Signs of Hope for the Munduruku

Two important advances for the Munduruku Indians in the Brazilian Amazon in recent days suggest that they could pull off an extraordinary victory.
by: 
Bruna Rocha

The past fortnight has been surreal, with a flurry of indigenous and quilombola (maroon) land demarcations – more than have been recognised over the past six years, something that, of course, we all warmly welcome. Yet, at the same time, President Dilma Rousseff is close to being impeached by corrupt representatives of the agribusiness, evangelical and gun lobbies. I never thought I would live to witness a parliamentary coup. Now, watching this gruesome spectacle unfold, I often think of those who fought – some with their lives – against the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. The about-to-be-ousted president was one of those who were brutally tortured by the regime.

The two events – the recognition of land and the approaching impeachment – may well be connected. It appears that the Workers’ Party has realised its time is running out, so is taking these actions both as a gesture towards its traditional left-wing support base and as a means of leaving "obstacles" in the way of the incumbent administration about to usurp power.

Yet the contradictions don’t end there, in these weird days. For Dilma’s Workers’ Party was responsible for carrying out projects originally conceived by the military junta, the most notorious of these being the Belo Monte dam – which has caused ethnocide, chaos and destruction on the Xingu River and where industrial-scale gold-mining led by a Canadian corporation may shortly be authorised by the government of the state of Pará (for those who still think these dams are intended to provide energy for domestic consumption – no, they are by and large to provide power for energy-hungry mining activities, which destroy the environment and concentrate wealth).

But, for the moment, we must celebrate our unexpected victories. I am still trying to process what happened last week with the official recognition of the Indigenous Territory of Sawre Muybu, home to the Munduruku Indians. Over the last few years, working as an archaeologist in this area, I have learnt a lot with them and with the beiradeiros (river dwellers) from the communities of Montanha and Mangabal, who were at their side during their most difficult moments, helping them cut a trail through the forest to mark out the boundaries of their land. They began this action after the government had delayed official recognition of their territory for years, while speeding ahead with the environmental licensing process for dam construction in the area.

The riverine communities and a constellation of people from many different places worked – and worked hard – to help the Munduruku achieve this historic victory. And now, it seems, it may pave the way for something that has long seemed impossible – the cancellation of the biggest dam planned for Amazonia – the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, which would flood 723 sq. kms of forest currently occupied by forest peasant and indigenous communities. For the country's environment agency, IBAMA, has suspended the environmental licensing process related to this dam, which seems to be equivalent to giving up on the project. It's almost unbelievable!

It's impossible to tell what this volte-face might lead to and there may well be a backlash. The fate of the area now depends on the final word from the Indian agency, FUNAI, which now needs to prohibit once and for all the flooding of the territory on the grounds that it is occupied by an Amerindian people. However, with momentous political change happening at the top of the government, it is far too early to feel confident that we have definitely won. FUNAI could argue that the Munduruku should merely be moved to another part of their territory to make way for the flooding of the dam – this would be a perverse way of circumventing the Brazilian constitution, which strictly forbids the forced dislocation of indigenous people from their land.

Even so, it is a landmark for the Munduruku and their allies. The Munduruku have long insisted that this seemingly unstoppable process could be stopped, and they have come very close to achieving this: it is a profound lesson for all of us.

It’s important, too, to recognise the obstacles the Munduruku have faced. They have overcome invisibility – I remember government propaganda saying that the dam was an environmentally friendly project, which would only affect “virgin forest”, forest that would soon regenerate. This exercise in green-washing was shamefully supported by WWF.

The Munduruku, beiradeiros (river dwellers) and their supporters went hungry for days when they were marking out the borders of their land. They have had to struggle with contaminated water, an ongoing problem. Cacique Saw Juarez Munduruku and a supporter have faced death threats. They have experienced countless political setbacks and state intimidation. At one stage, in one of the most disgraceful episodes ever in the history of science in Brazil, researchers working for the energy company were escorted by heavily armed men from the National Security Force while helicopters flew overhead, invading land belonging to the Indians and river communities. (Forest dwellers still associate the term pesquisador [researcher] to attempts at territorial expropriation carried out by corporations and the state).

In all, it is an incredible experience to be here in the Amazon at this time and to witness directly how these changes at the centre of power impact upon the lives of people we know personally.

*Bruna Rocha is a lecturer in archaeology at UFOPA (The Federal University of the West of Pará). This article was written by one of Latin America Bureau's group of analysts. If you'd like to read more articles, visit www.lab.org.uk.