The young indigenous man, bent double in pain, uttered a deep, heart-wrenching moan. The pain was unbearable. After a while he withdrew from the circle of chanting people and threw himself on the ground, keeping his swollen hands up in the air to avoid painful contact. I knew he was bringing shame on himself by showing so clearly that he was in agony.
Along with a dozen others, dressed mainly in Bermuda shorts and t-shirts, he was going through the ritual of the tucandeira. This is a rite of passage by which Sateré-Mawé youths make the transition from childhood to adulthood: enduring bites from scores of tucandeira (Paraponera clavata) – known in English as the bullet ant, because its bite causes pain comparable with that of being shot. The bite goes deep: the tucandeira’s fangs, which are so powerful that they can cut through tree branches, transmit the poison directly into the central nervous system, causing excruciating pain. The ensuing fever, sickness and swelling can last for several days, but those bitten eventually make a full recovery.
The ritual changes life irrevocably for the young men. They are expected to go through it at least 20 times in their lives, but the first time is the most important. They become grown up. They can now marry, have a say in the life of the community, take on leadership roles. After their first menstruation, Sateré-Mawé girls go through a more mysterious ritual that involves being left alone in a hut for a month, only seeing their mothers, who bring them food. They also emerge grown up, ready to marry.
The ceremony we witnessed took place in the village of Fortaleza, on the Andirá river deep in the Amazon forest, in the state of Pará, not far from the border with Amazonas state. The ritual is particularly important this year because a group of men and women from the community has decided to take the courageous step of occupying a stretch of remote forest, once inhabited by their ancestors, to provide their growing population with more land and to prevent the area being devastated by loggers and land thieves. They may face violence; the men believe that ritual strengthens their indigenous identity and makes them more courageous.
Rolling back the clock on rights
The Sateré people know that they won’t get support from far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January this year and is well known for his hostility towards indigenous people. Some of them heard him say on television that he didn’t intend ‘to give a single centimetre of land’ to indigenous groups and even hoped to regain control of land recently secured by some. Worse still, he seems intent on destroying the indigenous Amerindians as a separate ethnicity, with distinct values and a different culture. Some of the younger people have smartphones and saw a comment the president made on his Twitter account: ‘Over 15 per cent of national territory is demarcated as land in the hands of Indians and quilombolas [communities set up by runaway slaves]. Less than a million people live in these isolated areas, exploited and manipulated by NGOs. We are going to integrate these citizens.’ And integration, Bolsonaro-style, means turning the indigenous people into subordinate members of the dominant white culture.
It is well known that Bolsonaro is a great admirer of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. After all, he defiantly dedicated his vote to impeach Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ultra, the colonel who headed the feared DOI-CODI torture unit where Rousseff herself was tortured. Now he is president he is quite openly bringing back the military into government. He has appointed over 100 military officers to positions within his administration. Even so, it comes as a shock to see that he is adopting lock, stock and barrel the military’s out-dated indigenous policies. Back in 1976 Maurício Rangel Reis, Interior Minister in the military government headed by General Ernesto Geisel, said: ‘We plan to reduce the indigenous population from 220,000 to 20,000.’
He was not talking about physical extermination, though thousands were killed, but about cultural assimilation, still seen at the time as a legitimate national objective. The military did not achieve this goal. Far from being marginalized, the indigenous population resisted, with the support of progressive groups in civil society. Despite suffering great repression during the dictatorship, Brazil’s indigenous people survived and flourished. Their population has increased to 900,000 today.
Now Bolsonaro is talking once again about assimilating them into Brazilian society, at a time when such an approach has been discredited throughout the world. He has already said that, whether the indigenous communities want it or not, he is going to allow agribusiness and mining companies to lease land in indigenous territories. This is about reversing the huge advances that Brazilian society has made in recent decades in recognizing indigenous rights. Particularly significant was the progressive 1988 Constitution, which brought two key innovations: it abandoned assimilation goals and it affirmed the concept of ‘original rights’, recognizing that the indigenous peoples were the first inhabitants of Brazil and have the right to remain on their land. The Constitution stipulates unambiguously that economic activities undertaken by outsiders are not permitted on indigenous land without the full consent of the people themselves – a requirement that Bolsonaro will try to circumvent by issuing presidential decrees.
