On the same day in April this year that I arrived at the Terra Livre Indigenous Camp in Brasilia, the various nations present decided to march on the National Congress. Each group gathered under its banners and flowed out into the city’s enormous central avenue. The Kayapo, famous warriors of the Xingu River, at the forefront of every campaign to protect the Amazon since the 1980s, went first. They are masters of visual communication, the men in iridescent feather headdresses and the women with their hair grown long down the sides, but shaved along the central parting line. They quickly attracted a swarm of photographers. The Xukuru of north-eastern Brazil, identifiable by their tasselled palm frond caps, drew others into spiralling dances as the crowd moved forward. The Mbya Guaraní of the Atlantic rainforest, who focus their genius in their music and poetry, loped along at a more leisurely pace, strumming their guitars and smoking their petynguas, ceremonial tobacco pipes.
In the 1960s, Brazil’s capital Brasilia was constructed in the cerrado, the Brazilian bush, to assist in the colonisation of the country’s enormous interior areas, but as an unplanned consequence it’s also a more accessible focal point for Indigenous protests than the coastal cities. Even so, many of the Amazonian groups still had to travel several days by canoe, boat and bus to get here. The Terra Livre (Free land) camp has occurred annually since 2004, when it was first organised to put pressure on Lula and his Worker’s Party government in the early years of his presidency, after he had failed to fulfil a series of promises on Indigenous land rights made during his election campaign. This year the situation was more desperate than ever. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff – no great champion of Indigenous rights herself – was impeached by Congress for budget manipulation in 2016 and replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer, of the ideologically amorphous PMDB (Party for the Movement of Brazilian Democracy). Subsequent judicial investigations have revealed that Dilma’s impeachment was organised by other politicians determined to bring a halt to the anti-corruption Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigations that she had initiated: the thinking was that if Dilma herself was sacrificed, these other figures, including Temer, could protect themselves from the more serious corruption charges they were facing.
Like Trump in the USA, Temer seized power by knocking off a female opponent who had won the popular vote, and like Trump, he now has a series of scandals hanging over his head that threaten his own hold on the presidency. Temer formed a coalition with a plethora of right-wing parties and has been rushing through a series of austerity bills, public spending freezes and land acquisitions for the rural interests supporting his government. The Indigenous nations at the camp were especially opposed to this evangelical rural bloc in Congress, or the ‘BBB’ group, as they are known: ‘Bibles, Bullets and Beef’.
But Temer’s lack of democratic legitimacy far exceeds Trump’s: with a public approval rating below ten per cent, he knows that he must drive through his reforms before the next scheduled election in 2018, in which he is ineligible to stand due to previous corruption charges. His latest land grab, if it succeeds, will have global consequences on par with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Brazil contains sixty per cent of the Amazon rainforest, as well as the largest remnants of the Atlantic coastal rainforest, which was a quarter of the size of the Amazon when Europeans first arrived in South America. The continued survival of these forests, which operate as massive carbon sinks and churn out oxygen, is essential in the global fight against climate change. Temer’s government has been seeking to strip away the hard-won environmental reserves and Indigenous territories created in both these forests since the end of the dictatorship in the 1980s. Brazil’s rural landowners and their international business partners want to remove all limits on the cattle grazing, soy plantations, gold mining and oil extraction that are already devastating the Amazon. The consensus in the camp was clear – Temer had to be ejected from power, and it was time for land rights already: ‘Demarcação Já’, for both Indigenous groups and Quilombolas, the descendants of escaped African and Indigenous slaves.
On either side of the main avenue rose the monumental public buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the famous Brazilian communist architect. Brasilia, like Canberra, is a planned capital gone wrong, but whereas Canberra’s failure, like its politics, feels mundane and anaesthetised, Brasilia’s failure is spectacular and overwrought, a desiccated mausoleum full of modernist ironies. To our right, a minimalist Catholic cathedral designed by Niemeyer the atheist, behind us, the sci-fi ziggurat that houses the national theatre, and ahead of us, set against the vast blue cerrado sky, the twin towers of Congress, framed by a convex and concave dome.
