One Third of Brazil’s Indians Live in Favelas

Buredupo’O (thank you), Celso Pitta” phrase in Pankararu, written on a banner hanging on one of the buildings of “Cingapura”, a housing project implanted by São Paulo’s City Hall.

In September of 2000, to the sound of the music and dance of the ritual of “Toré”, 85 Pankararu families thanked the then mayor of São Paulo for giving them the possibility to live in some of the small apartments of the urban project installed in the “favela” (shanty town) Real Parque, in the neighborhood of Morumbí­.

The almost 250 Pankararu lived for a long time in rented, minuscule, wooden rooms given by City Hall until they were transferred to the apartments of “Cingapura”.

The wait, which was supposed to be six months, lengthened into four years. The new inhabitants of Cingapura” of Real Parque represent a part of the community, which left the village of Brejo dos Padres, in the town of Tocaratu, Pernambuco, to live in São Paulo.

About 300 Pankararu also live in the same favela in the neighborhood of Morumbi and another 400 are in the neighborhoods and favelas in the southern and eastern zones of the capital and in favelas in the city of Guarulhos.

What happened that the Pankararu and other dozens of thousands of Indians would abandon their villages and stay in the cities, to live in sub-human conditions, as is the case of the neighborhoods and favelas of São Paulo and Manaus?

In the last decades, the numbers of indigenous who live on the margins of small and large cities has grown frighteningly. The indigenous population concentrated in some more than others, as is the case of Manaus, and São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in Amazonas or Boa Vista and Campo Grande, the capitals of Roraima and Mato Grosso do Sul.

What these urban centers have in common is the fact that they are located near a great number of indigenous areas, some with an elevated population density.

The city of São Paulo is a special case. While being distant from the regions which unite many indigenous lands, the city is traditionally the place where persons, principally, natives from the states of the region of the Northeast, coming in search of work or a “better life”.

And it is the indigenous populations that inhabit that region that most seek the city in order either to settle for a determined period or to settle definitely.

Having little time to acculturate, the Indians in the cities suffer discrimination and abandonment on the part of the Brazilian government. There does not exist any governmental policies of subsistence directed to the ever growing indigenous contingent obliged to live outside their villages.

FUNAI (the Bureau of Indian Affairs) did not even count this population as they should have, even though, officially, the indigenous agency admits to the existence of a number of indigenous living in the cities. It also does nothing to minimize or impede the exodus, which until now has been uncontrollable, from continuing.

The migratory phenomenon – intense in the last year – and consequently, the accelerated process of dispersion and disintegration of the original indigenous communities, however, has not yet awakened FUNAI.

This has become the motive of concern for CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionário, which heads the Church’s Indigenous Pastoral), also for other religious entities, and more recently, for academic entities.

The indigenous presence in the urban centers has grown, has reached a mark of 193,000 (as of 2001), which corresponds to about 1/3 of the known indigenous population in Brazil.

In Search of Survival

Information brought to light as a result of surveys done in Boa Vista, Manaus and Campo Grande indicate some of the causes for the migration to the cities. Beyond this, they allow us to understand how the Indians perceive this new life style.

At the end of the ’80s, Patricia Ferri, an Italian volunteer, identified some of the reasons why the Indians in Boa Vista left their villages.

The struggle for survival was noted as chief among them. A 28 year-old Wapixana Indian, who had lived 11 years in the Capital of Roraima said, “I left my hut because of lack of food and only the old could stand to eat only mandioc flour and pepper. There, we had no more hunting nor fishing possibilities. There are so few animals and fish left.”

But in the city, it is not always possible for the Indians to find what is needed for a life of dignity, as the Italian researcher points out in relating the case of Deolinda de Freitas do Prado, of the Dessana people, ex-coordinator of the Indigenous Women’s Association of Alto Rio Negro.

Living three years in Manaus, she was able to get a job as a maid, earning less than US$30 per month. Deolinda commented, “At times I have to go to bed without eating.” But with all the difficulty to survive, she does not think about returning to the village, because there, she believes she would live in even worse conditions.