Ready to fight
The Sateré people know the threat this represents for all of Brazil’s indigenous communities and are aware that the very survival of their culture and way of life depends on their own efforts. They are determined to fight and are confident that they will eventually win, just as they did in the past. In 1980, oil was discovered on Sateré land and the powerful Brazilian state oil company, Petrobrás, and the French private company, Elf-Aquitaine, were keen to drill. The companies began to build a road across indigenous land, causing havoc. But the Sateré fought back. They eventually got the road stopped and even went to court and won compensation. It was a damaging conflict for the Sateré people: some were killed and their land was seriously damaged, but they emerged victorious.
Now they are on a war footing again. As an indigenous elder told me and photographer Matheus Manfredini: ‘Our ancestors saved us in the 1980s. Now it is our turn.’ This time the struggle is focused on who controls the land. When the Indigenous Territory of Andirá-Marau, the official name of the Sateré reserve, was demarcated in 1986, it didn’t include a large area of forest traditionally occupied by their ancestors. At the time, the Sateré population had fallen to under 5,000, battered after the long conflict with the oil companies. The community regained control of most of its land and the population grew again to almost 13,000. Now they want to reclaim this excluded area, which loggers and land thieves are beginning to invade. The indigenous people are planning a retomada, a re-occupation, in which they set up villages on the land and work together to keep out invaders.
‘Racism eats at you inside’
One of the leaders of the retomada is 25-year-old Benito, who has invited us to travel with him to Fortaleza village to see the bullet ant ritual and then accompany them on the first phase of the re-occupation. Benito is currently studying for a degree in indigenous culture in Parintins, a small town on the Amazon river. Although he misses his village, he loves the course and is becoming fluent in Portuguese, something he needs if he is to help his community survive – and thrive – in the modern world. But his experience in Parintins is also making him more determined than ever to fight for the survival of his people.
We meet him in Parintins. Wearing maroon trousers with a matching t-shirt, a cap and sunglasses, he seems, at first, well integrated into ‘white’ society. His hair is coiffed and he is carrying a smartphone, which he uses to take a selfie by the river. He seems reasonably content, though he says that food is so expensive that he isn’t eating properly. He also has a visceral hatred of industrially produced food, which, he says, damages one’s health. He has been horrified to learn that ‘Western’ diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and stroke, are becoming rife in some indigenous communities located near towns.
At first, Benito doesn’t mention racism. Parintins’ economy depends largely on commodifying indigenous culture. Every few days a cruiser moors up, disgorging scores of foreign tourists, mainly from the US and Europe, who wander through the town, complaining of the heat and the lack of internet and ATM machines. They often go to an indigenous show, where women perform inauthentic dances in fake traditional costumes. It is a tourist opportunity that the local tradespeople and hotel owners exploit enthusiastically. Yet their relationship with real flesh-and-blood indigenous people is more complex.
We invite Benito to stay with us in the small hotel where we are lodged. The couple running the hotel, who have been extremely helpful to us prior to Benito’s arrival, immediately identify him as Sateré. As he follows us to our rooms at the back of the hotel, squeezing past their parked car, the wife shouts out aggressively: ‘Stop scratching my car, you Indian from Andirá. Where you come from, they don’t even know what cars are!’ Benito doesn’t answer back but says he will sleep elsewhere. We decide to move hotels, explaining politely to the couple why. The husband, who has spent much of his life travelling in indigenous land, buying and selling goods, looks embarrassed, but his wife is unrepentant.
Now that we are alert to it, racism pops up elsewhere. As we wait in the port for our canoe, we buy barbecued chicken on wooden skewers. The man gives us hot pieces of meat but tells Benito curtly that he can pick up one of the cold ones. Small but painful incidents. We ask Benito which is worse: the racism he encounters in the towns or the violence of the gunmen driving indigenous people off their land. Benito replies without hesitation: the racism. He says that several people have committed suicide. ‘Racism eats at you inside,’ he explains.
Racism is rife in Brazil, though it is not always easy to see it in this ‘melting pot of nations’, where most people have some African or indigenous blood. The racism is directed, above all, to groups that are culturally different. Benito’s experience reminds me of a comment made to me, on an earlier trip, by Marcelo, an indigenous Munduruku living in Mato Grosso state: ‘The ethnocide continues, in the way people look at us, the way they want us to be like them, subjugating our organizations, the way they tell us that our religion isn’t worth anything, that theirs is what matters, the way they tell us our behaviour is wrong. They are obliterating the identity of the Indian as a human being.’