The crowd poured down to the edges of the moat-like ponds in front of the legislature, throwing fake coffins into the water, symbolising the absurd number of Indigenous people killed in the last year. Brazil has the highest murder rate of Indigenous and environmental activists in the world, with much of the violence concentrated in the state of Para, on the frontline of Amazonian land conflicts. Lines of armoured riot police watched as young warriors shot the coffins full of arrows, then as the crowd pushed forward, a series of tear gas canisters shot up into the air, forming spiralling parabolas before landing at the feet of angry activists who kicked them away. But the police kept on shooting, now with rubber bullets, and I joined in the crowd’s retreat as the gas drifted forward. An acrid first taste, somewhere between chestnuts and wasabi, signalled it was upon us. People were running, choking, spitting, dribbling, retching, pulling up the sprinklers from the manicured lawns and gulping down the water, the white gas mixing with the dark smoke of a burning Brazilian flag.
‘Temer’s senators let the Anti-Dilma rioters inside Congress to use the toilets, but they start gassing us before we even get close’, spat a protester next to me. A van arrived with various leaders and singers atop, calling the crowd away from the police lines, starting a sequence of choral chants to keep collective focus. A drone flew overhead and several younger archers raised their bows to shoot it down, until someone pointed out that the bot was on their side – an Indigenous man further up the hill had the remote control. The police let off intermittent gas explosions for the rest of the afternoon, while politicians from the Workers’ Party and other smaller left-of-centre grouplets came to address the protesters.
‘Lula’s struggle is your struggle’, said the Workers’ Party representative, reaching out for votes ahead of the scheduled 2018 presidential elections with a tactless comparison between the Indigenous fight against colonisation and Lula’s battle against corruption charges in court.
Back at camp, I talked to Marcos Tupã, the coordinator of Comissão Guarani Yvyrupa, the organisation coordinating the Mbya Guarani land rights campaign. I was first introduced to him by my partner Anita Ekman, who has been working alongside the Mbya in Brazil for the last decade. Tupã had been attending meetings with FUNAI, the government department of Indigenous affairs. As Tupã explained, the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, created in the wake of the dictatorship, and with a surprising amount of input from social movements, made some important concessions to Indigenous rights. Within FUNAI itself, public servants remained who were continuing with the job description laid out in the Constitution, and processing land claims. But all new Indigenous territories had to be signed off by the president, allowing Temer to logjam the entire process. With the entire federal system in a state of paralysis and internal conflict, the next stage will require the Guaranis and others to take matters into their own hands, and protect the land they have been seeking title to for decades.
The following morning perennial presidential candidate Maria Marina Silva from the ‘Rede’ (Network), a coalition of nominally progressive parties, made her pitch to the camp-goers. During her speech conversation turned to the latest opinion polls for the presidential election. Despite facing corruption charges of his own, Lula was still polling in first place: his core working-class supporters were maintaining the faith. Doria, the current mayor of Sao Paulo city, a right-wing free-marketer from the misleadingly named Social-Democratic Party, was in second place. His most noteworthy achievement to date is blowing up a series of squats and killing many of the homeless people inside them. Even worse was third-placed Bolsonaro, from the populist far right, a blasé racist who wants to eliminate Indigenous and Quilombo territories entirely. Marina Silva was holding fourth place. She could most succinctly be described as an Evangelical Pro-Indigenous Eco-capitalist. If you’re confused about what she stands for, don’t worry, she is too.
With old faces like Marina Silva and Lula presenting as the ‘progressives’, there is little space for a clean-skin candidate to emerge from an actual Leftist party such as PSOL, the Party of Socialism and Liberty, which broke off from the Workers’ Party in Lula’s first term. There are also electoral reforms planned by the governing coalition to limit the number of Brazilian parties. At face value this is a worthwhile idea (there are a smorgasbord of parties with ideological positions bearing no relation to their names, including a ‘Party of Brazilian Women’ with no female representatives), but the government is instead using the legislation to target small leftist parties. The reforms would require parties to have at least two per cent of the vote in fourteen states, whereas PSOL, the Network, the two Communist Parties and so on all have bases concentrated in more populous states, and would be eliminated entirely from Congress, leaving the large corrupt parties such as PMDB further entrenched in power.
