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Indigenous peoples: guardians of nature and humanity

Claiming space

Author: Ellen Nemitz

"Our agenda is necessary for the balance of life on the planet."

"This is a fiction story. It has not actually happened, but it could," says Daniel Munduruku in the book "O Karaíba: uma história pré-Brasil" (The Karaíba: a story about pre-Brazil), one of 57 books written by the award-winning indigenous author.

The stories in the novel are an "imagination and research exercise" about the lives of indigenous people who were living in these southern lands when Portuguese conquerors arrived in 1500, heralding an era of domination and exploitation that has thus far been primarily chronicled through white people's lens. 

This reality has recently begun to change. Like Munduruku, countless indigenous peoples are raising their voices in arts, science and politics. And they are being heard. 

"Today we have teachers, doctors, lawyers and these people can help us as people of our peoples," activist Karo Munduruku, who hosted a debate on Twitter Spaces in July to discuss indigenous involvement in politics, told FairPlanet. 

FairPlanet spoke with candidates competing in the upcoming October 2022 elections, as well as with artists, activists and intellectuals to find out what some of the main messages indginenous people wish to convey are and why it’s crucial for the rest of us to listen.

Rappers tell the true story of a village

Thirteen years ago, four boys living in two indigenous communities in the agricultural State of Mato Grosso do Sul - Jaguapiru e Bororó, which is part of the Francisco Horta Barbosa indigenous reserve, began to notice that the idea outsiders had about their village was misled. Fed with rumors and inaccurate media stories, non-indigenous people used to think that it was a dangerous place to visit. 

Browned off, the boys discovered a potent medium through which to speak up their truth: rap music. "Rap is a protest song and comes from the periphery, from the black people, who suffer from prejudice,'' Kelvin Mbaretê told FairPlanet. "I chose rap to be the voice that would bring out the reality of our Guarani Kaiowá indigenous people."

Kelvin Mbaretê joined Bruno Vn, Clemerson Batista and CH to form Brô MC's, the first indigenous rapping group in Brazil. Now, they represent the Kaiowá and Guarani peoples to an audience of over 22,000 people on Instagram. They have recently partnered with other famous artists in Brazil, such as DJ Alok, composed songs for a TV production featuring the wetlands of Pantanal and will soon sing at the Rock in Rio festival

Their inspiration, then and now, comes from the events affecting their peoples - particularly attacks resulting in injuries and death perpetrated by criminals who oppose the retaking of their original land - but also their ancestral culture, dances and languages. 

Things are not always easy, they say, but they keep going nonetheless - and progress. "Through art, people can see, hear, read and understand what is really happening with indigenous people," said Mbaretê. 

"I chose rap to be the voice that would bring out the reality of our Guarani Kaiowá indigenous people."

The role of education

The presence of indigenous peoples in spaces such as universities is becoming increasingly more common. Partially thanks to continued affirmative policies implemented in the early 2010's, historically excluded groups such as indigenous and black people increased their access to higher education, even though the current share of vacancies is far from ideal due to numerous cultural barriers and prejudices. 

According to Simone Eloy Terena, who is just about to finish her doctoral studies in Social Anthropology at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and teaches at the Universidade Livre de Sociologia e Comunicação Afro-Brasileira (Afro-Brazilian University of Sociology and Communication), education is the only way to "change our history and speak equally with the white men." 

Living through "the worst period of the Bolsonaro administration," the educator believes that one of her duties as a professor is to bring indigenous authors to universities and organise  discussions. "As a teacher, I seek to dismantle everything that was created about the history of indigenous peoples."

Former ambassador for a UN Women program called Voz das Mulheres Indígenas (Indigenous Women Voice), Simone Eloy Terena affirms that it is necessary to work with women, youths and elderly people in indigenous territories to build knowledge and political awareness. 

"This year is historic. We need change, we need to elect one of our people to fight for our rights," she said, mentioning her support for Val Eloy Terena, a member of the same ethnicity, as deputy of  their state.

"As a teacher, I seek to dismantle everything that was created about the history of indigenous peoples."

Aldear: a new indigenous verb for ‘political action’

In October 2022, Brazilians will elect the next president, deputies and senators. Four years ago, there were several indigenous candidates, albeit with reduced rates of success. In spite of this, the election of Joenia Wapichana as the first and only woman Federal Deputy in 2018 and the attempt of Sonia Guajajara to become vice-president in the same year inspired more indigenous to occupy political spaces. 

"We began to seek to understand more and also to participate. Sonia demystified politics for us. Joenia's election was a triumph," said Val Eloy Terena, who is running for deputy of her state, Mato Grosso do Sul. 

Notwithstanding, she highlights that the political sphere needs to be occupied by an even greater number of indigenous people. To that end, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) launched in February 2022 a campaign encouraging indigenous peoples to run for office. The calling came with a neologism: "aldear," a verb derived from the Portuguese word for "village." It means, literally, taking indigenous lands to political arenas of decision-making. 

"Historically, we were made invisible, usually due to our ethnic identity, and because of institutional racism, prejudice and discrimination that induce society to ignore our condition as political subjects, protagonists of our destiny," reads the campaign’s website. 

"Let's gather our forces in candidacies connected with our bases and struggles of the indigenous movement to continue our ancestral resistance."

An indigenous agenda

Gessica Tseremey Wa lives in Paraná, southern Brazil, a conservative state with white dominance over politics. Motivated by the prospect of representing her people, she heeded APIB’s call and  gathered a group of diverse women to launch a collective candidacy. 

Tseremey Wa says that, if elected, fighting for the right to own their land will be her first priority. "For the next few years, I want a country with a more inclusive policy, less racism, where we can pursue indigenous land demarcation," she told FairPlanet.

Raising the number of indigenous people in politics is crucial in order to bolster their fights over land rights, preserve their culture and protect their lives. As candidate and activist Val Eloy Terena emphasises, other than basic demands for territory, education, health and housing, the indigenous agenda includes environmental protection, which affects us all. 

"Our agenda is necessary for the balance of life on the planet. We want the protection of forests, we want development that does not harm the environment." 

How many indigenous candidates will win in the upcoming elections remains to be seen. Yet despite the challenges, a new era has already begun. Their voices are being increasingly heard. 

"For us indigenous peoples to get there, we just need investment and visibility, since the organisation we already have,” said Val Eloy Terena. “May we have the support of the people and actually achieve power. The struggle of indigenous peoples is the same as that of the general population: to live with quality."

Image by Mrê Krijõhere.