it doesn’t matter what the indigenous people want, he is going to allow agribusiness and mining companies to use their lands. This is about taking back the big progress that Brazil made when they recognized indigenous rights. The 1988 Constitution was very important. It gave up the idea of making the indigenous people part of white Brazilian society and it recognized the idea of ‘original rights’, that the indigenous peoples were the first to live in Brazil and have the right to stay their land. The Constitution says that outsiders cannot do business activities on indigenous land without the agreement of the people.

Ready to fight

The Sateré people know the danger this is for all of Brazil’s indigenous people and that they must take action to keep their culture and their way of life. They want to fight and they are sure that they will win, as they did before. In 1980, they found oil on Sateré land and the powerful Brazilian state oil company, Petrobrás, and the French private company, Elf-Aquitaine, wanted to drill for oil. The companies began to build a road across indigenous land, but the Sateré resisted. They got the road stopped and went to court and won. It was a dangerous fight for the Sateré people. Some were killed and their land was seriously damaged, but they won.

Now they are fighting again. An indigenous leader told me: ‘Our ancestors saved us in the 1980s. Now it is our turn.’ This time the fight is about who controls the land. When the indigenous Sateré land was organized in 1986, it didn’t include a big area of forest occupied by their ancestors. Then the Sateré population was under 5,000 after the long fight with the oil companies. They got control of most of their land and the population grew again to almost 13,000. Now they want to have this land back, which loggers and land thieves are beginning to move into. The indigenous people are planning a re-occupation, in which they build villages on the land and work together to keep loggers and land thieves out.

‘Racism eats at you inside’

One of the leaders of the re-occupation is 25-year-old Benito. He invited us to travel with him to Fortaleza village to see the ant ritual and then go with them on the first part of the re-occupation. Benito is studying for a degree in indigenous culture in Parintins, a small town on the Amazon river. He misses his village but he loves the course and is starting to speak Portuguese well. He needs to speak Portuguese to help his community survive and do well in the modern world. But the course in Parintins is also making him stronger to fight for his people.

We meet him in Parintins. He is wearing maroon trousers with a t-shirt, a cap, and sunglasses. He seems, at first, very comfortable in ‘white’ society. His hair is styled and he has a smartphone, which he uses to take a selfie by the river. He seems happy but he says that food is so expensive that he isn’t eating well. He also hates industrially produced food, which, he says, is bad for health. He is very unhappy to learn that ‘Western’ diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and stroke, are now common in some indigenous communities near towns.

At first, Benito doesn’t talk about racism. Parintins’ economy depends mostly on making money from indigenous culture. Every few days a cruiser arrives with many foreign tourists, mainly from the US and Europe. They walk through the town, they complain about the heat and no internet and no ATM machines. They often go to an indigenous show, where women do fake dances in fake traditional costumes. It is a tourist opportunity for the local tradespeople and hotels.

We invite Benito to stay with us in our small hotel. The owners of the hotel were very helpful before Benito arrived but when they see him, they say he is a Sateré. Benito follows us to our rooms at the back of the hotel. As he walks past their parked car, the wife shouts out angrily: ‘Stop scratching my car, you Indian from Andirá. Where you come from, they don’t even know what cars are!’ Benito doesn’t answer back but says he will sleep in another place. We decide to change hotels and we explain politely to the owners why. The husband has spent much of his life travelling in indigenous land, buying and selling goods. He looks embarrassed, but his wife is still angry. Now we see racism in other places. As we wait in the port, we buy barbecued chicken. The man gives us hot pieces of meat but tells Benito that he can have one of the cold ones. We ask Benito which is worse - the racism in the towns or the violence of the gunmen driving indigenous people off their land. Benito replies - the racism. He says that many people have committed suicide. ‘Racism eats at you inside,’ he explains.

There is a lot of racism in Brazil but it is not always easy to see it in this country where most people have some African or indigenous blood. The racism is about groups that are culturally different. Marcelo, an indigenous Munduruku, lives in Mato Grosso state. He says ‘The racism continues, in the way people look at us, the way they want us to be like them, controlling our organizations, the way they tell us that our religion isn’t worth anything, that theirs is what matters, the way they tell us our behaviour is wrong. They are destroying the identity of the Indian as a human being.’

‘It’s part of my life’

We make the two-day journey to Fortaleza village. Benito tells us that after he finishes the ant ritual 20 times, he plans to train as an indigenous leader. He wants to take over as leader from his father, Bernadino. ‘It is part of my life,’ he says.

The day after we arrive, we wake up at sunrise to find the village is very busy. Women are making their morning drink of guarana. The drink gives energy, like a cup of tea or coffee. Every Sateré village tries to make sure it always has enough guaraná. They also make bread from the guaraná seeds and it will last for months.