One of the principal reasons which compromises the survival in the village and which also reinforces the exodus to the cities, is the invasion of Indian lands, especially in the Northeast, even those officially reserved Indian territories.

With the occurrence of these invasions, there is a great reduction of productive areas for planting, hunting and gathering in the forest, as well as insufficient space for the physical accommodation of the communities, a factor which contributes to the overpopulation of the villages.

This is the experience lived by the Pankararu, in Pernambuco, who sought an alternative solution for survival in São Paulo. Destined as indigenous territories since the beginning of the ’40s, the Pankararu lands of Brejo dos Padres were reduced from their original parameters in a new land demarcation ratified in 1987.

The area of 8,100 hectares, according to information from the Indians, is actually half occupied by squatters and big landowners. This fact causes lack of food, over-population in the village and consequently, indigenous migration.

But the first movement of the Pankararu in the direction of the cities happened at the end of the ’50s, as an alternative to overcome the difficulties of a prolonged period of drought.

In the following years, the situation in the area worsened due to intermittent invasions, which intensified in the ’80s, with the construction of the hydroelectric dam in Itaparica, on the São Francisco River.

In the last 45 years, the Pankararu of Brejo dos Padres sought to settle in nearer regions, as well as in neighboring state, beyond Minas Gerais and São Paulo.

In order to have an idea of the impact of the evolution of the forced exodus of these Indians, in 1989, it was estimated that a village population was about 3,700 persons. Eleven years after, almost 1,000 Pankararu live only in three favelas in the metropolitan region of São Paulo.

Some Pankararu of São Paulo still dream of returning home, to Brejo dos Padres. But they believe that this only can happen if FUNAI clears out the invaders of that area, a task that should have happened in 1987.

Frederico de Barros, president of the Pankararu SOS Association, laments the plight of his people, saying that “it doesn’t pay for the people to farm there. The better part of the land, flat and with water, has been taken over by the invaders.”

And he affirms that the Indians are not satisfied with being moved into the buildings of the “Cingapura” apartments, and much less with the situation of living in the favelas.

And since the Pankararu believe that, “if they depend on FUNAI”, they also won’t be returning to their villages so soon, they decided to fight in order to get an area of their own, where they can live with dignity, because “the favela is no place for an Indian”.

But another group of Pankararu, who also left Brejo dos Padres years before, after much wandering, are said to have, finally, finding better luck, today being installed on a “fazenda” donated by the Diocese of Araçuai, in Minas Gerais.

Waikire tells that “during many years we lived in villages of other tribes. We had a period of time with the Karajá people, Xerente, Krahô, Pataxó of Minas and others. We lived with the Pataxó of Minas for 10 years. Today we are on land that was given to us. We are struggling to regain our traditions, culture and to strengthen out identity.”

Excerpt from Chapter “Indians in the Cities – To belong to a people even when living away from the village. From the book “Outros 500 Construindo Uma Nova História,” Conselho Indigenista Missionário, Cimi, Editora Salesiano; São Paulo, 2001.


  • Show Comments (2)

  • Guest

    Mr White South African
    This is how it is. Whites are rich Blacks are poor. Always has been always will be. Its not the whites fault although they exploit the situation. Europe is rich Africa is poor. In America Africans are poor Europeans are rich. It is always going to be like that until blacks take hold of their freedom and use it constructively. Not killing each other like all of Africas civil wars and the gangstars in America. Until that day we will have these social inequalities with us.

  • Guest

    When is Brazil going to start practicing the “racial democracy” they speak so highly of. Brazil prides itself on its progressive race relations which does not exist. Afro-Brazilians and Native Americans still live in unsanitary slave like conditions while the wealthy whites who spout this rhetoric still profit off their labor.

    When are black Brazilians and Native Americans going to start a civil rights movement as black Americans and black South Africans and start loudly and openly refuting the racial democracy bullshyt so freely spouted by the white elite of Brazil?

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