(By Rebecca Binda – The Guardian – May, 2022) – A multitude of sounds and tones echoing local chants; vibrant face paints with colours and tracery from the red of the urucum shrub and the black of genipap tree fruit; the strong and coordinated movements of magical dances: the annual Free Land Camp brought Indigenous peoples from across Brazil to its capital earlier in May.
Under the title Retaking Brazil: demarcate the territories and indigenise the politics, the 18th Free Land Camp (Acampamento Terra Livre, also known as ATL in Portuguese) saw 8,000 Indigenous people in Brasília give voice to the ongoing fight to save their culture and way of life.
Joênia Wapichana, the country’s first Indigenous congresswoman, said: “The ATL is an opportunity to unite Indigenous and Brazilian leaders from across the country to stand up for their constitutional rights.” They protested against what activists have called a “death combo” of environment-related bills being considered by congress. These include the PL 191 bill, which aims to open Indigenous lands to mining and other commercial exploitation, and PL 490, which would change the rules on demarcation of Indigenous territory.
The 10-day camp, the largest gathering of Indigenous people in the world, according to The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), included a multitude of Indigenous ethnicities – Pataxós, Kayapó, Munduruku, Yanomami, Xikrin and another 195 peoples from across Brazil. This year, with a general election due in October, the Free Land Camp was a concerted effort to fight back against the anti-Indigenous policies of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration.
“Indigenous people have constantly been the subject of discussions and deliberations without proper participation,” said Wapichana. “At this specific moment, this gathering is even more important considering that we have a government that is anti-Indigenous, fascist, anti-environmentalist and anti-human rights. I see myself as a spokesperson who will take the Indigenous voice further, to fight for the defence of our rights so that we prevent further violations. It is also incredibly important to raise more sympathy and empathy among politicians in congress, who represent Brazilian society.”
In April 1997, Brasília was the site of the brutal murder of Galdino Pataxó, an Indigenous leader of the Pataxó-Hã-Hã-Hãe people who was burned to death after demanding the demarcation of his people’s territory. Twenty-five years later, Ãngoho Pataxó, a relative and leader of the Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe people at Katurama village, attended the Free Land Camp to highlight continuing rights violations perpetrated by the government and mining companies against her people and territory.
“Today we are here resisting in order to exist,” she said. “We are here demanding justice for my relative’s death. But we are also here showing our resistance to extractivism, we are here demanding our land rights on ancestral lands, we are here fighting for our lives and the right of us, women, to have our place and space recognised.”
Puyr Tembé, of the Tembé people in Pará state, reminded the gathering of the importance of unity. “After two years without an in-person Free Land Camp due to the pandemic, we come to this 18th edition filled with strength, bravery and resistance to not just fight and defend our rights, but also to celebrate and reconnect.
“For the sake of future generations and our wellbeing we are inspired every day to keep fighting. The expectation we have is that [we can] bring some change. More and more I believe that the Indigenous people are aware that this change is possible if we are unified.”
Wapichana added: “As an Indigenous woman in congress, it is fundamental to me that I represent the voices of other female warriors, considering the collective Indigenous rights and interests while focusing on specific agendas for women. Showing that we are capable, that we are full capable of performing our professions and occupying positions of power is extremely important to me.”