That night some of the Amazonian participants presented a documentary about the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, an emblematic example of the corruption during the Workers’ Party government. To visualise the Amazon as a geographical area, it helps to start with its many tributaries: near its exit into the Atlantic, the river is joined on its south bank by the Xingu. Further upstream, on the same bank, its joined by the Tapajos, then the Madeira. The agricultural frontier in Brazil is pushing up from the south, so it is these rivers that are currently most threatened by deforestation and hydroelectric projects. Belo Monte has already displaced Indigenous and other communities, and destroyed the ecosystem of the lower Xingu. During the Lava Jato corruption investigations, it emerged that the project was handed over to the giant construction company Odebrecht and other suitors by the Lula and Dilma administrations in exchange for bribes and party funding, without proper investigation of its environmental or social impact. The saddest part of the whole sordid affair is that there are still rank and file Workers’ Party members who fetishise the dam, and other hydroelectric schemes, as a symbol of the country’s development. They hold this position despite the fact that the electricity generated by these projects is often used to supply power to mining sites in the Amazon rather than towns, a nihilistic cycle of destruction and extraction.
Threatened by massive bushfires on its deforested southern boundaries and ruined by Belo Monte to the north, the Xingu territories of the Kayapo and other Indigenous peoples are already in an apocalyptic state. They’ve been fighting since the 1980s to stop this dam, and were finally defeated by a nominally left-wing government. The battle now is to block the construction of further dams on the Tapajos, in the territory of the Munduruku, on the next frontline of the war for Amazonia.
While we watched the documentary a Popcorn vendor offered his perspective on the situation. He came to Brasilia from the arid north-east looking for work, and has Indigenous and African roots, but has lost connection to these cultures. He liked the Indigenous and working-class protestors more than the middle-class right-wing protestors, in part because of a political affinity with their cause, and in part because they are more reliable popcorn buyers. The vendor’s philosophising was cut off by an announcement that with 1500 participants, this was the largest Terra Livre camp yet. Buoyed by the good news, the crowd demanded a dance, and musicians appeared to perform forro, popular music from the north-east, a favourite among Indigenous communities. Several chiefs took to the stage to sing karaoke forro in Kayapo, Guarani and an array of other languages, the revelry lasting long into the night.
The last day of the camp overlapped with a nation-wide general strike against Temer. Massive contingents of trade unionists were filing into Brasilia on buses, preparing for their own march on parliament. They spread out along the green field of the central avenue with their flags and floats. The Indigenous leaders looked on, debating how long they would stay on for: the police had been menacing the camp throughout the week, and based on past experience, the union protests would be even more violent than the Indigenous ones. They decided to express their solidarity with the broader struggle throughout the morning, then disperse back to their homelands. The gathered nations had survived 500 years of colonisation by knowing when to pick a fight, and when to withdraw.
The general strike broke records of its own, the largest in decades, city plazas overfilling with protestors, workplaces brought to a standstill. Over the following months Temer faced yet more challenges, as a recording emerged of him urging a businessman to pass on hush money to a jailed political ally. Rolling strikes continued and Temer’s own coalition began to discuss whether the best way to maintain their power would be to replace him – but with the corruption scandal now so wide ranging, there are few high-profile politicians who are not being investigated by Lava Jato themselves. The right had its hand strengthened in mid-July, when Federal Judge Sérgio Moro sentenced Lula to nine and a half years in prison for accepting bribes from a construction company, in the form of a beach-front apartment. Lula immediately declared he would appeal the decision, but if this charge – or any of the others that he faces – are upheld, he will be ineligible to run for the 2018 elections. Left-wing parties and social movements, including PSOL and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), have come out in support of Lula against what they argue is a biased judicial process that is targeting Workers’ Party leaders but leaving the most corrupt politicians in power. To pile one disgrace on another, the government has now appropriated the language of anti-corruption to attack anthropologists who they say are ‘illegally’ supporting Indigenous land rights – key NGOs affiliated with the Guaranis and others now face prosecution for their decades of dedication to the Indigenous cause.
Meanwhile at Boa Vista, Marcos Tupã’s homeland in the Atlantic rainforest on the São Paulo coast, the Mbya, in collaboration with a nearby Quilombo, have occupied a river gully on the boundaries of their current territory. It’s an area which FUNAI had recognised as theirs, but which Temer refuses to hand over. While the politicians fight to save their skin and their profit margins, the Indigenous struggle will continue to play out at the ground level, one river at a time.
Header image: a Terena man from Mato Grosso do Sul marches ahead of symbolic coffins, towards Congress. All images: Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp) / Luca Meola