Rio’s Carnaval festivities were threatened this year by a spat pitting a well-known parade troupe against Brazil’s powerful farmers.
Imperatriz Leopoldinense, one of the escolas de samba (samba clubs) that usually march in Rio de Janeiro’s glitzy Carnaval processions that kicked off February 24, honored the struggles of the Amazon and its native tribes with a parade featuring six giant floats and 2,800 dancers, musicians and other costumed celebrants.
“A Cry from the Jungle,” the name of the show, was presented this past Sunday and paid special attention to the world’s largest rainforest and the industrial and agricultural industries that help destroy it.
Marching to song lyrics lamenting the “bleeding heart of Brazil” and the “riches that greed destroys,” participants have donned vests with skulls and crossbones and pretended to spray pesticide. Others have wielded toy chainsaws and bundles of felled timber.
In December, Cahe Rodrigues, the designer responsible for the parade, traveled to the Xingu, an Amazon region named after a river whose shores are home to several tribes, including the Kayapo, whose culture inspired the theme. Raoni, a well-known Kayapo elder, even agreed to the parade.
“I wanted to make sure I got their clothing, their culture, just right,” sad Rodrigues, explaining that he did not want to make a caricature of the group.
“It’s gross and unfair,” responded Marcelo Eduardo Luders, president of Ibrafe, an association of Brazilian bean growers. “Millions of people will see this and could think twice about buying our exports.”
Imperatriz Leopoldinense ended up changing the name of one of its groups from “The Farmers and Their Agrotoxics” to “Misuse of Agrotoxics.”
The decision was taken after directors of the Brazilian Rural Association together with the president of Agriculture National Association, Antônio Alvarenga, met with the president of the escola de samba, Luiz Pacheco Drumond.
Fabelia Oliveira, a television presenter for a program about Brazilian agriculture, suggested that if Indigenous tribes want to be left alone they should go without modern medicine.
“They’ll have to die of malaria and tetanus and during childbirth,” she said, outraging Indigenous communities and native rights activists.
For Imperatriz, the controversy was a shock. “This is not about offending farmers,” says Rodrigues. “This is about the threats that native people and the environment face.”
Brazil’s big farmers have become the world’s leading exporters of soybeans, beef, coffee and sugar, in part at the expense of deforested lands.
Imperatriz brought a soothing message to the mistreated soul of Brazil’s natives: “I am the forgotten son of the world. My heart is red in pain. I am the last immortal fighter – the true owner of this land.”
With its hit Carnaval performance “Xingu: A Cry from the Jungle,” the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school not only cut deep into the Brazilian heart, but also took on a political dimension.
Imperatriz is the first samba school to directly represent the rights of indigenous people – and in doing so, goes up against the farming industry. The song’s name derives from Xingu, an area of Brazil’s Amazon protected for the indigenous tribes living there and a point of contention between them and the country’s major landowners.
As agriculture expands for soy, rice and wheat production, tribes increasingly lose their native lands.
The Carnaval-themed protest captivated the public during the annual festival at Rio’s Sambadrome late Sunday night. “One of a kind and touching,” said Carnaval critic Thiago Barros. “Imperatriz hit it right on the nose.”
“Xingu: A Cry from the Jungle” was already causing a stir, in particular with representatives of the agriculture sector who feel it has been shown in a poor light.
“The issue has caused trouble for producers because it is based on a false impression of the sector,” the Association of Brazilian Farmers (SRB) said in a statement.
Brazil’s indigenous people are glad that “Xingu” has reawakened debate about the destruction of the Amazon, which is their home. “It’s good that white people remember us,” tribal chief Raoni Metuktire told Brazilian media.
The leader of the indigenous Kayapo traveled to Rio with 16 other natives to be part of the Carnaval parade. He sat in the last float and sang with the samba school. “Carnaval is a good opportunity to shed light on destruction threatening our reserve and demand respect.”
Imperatriz presented a unique local history for the 70,000 Sambadrome onlookers. For many Brazilians, the story of Xingu national park, established 55 years ago as the largest protected area for indigenous Amazon tribes, is largely unknown.
The school’s performance also denounces a controversial hydroelectric dam being built on the Xingu River. It will be the fourth largest in the world upon completion in 2019 and may flood thousands of square kilometers of rainforest and farmland. Between 20,000 to 40,000 residents may have to be resettled.
At the Sambadrome, the Imperatriz school called the dam a “beautiful monster” and it leaves nothing to the imagination: “A beautiful monster steals the children from the land, devours forests and dries up rivers, greed has destroyed so much wealth.”
Meanwhile, Rio’s Carnaval is also courting controversy for the militarization of the festivities, as 9,000 soldiers were sent as back-up to Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday morning.
The forces, sent from the military, have been dispatched in some of the most touristic parts of the city, including the neighborhoods Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.
Army forces were requested by Rio Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão, who feared a strike from the military police as officers are demanding better work conditions and delayed wages to be paid.