It’s been a year since the Brazilian Supreme Court awarded definitive ownership (homologação) of an area covering 1.7 million hectares to Brazilian Indians (that works out to around 6,500 square miles; slightly bigger than Hawaii, a little smaller than New Jersey; and six times the size of Luxembourg).
Known officially as the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Lands, the reserve is located in the state of Roraima, in the North region of Brazil. The decision was controversial. The land is located on borders with Venezuela and Guiana (the military was upset about giving borderland to Indians). Also, large tracts of the area were used for rice fields, run by non-indigenous farmers.
This Monday, April 19, 18,000 Indians were present for a visit by president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to a community called Maturuca inside the reserve to celebrate the anniversary of the “homologação” and Indian Day.
The main reason for celebrations by most of the Indians is that a year ago, following the Supreme Court decision, non-indigenous rice growers, who had taken the place of cattle ranchers and gold prospectors, all of them tradition nemeses of the indigenous peoples, were forced to exit the area, finally leaving it to the Indians.
However, since then the Indians themselves have divided into two bickering groups, called CIR (Conselho Indígena de Roraima – Roraima’s Indigenous Council) and Sodiu (Sociedade de Defesa dos Indígenas Unidos de Roraima – Society for the Defense of Roraima’s United Indigenous), which are disputing the future of the area and its peoples.
One group is in favor of allowing non-indigenous people on the land. The other group is radically opposed, so much so that they want to expel even non-indigenous men who are married to Indian women.
One recurrent problem is the non-indigenous use of alcoholic beverages – strictly prohibited on Indian lands.
“Cachaça (sugarcane liquor) is destroying our communities,” claims Rossildo de Oliveira, a member of the largest indigenous group, the Macuxi, who threatens to make a complaint to the local outpost of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).
“They should be more careful about what comes into the reservation. We need an inspection post to control the entrance of prohibited merchandise,” says Oliveira.
In a number of ways, life has gotten more expensive since the rice growers left. For example, Manoel Albuquerque, a Macuxi farmer, says he used to buy ration for his cows from rice growers who made it from discarded parts of rice plants.
It cost 8 reais (US$ 4.6) for a sack of 30 kilos. Now he has to pay 30 reais (US$ 17) for the same amount and travel 170 kilometers (106 miles) to Boa Vista to get it. And another problem: with the rice growers gone, traffic has dwindled on the roads around the indigenous lands. In the past it was easy to hitch a ride with someone. “Now,” says Albuquerque, “there ain’t nobody going anywhere”.
With the expulsion of the non-indigenous rice growers, the Indians have not been able to agree on how to work the rice fields left behind. One thing is for sure: with the exit of the rice growers, the job market collapsed.
Amazonina Carneiro, another Macuxi, who is married to a non-indigenous, says she is sad now because after the big rice farms closed her boys left home and went to the big city (Boa Vista, capital of Roraima).
“There’s no work here anymore. No way to make a cent,” she says. “You know, a lot of people thought that after the “homologação” the Indians would come together and work things out. But that never happened. Indians have never been united. Never in history. And it was not going to happen here.”
April 13, the general coordinator of Sodiu-RR, Silvio da Silva, said it was quite possible that the two indigenous groups in Raposa Serra do Sol would go on the warpath against each other.
“Somebody is going to be sacrificed,” he declared. The situation is so tense that a federal judge (“desembargador,” basically a lower court judge) has ordered representatives of the two groups, CIR and Sodiu-RR, to meet with him next week and try to iron out some of their differences.