Pope Meets Brazilian Indians and Vows to Help Protect Their Land

Jacir and Pierângela, Makuxi representatives, meet UK MP Andrew Dismore Brazilian Indians Jacir José de Souza and Pierângela Nascimento da Cunha from the Makuxi and Wapixana tribes respectively were received in the Vatican, July 2, by Pope Benedict XVI, who pledged his support for their struggle to defend their Amazon home.

"We will do everything possible to help protect your land," said the pope.

The tribes of Raposa Serra do Sol, in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, where Jacir and Pierângela people live, are under attack from Brazilian farmers who have shot and wounded ten people, burned bridges and thrown a bomb into an Indian community. A video obtained by Survival International, an organization that defends tribal peoples' human rights, shows the moment gunmen hired by the farmers attacked an Indian village in May.

The Brazilian government officially recognized the indigenous territory of Raposa Serra do Sol (Land of the Fox and Mountains of the Sun) in 2005, after a long campaign supported by the previous pope, John Paul II. But powerful farmers and the government of Roraima state are trying to get the legal recognition overturned, so that the farmers can take a large piece of the Indians' land.

The two Indians have organized an emergency tour of Europe to seek support for their campaign to defend their land. So far they have visited Spain, the UK, Belgium, France and Italy.

In the UK they met with British MPs and peers, and in France they met with Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the late President François Mitterrand and founder of the human rights organization France Libertés.

Commenting on the visit to the Vatican, Survival's director Stephen Corry said, "We're delighted that Pope Benedict XVI has pledged his support. This is a key battle for Brazilian Indians and for the Amazon. If Raposa Serra do Sol is lost, Indians all over Brazil could see their land stolen too."

Indian Land

The Makuxi, Wapixana, Ingarikó, Taurepang and Patamona peoples inhabit a land called Raposa Serra do Sol in the north of Brazil, on the border with Venezuela and Guyana.

It is a picturesque region of mountains, tropical forest, savanna, rivers and waterfalls. The territory is about 1.7 million hectares and is home to approximately 20,000 Indians.

Despite having had contact with outsiders for over two centuries, the Indians maintain their languages and customs.

Many communities run their own education and health projects and have set up several organizations to defend their rights and help run their projects.

After years of campaigning led by the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR), Survival International and many NGOs in Brazil and elsewhere, Raposa Serra do Sol was signed into law by Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on April 15, 2005.

There was much jubilation at this milestone as the territory had been the object of a sustained and violent campaign by local ranchers and settlers to stop the Indians winning it back.

In the last three decades over twenty Indians had been killed and hundreds injured during the Indians' tireless struggle to reclaim their ancestral land.

Whilst most ranchers and some rice farmers have now left the territory on receipt of compensation from the government, a small group of rice farmers refuse to leave despite various attempts by the police to remove them. Their illegal actions are supported by a group of powerful local politicians.

Since April 2008, they have resorted to increasingly violent tactics, shooting and wounding at least 10 Indians, burning bridges to prevent Indians entering or leaving their land, and even throwing a bomb into one community.

Indian Life

The Makuxi, the largest tribe living in Raposa Serra do Sol, believe that they, and their neighbors the Ingarikó, are descended from the children of the sun, who left for their descendants the gift of fire, but also disease and the hardships of nature.

The indigenous peoples in this region hunt, farm, and fish. Some raise small herds of cattle in the savannah region and keep other domestic animals.

During the long dry summer months, they hunt, fish in any rivers that are not dried up, and visit neighboring villages. This is also when they build and repair their houses, which they make from wood, clay and palm leaves. The winter, from May to September, is a period of very heavy rain, making many of their summer activities impossible.

Communities vary greatly in size, and are based on ties of marriage and family. Extended families hunt together, but each household grows its own crops and rears a few domestic animals for personal use.

Since the 18th century, the indigenous peoples of Raposa Serra do Sol have fought for their land rights against waves of violent invasions, colonization and attempts to resettle them. Against all odds they have managed to hold on to their ancestral land.

Cattle ranchers occupied their land in the 20th century setting up large ranches, which were routinely patrolled by gunmen who subjected Indians to much violence. At least 20 Indians were assassinated in the 1980s and 1990s.

Wildcat miners also illegally invaded in territory prospecting for gold and diamonds, which resulted in pollution of rivers and tensions with communities.

More recently despite protests from the Indians, several small towns have been built by settlers in the area, and the military have built a barracks right next to the indigenous community of Uiramutã.

In 1996, a large group of farmers invaded Raposa Serra do Sol to plant rice fields. They used large amounts of pesticides which leaked in to the rivers and streams used by the Indians for bathing, cooking and drinking water.

In the last decade they have resorted to terrorist-like tactics, destroying indigenous property, threatening leaders and setting fire to indigenous schools.

Survival International


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