Brazilian law restricting the rights of indigenous people could jeopardise ancestral knowledge and culture, natural flora, wildlife, and global climate stability Nina Purton finds out.
With record levels of biodiversity, the Brazilian Amazon rainforest is one of few places on earth that shelter the fluttering iridescent wings of the blue morpho butterfly, the sly steps of jaguars, and the howl of several monkey species all at once, making it an incredibly rich hotspot for life.
Home to thousands of breathtaking plant, mammal, fish and bird species, this blessed patch of land also cradles 305 indigenous ethnicities on record. This includes a staggering 274 dialects, and an array of ancient cultures, practices, and ancestral knowledge.
The invasion of the Portuguese in 1500 provoked a forced migration among indigenous people across the country, causing native cultures to mingle. Even so, the original communities which survived still have a unique perspective and relationship to the natural environment.
Nhenety, a Brazilian from Alagoas, is a descendent of two northeastern indigenous ethnicities that were forcibly displaced from their original territory: the Kariri (meaning ‘strength and vigour’) from his mother’s side, and the Xocó (meaning ‘lake bird’) from his father’s lineage.
For Nhenety, nature is a family organised in clans. This includes the grandfather clans, fire and air, and the grandmother clans, earth and water. To him, the sun represents the father of animals, while the moon is the mother of plants. These respective elements or family clans share sacred interactions with each other, such as the heating of waters by the sun which generates vapour (its child) that condenses to form clouds (grandchild) which then becomes rain (great-grandchild), giving life to the river (great-great-grandchild).
This very personal and intimate relationship with the natural elements allows indigenous people to develop customs that preserve local plant and animal species.
“In the natural ecosystem, the indigenous person is one of the agents that contributes to the environment by cultivating plant species that are essential to their culture, including fruit plants and medicinal herbs,” Nhenety explains. Indigenous people hunt different species during specific periods and, “when we plant, we leave part of the harvest to local animals,” Nhenety says.
But these native communities are facing a pivotal threat as the Brazilian Supreme Court considers the Milestone Thesis (Marco Temporal). Upon approval, this requires indigenous communities to prove the occupation of their lands before or at the time of the constitution in 1988 – or lose their right to inhabit it.
The law, which was first proposed in 2021, briefly returned to court earlier this year only to be postponed again in June 2023, reigniting in full vigour an age-old fight between the political authorities and indigenous people seeking to preserve their homes.
Barbára Flores, an advocate for indigenous rights, recently reconnected with her Borun Kren origins from her grandfather’s lineage. While doing so she discovered just how much of her indigenous heritage is still alive and resisting agriculture and mining companies that are trying to claim indigenous land.
The Borun Kren, originally from the south eastern region of Brazil that includes Ouro Peto, Mariana and Itabirito, are part of a wider community of botocudos. They received this name in reference to the wooden disks (botoque) that they used in their lips and ears. It’s a part of their identity that was almost lost due to a hostile environment that denied them the right to express their ethnicity.
Today, Barbára’s people do not have a demarcated territory because, as she explains, they were ‘persecuted and declared extinct.’ She also states that this process is still very much alive with mining companies and local politicians lobbying to prove that indigenous people no longer inhabit the region.
This process of persecution peaked in 1808 as the sovereign state declared a war against indigenous people known as the Guerra Justa (‘just war’), which had the aim to enslave or exterminate the indigenous population. Because of this, many families and individuals, including the next few generations of indigenous people like Barbára’s grandfather, were forced to flee and conceal their ethnicity. While official records declare the war ended in 1823, Barbára explains that the Borun Kren were continuously persecuted and oppressed by the state, particularly during the military dictatorship that took place between 1964 and 1985.
The Milestone Thesis threatens to give continuity to this story of oppression against indigenous communities. Similar to Barbára’s collective, 822 indigenous communities are still waiting on legal recognition for their territory. This is one of the consequences of former president Jair Bolsonaro’s government that prioritises industrial, agricultural, and mining interests over environmental or cultural concerns.
A staggering 60% of the Amazon rainforest is within the borders of Brazil, and during this period, deforestation and wildfire rates peaked in a way that hadn’t been seen for over a decade before his rule.
Bolsonaro also openly criticised FUNAI, the official institution responsible for protecting indigenous communities across the national territory. Meanwhile, other organisations like the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio) have also suffered setbacks.
Nonetheless, the warrior spirit that has distinguished native cultures still remains an essential feature in indigenous people today.
Sharing a wish for her people, Barbára says, “I hope these words echo and may contribute to us achieving what we desire, which is the demarcation of our territory so that we can give continuity to who we are.”According to her, the territory is not only essential to their existence as indigenous people, but it is ‘symbiotic’ for their culture and key to securing a peaceful life.
The relationship between nature and native communities is indeed reciprocal since the indigenous perspective promotes nature in a way that inspires its conservation as we would desire the health of a loved one. It is, after all, the grandchild clouds and great-grandchild rain within Nhenety’s sacred ecosystem that prevent local wildfires and help regulate global temperatures.
These natural elements are also responsible for Brazil’s warm and tropical climate, which attract people from all over the world, whilst creating an exceptionally fertile environment for plants and animals.
Thanks to the efforts of these native communities as well as governmental and private agencies protecting the forest and its people, only 1.6% of vegetation loss in Brazil has happened within indigenous territories, making the preservation of indigenous settlements analogous to the preservation of the environment.
Luckily, things have taken a greener turn under Luiz Inacio Lula’s new government, which emphasises the demarcation of indigenous lands and the preservation of natural ecosystems. It launched a first-of-its-kind Ministry for Indigenous People in April 2023 to celebrate the Indigenous Peoples National Day.
Nhenety concludes with his vision as a native person:
“The greatest right is to preserve the life of humans, animals, and all living beings. Harmoniously, for every right, there is a duty, that way we can reach balance in the judicial system.”