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  • Writer's pictureImma Oliveras


Updated: Nov 1, 2018

Last Sunday Brazil elected an extreme right-wing candidate, who is an anti-environmentalist, and clearly hostile to women and to black, gay and indigenous in Brazil. There are dark clouds ahead for environmental protection of Brazil’s most precious resources: its biomes (Brazil hosts the largest biodiversity of the world). Indeed, the Amazon, the Pantanal wetland and the Cerrado, which are the largest tropical rainforest, tropical wetland, and tropical savannah of the world respectively, are in serious threat under the new leader’s future environmental policies. He has already declared merging the environmental and agricultural ministries, and to support “progress instead of protection”.

While I was at home waiting for the election results with a pounding heart, I came across with a BBC 4 podcast about Norman Lewis, a brilliant British writer who in 1969 published an article on the Sunday Times called “Genocide” in Brazil. The article was based on his own experience by visiting some Amazon indigenous tribes, and also based on the so-called Figuereido report: a shocking report detailing horrific atrocities committed against Brazilian Indians in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Interestingly, the Figuereido report resurfaced in 2013– 45 years after it was mysteriously ‘destroyed’ in a fire. Lewis’ piece is a must if one aims to understand the daunting history of Brazil's indigenous people. It is brutal – reports how over six million people sent to extinction by the most ruthless and horrendous methods backed by the Government itself. Lewis' article highlights the calm and sense of impunity with which the Figuereido report described the facts, and how it recognized that the massacre was allowed through a league between corrupt politicians and white settlers. In sum, it relates how the indigenous magnificent culture diversity had been annihilated with impunity by colonizers, settlers and the Brazilian Government.

I have come across indigenous culture in Brazil on several times, and I have had the enormous privilege of travelling to an Indigenous Reserve twice (The Xingu and the Sateré-Mawé). My last trip was to the Terra Indígena Sateré-Mawé, located between the Amazonas and Pará states. This tribe is well-known for having domesticated the guaraná (Paullinia cupana), a wild vine on the Sapindacea family. They mastered its planning by transforming it to a cultivated shrub, and also mastered the guaraná fruit processing transforming guarana is their main economic income source.

The Sateré-Mawé were one of the first indigenous cultures to have contact with white explorers in the 1500s, and as such their population went into steep decline. The massacres in the 50s and 60s contributed to the final land loss and left the Sateré-Mawé population reduced to a few hundred.

The Sateré-Mawé got “their territory” demarcated in 1982 and approved in 1986 – a land that represented less than one-tenth of its original territory. Since then and over the last 30 years, the Satere-Mawe have been re-settling in this land and trying to revive their ancestors culture. The task is though not easy, as they are facing many external pressures, as well as demographic pressures of living in such a limited territory.

The main goal of my visit was to diagnose the vulnerability of their ecosystems, and the effects that a perceived increased incidence of fires would have in their land. They indeed have a serious threat of forest-degradation, associated to great extent to the human pressure from outside, and environmental change (e.g. fires, exotic species invasion). They need to call for urgent action if they want to maintain their ecosystem services for the next future generation.

Illegal logging is sadly a common practice across the Amazon. Indigeneous territories are increasignly been affected by this practice as the existence of undisturbed primary forests becomes more scarce in no-protected areas.
Illegal timber extraction

Indeed, their main threat is now not the fast ecosystem degradation but the daunting pressure they suffer from the neighboring territory, which is totally occupied by fazendas, timber extraction plants and illegal mining. The indigenous land suffers continuous invasion by the “white” people for illegal timber extraction, being the most common practice to bribe indigenous people to let them pass through their lands and ‘sell’ the timber to them. Another common practice is to do ‘business’ with them by inviting the indigenous to drink alcohol ‘pinga’ (destilled sugar cane) with them, getting the indigenous people into alcoholism and serious trouble. In the last years alone, several indigenous have drowned returning from drinking with the whites.

I needed a few months to digest what I lived in the reserve, and I still find it difficult to express with words the sorrow I felt when I was there. There is a real threat for their future. On the other hand, it was so fantastic to witness the beauty of their work and effort to keep traditional practice of living with the environment alive, and I spent a fantastic time learning about their livelihoods and traditions, and I feel blessed for having had the opportunity to learn a tiny bit of the precious indigenous knowledge about nature.

It is time for concern about the future of indigenous heritage. The situation for the Sateré-Mawé is not unique, but rather the norm for most Brazil´s indigenous people. For example, the Xingú Indigenous Reserve is today completely surrounded by crop fields and pastures, and its main river will be directly affected by the Belo Monte dam. There has also been repeated invasion to indigenous land for illegal logging.

Fires and exotic grass invasion are becoming the new normal for Amazon forests, causing fast degradation, losses in biodiversity and ecosystem services

Less than two months ago the largest archive of Brazilian indigenous ethnographic knowledge, the National Museum, was completely destroyed by a fire. The result of yesterday’s election adds further threat and concern. If guns are to be allowed to the regular citizen, and priority will be given to “progress” – how long will it take before a new massacre happens? Sadly, some elements in Lewis article sound very contemporary, as corruption and the limited capacity of the Indian Protection Service (today known as FUNAI - Fundação Nacional do Índio/National Indian Foundation) to deal with their reality and tackle illegal activities. FUNAI has been having severe fund cuts over the last few years with immediate consequences on their ability to provide protection and the needed services to the indigenous people. The future is no better, as the future of FUNAI itself is at stake.

These new winds in Brazil praise for a block-out of international influence on their environmental matters, which would entirely leave the fate of Brazil's vast natural and cultural diversity to the new Government's hands. The consequences might be devastating and the whole world is to lose.

Read more about it on a The Guardian article published 01/11/2018 (the day after I wrote this:

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