We go with the small group of young men and women into the forest to collect the ants for the rtiual. After a 40-minute walk, we find an ants’ nest.

The ritual begins in the late afternoon. The dozen men dance in a circle and one puts his hands into the gloves with the ants inside. Only those who can bear the pain are ready to be leaders.

The evangelicals

They don’t have the ritual in all Sateré villages, for example, no longer in the nearby village of Vila Nova. There the Baptist pastor, Maxiko, himself a Sateré, begins our conversation by reading from the Bible. The pastor seems to say that the Sateré are wrong to believe that they can communicate with their ancestors through a ritual. As he is showing us his translation of the Bible into Sateré, his daughter, Valquira Miqueles, in expensive, fashionable clothes, comes into the room. She was born in the village but she now lives in the city of Manaus and can no longer speak Sateré very well. She clearly feels she is better than everyone else in the village.

She supports Bolsonaro and is making a quick visit to the village to tell her father and the other evangelicals that the new government offers the Sateré people an ‘excellent opportunity, maybe the only opportunity, for them to become civilized’. The evangelical churches played an important part in electing Bolsonaro and perhaps she means that she can get more money for them, but she refuses to say any more. When I politely suggest that perhaps the Sateré don’t want to become ‘civilized’, she complains. ‘Everyone knows,’ she says, ‘that the indigenous people have a terrible life, live in poverty, don’t eat good food, and don’t have basic sanitation.’ But not many people in Vila Nova and not other evangelicals, who go to the Baptist church, the only church in the village , agree with her. Most seem to support the right of the Sateré people with their way of life. Some evangelicals really support the re-occupation.


Sonia, Benito’s mother, is a fighter and she says the forest is her ‘hospital’. Picture: Matheus Manfredini

Villages are watching

By getting back their old lands, the Sateré are showing their values are important. Their values are different from those in capitalist society. Their lands are not small and they cover 789,000 hectares (3,046 square miles), nearly the size of Yorkshire, the UK’s largest county. For most non-indigenous people, this seems a lot of land for a population of 13,000. But for Sateré people it is not the size of the land that matters most. They are worried that there are fewer and fewer animals and fish. This is because outsiders are moving into neighbouring areas, often illegally. Loggers are scaring off animals with the noise of chain-saws and other machinery. Indigenous people often see large boats full of wood moving down the river. We passed temporary ports with a lot of timber, ready for transport. From time to time fishing boats use large nets in the river.

Benito and others suggest adding to their lands a large area of forest beside the Mariacuã river. This area is very rich in plants and flowers. But the Sateré villagers tell us that loggers and land thieves are looking at this area. If they take it over, there will be more destruction and it will bring the death of the Amazon forest. If the Sateré people can occupy it, they could possibly save it. Like other indigenous peoples, they will build villages to watch and keep loggers and land thieves away.


If their plan works, it will be good for everyone except the loggers and miners. The indigenous people will live in a forest with a lot of fish and animals, and Brazil and the world will get the forest protected. Surveys have shown that the best way to protect the Amazon forest is to make it indigenous.

The land they plan to reoccupy is not far from the village of Vila Nova, about 32 kilometres. But at the moment you can only go there on a long journey by river as there is no road. You have to travel downstream by boat to Parintins and then upstream again, this time along the Mamuru river. The trip takes four to five days. Chief Bernardino, Benito’s father, has already moved there and he wants other Sateré to follow him.

Benito has come to the village of Fortaleza not only for the ritual, but to discuss this idea.

Stories and dolphins

The community has a meeting in the evening. There is a feeling of excitement and many of the older people tell stories from their childhood that show how their ancestors once occupied the land. Many Sateré agree to travel with Benito to look at the land. So the next morning we leave together. We travel first to Parintins and then upstream along the Mamuru river. When after four days we come close to the Mariacuã river, we see the beauty of the forest. Sometimes the river is so wide that it is difficult to see the other side. Sometimes we see a river dolphin, coming up for air. And there are more alligators.

When we arrive at the village of Campo Branco on the Mariacuã river, Bernadino, Benito’s father, welcomes us. He is very happy when he knows that this re-occupation is going to happen. Benito’s mother, Sonia, starts to cook food for us. She fries fresh fish, roasts pumpkins, sweet potatoes, yams, and other vegetables, and she makes tapioca, a kind of bread. A hunter comes in with the body of one of the big monkeys that we hear in the trees at night. They put it on the fire and then they roast it and cut it into big pieces. They offer us an arm, but the hand looks like a child’s and we find it impossible to eat.

