Global Policy Forum

Brazilians Battle Indians: 'This Land Is Our Land'


By Larry Rohter

New York Times
October 15, 2004

According to official maps, this remote stretch of the Amazon is an Indian reservation, set aside as the homeland of a half dozen tribes. Theoretically, that makes it off-limits to uninvited visitors. Yet white settlers have ignored the billboards that proclaim this cluster of villages to be "protected land" and have built an airstrip, a fancy technical school, a town hall and stores, all protected by a new military base. Farther south, sprawling rice farms divert water from streams where Indians fish and bathe, and clandestine gold and diamond mines are flourishing. All over the 1,000-square-mile Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Reservation, white encroachment has been accelerating and becoming bolder.

Now, the newcomers to the land, which borders Venezuela and Guyana and includes Monte Roraima, the 9,218-foot peak that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World," are using the judicial system to try to evict the Indians from parts of the reservation. Seizing advantage of bureaucratic lassitude and loopholes in law, these people, led by powerful rice growers and ranchers, have persuaded sympathetic judges to order Indians to leave land that tribal peoples say they have occupied for generations. "We were here before the Brazilian state was even formed," protested Secundino Raposa, 61, a resident of a Macuxi Indian village called Javari. "Our grandparents raised our parents here. When I was a child, we would hunt here in December and there were no whites around at all. The whites only arrived here yesterday. So how can they say this land is theirs?"

The confrontation provides the first major test of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's policy toward Brazil's indigenous peoples, watched closely by Indian advocates in and out of Brazil. So far, these advocates say, Mr. da Silva has preferred to court the Indians' adversaries rather than live up to longstanding promises to tribal groups and to enforce laws already on the books. Creating an Indian reservation in Brazil is a complicated procedure that can easily be prolonged for a decade or more. In the case of Raposa Serra do Sol, a formal demarcation of the territory to be set aside for the Indians was reached in 1998. When Mr. da Silva took office on Jan. 1, 2003, a proclamation formally certifying the registry of the reservation, the final step in the long process, was on his desk, lacking only a signature. But Mr. da Silva, leader of the Workers Party and Brazil's first elected left-wing president, took no action during his first year in office, other than to reaffirm his support for the Indian cause. Since January, sensing vacillation in Brasí­lia, white landowners have filed one suit after another in their campaign to block the formal registry of the reserve.

Indian leaders say they feel betrayed. They recall that Mr. da Silva visited here more than a decade ago, expressed support for their plight and promised that if he ever got into power, he would grant their demand. "Since Lula came into office, things have only gotten worse for us," said Jacir Jose de Souza, a Macuxi Indian chief who is also director of the Roraima Indigenous Council. "He's deceitful, very unreliable. He's worse than the last government because he says one thing and does another." The presidential press office declined to discuss the controversy, referring a reporter's request for comment to the Ministry of Justice. Speaking on condition that she not be identified by name, a spokeswoman said the government remained committed to registering the reservation and compensating white landowners for the properties they would have to relinquish, but is treading carefully because it wants to avoid bloodshed. But friends of the Indians consider the government's lethargic approach to be deliberate. The estimated 15,000 Indians living at Raposa Serra do Sol, they say, have most likely become victims of old-fashioned backroom political deal making.

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