Sonia is a fighter. She agreed to move with Bernardino and her children to the remote Mariacuã river, where there is no public health service. Sonia says that the forest is her hospital and she uses plants for common illnesses, like fevers and diarrhoea. But she knows that some medical problems need modern medicine, and she worries that one of her children could get seriously ill and die before they get to a hospital. She likes the peace of her new home and that there is a lot of food. But life is difficult. Five years ago she had the last of her 10 children, Christopher. The baby started coming when she was alone and she was working in the fields. She sat down and helped the baby arrive. She cut the cord and went home.

She worries that there are so few schools and there is no primary school near. She is hoping that when the other Sateré families arrive, they may have enough children to make the government open a small school. If this happens, the families will also have Bolsa Familia, a very popular cash transfer programme. Very poor families get half a minimum wage (that is, about $10) a month for every child at school. Sonia and Bernardino would love to send their children to school, but they can’t. And, as their children don’t go to school, they can’t get the payment.


Up the Mamura River are red macaws, river dolphins, alligators, kingfishers and other wildlife. Photo: Ricardo Lima

Benito is very happy to be with his parents for a few days. He shows us where they have planted manioc, maize, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, passion fruit, guaraná, and other crops. Benito says he loves the way of life in the village. They work very hard during parts of the year, especially at the beginning of the dry season. Then they plant crops and repair huts, they have new roofs every five or six years so that the houses are waterproof during the rainy season. Later they collect products from the forest, especially açaí, Brazil nuts, and copaiba seeds, taking oil from the seeds.

Their big problem is money. They need money to pay for clothes, tools, pots and pans, and diesel for their boat. They produce mainly copaiba oil, manioc flour, and indigenous handicrafts, but they find it difficult to sell them at a good price. Bernardino says that the traders in Parintins offer low prices, lower than the poor prices paid to non-indigenous families. It is a problem for all indigenous people, he says.

Indigenous direct action

When we leave to go downstream once more to Parintins, Benito and the others continue upstream to plan their occupation. We give Benito some instructions about filming their arrival on his phone and he later sends us some good film. Later this year they are planning to make a track through the forest to Vila Nova so they can contact the rest of the Sateré without making such a long journey. This will make resistance easier to organize.

The Sateré are not the only indigenous group that is taking direct action. Since he became president, President Bolsonaro has acted quickly to isolate indigenous people. He has taken from the indigenous agency, FUNAI, the power to organize indigenous land and given it to the Agriculture Ministry, dominated by agribusiness. He is preparing laws that will allow big development projects without the need to discuss them with the communities. He is not doing much to stop the violence as land thieves and loggers move illegally onto indigenous land. Brazil’s indigenous people understand more and more that they will only survive if they get organized and work with non-indigenous groups, such as the riverine populations and landless families, who before they saw as enemies. Today they have the same much bigger enemy in Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s National Truth Commission said that over 8,000 indigenous people were killed during the 21 years of Brazil’s military dictatorship and thousands more died through neglect. Bolsonaro likes the military, but repression like this is no longer possible. Public opinion has changed. After Bolsonaro said he would not recognize any more land as indigenous, and wanted to take away some land, a poll showed that 60 per cent of the population believed that the indigenous people had a right to their land.

But the indigenous fight to keep control over their land will be difficult, especially in remote regions. A powerful group of farmers, mining companies, and politicians wants to take control of the 1.7 million hectare (6,563 square mile) Raposa Serra do Sol. It is indigenous land in the north of the country, near the frontier with Venezuela and Guyana. The land has rich mineral reserves, especially niobium and uranium. Before he was president, Bolsonaro gave his support for this group and said: ‘This is the richest area in the world. The Indians can receive some money when they are part of white society.’

There will be another fight about the country’s biggest indigenous land, the 9.6 million hectare (37,000 square mile) Yanomami lands also in the north of the country, to the west of Raposa Serra do Sol. The lands are the home of about 32,000 Yanomami, including some groups who have never been contacted. Bolsonaro was against the Yanomami land in the 1980s. He called it a ‘crime against the motherland’ and a ‘scandal’. People are sure he wants to take this land from them.

The indigenous fight is important to all of us. A Guarani person said: ‘If indigenous peoples all die, everyone’s lives will be in danger, because we look after nature. Without forest, without water, without rivers, there is no life, there is no way for Brazilians to live. We resisted 518 years ago, when the Europeans first arrived. We fight for our land, our land is our mother. When the sun still shines, and there is fresh air under the shade of a tree, when there is a river to bathe in, we will fight.’


Chief Bernadino is leading the movement to reclaim the forest. Photo: Matheus Manfredini


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)