‘It’s my destiny’
We make the two-day journey to Fortaleza village in a canoe with an outboard motor. During the trip Benito tells us that once he has completed the tucandeira ceremony the required 20 times, he plans to train as a ‘tuxaua’ – an indigenous chief – and eventually take over the role from his widely respected father, Bernadino. ‘It is my destiny,’ he explains simply.
The day after we arrive, we wake at sunrise to find the village buzzing with activity. Women are preparing their traditional morning drink of guaraná, a beverage made from the seeds of an endemic creeper which the Sateré people domesticated many centuries ago. The drink, which is passed around, boosts energy, like a cup of tea or coffee. Every Sateré village seeks to ensure that it has a reliable supply of guaraná throughout the year. During the harvest, the seeds are collected, washed and dried, toasted and then pounded into a fine powder from which they make guaraná bread, which will last for months.
While we sip guaraná, young people, including children, are painting traditional designs on their bodies using a black dye made from the seeds of the genipapo tree, native to the Amazonian forest. Young men are also skilfully carving flutes from thick stems of bamboo shoots. Chickens are clucking around. Gaunt, undernourished dogs, used for hunting, grab whatever scraps of food they can find, though they are too frightened to come close. Not regarded as pets, the dogs are often kicked and they back away if you try to stroke them.
We join the small group of young men and women going into the forest to collect the ants for the ceremony. After a 40-minute walk, we find an ants’ nest at the foot of a tree. Playing on the flutes, the young people collect scores of ants, carefully picking them up with narrow sticks and keeping them safe in the hollow of a large bamboo stick. They then take the ants back to the village and place them in a bucket of water containing chopped leaves of the cashew plant. This concoction anaesthetizes the insects for about half an hour so that they can be handled. They are placed, one by one, into a pair of large gloves, made from a vegetable fibre known as warumá. The gloves are decorated with red macaw feathers, representing the bloody conflicts that the Sateré people have experienced in the past; and white feathers from the hawk eagle, representing the courage and resistance of the people.
The ceremony begins in the late afternoon. An elder blows smoke from a cigarette made out of the leaves of the tauari, another native tree, into the gloves to make sure the ants are fully awake. The dozen men dance round in a circle, enclosed by a fence, and eventually one plunges his hands into the gloves. Only those who bear the pain stoically are considered fit to be leaders. The only outward sign of the extreme pain that young Benito must be feeling during the ritual is a clenching of his jaw and a vacant look in his eyes, as if he has been transported elsewhere.
Enter the evangelicals
The ritual is not practised in all Sateré villages. Indeed, it is no longer performed in the nearby village of Vila Nova, where the Baptist pastor, Maxiko, himself Sateré, begins our conversation by quoting from the Bible, John 14:6: ‘Jesus sayeth unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’ The pastor stutters over his words, but he appears to be saying that the Sateré are committing a mortal sin by believing that they can communicate with their ancestors through a pagan practice. As he is proudly showing us his translation of the Bible into Sateré, his far more articulate daughter, Valquira Miqueles, dressed in expensive, fashionable clothes, bursts into the room. Although born in the village, she now lives in the city of Manaus and is no longer fluent in Sateré. She clearly feels superior to everyone else in the village.
She is a fervent supporter of Bolsonaro and is paying a quick visit to the village to tell her father and the other evangelicals that the new government offers the Sateré people an ‘excellent opportunity, maybe the only opportunity, for them to become civilized’. As the evangelical churches played a key role in electing Bolsonaro, she probably means that she can get more funding for them, though she refuses to elaborate. When I politely suggest that perhaps the Sateré don’t want to become ‘civilized’, she remonstrates noisily. Everyone knows, she says, that the indigenous people have a ‘miserable life’, ‘live in absolute poverty’, ‘don’t even eat proper food’ and ‘lack basic sanitation’. However, very few in Vila Nova – not even other evangelicals, who attend services in the Baptist church, the only church in the village – share her outlook. Most seem to support the right of the Sateré people to continue with their way of life. So much so that some evangelicals are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the retomada.
By reclaiming their old lands, the Sateré are asserting their values, which are different from those dominant in capitalist society. Their existing reserve is by no means small, for it covers 789,000 hectares (3,046 square miles), nearly the size of Yorkshire, the UK’s largest county. For most non-indigenous people, this seems a lot of land for a population of 13,000. But for Sateré people it is not the size of the land that matters most: they are concerned that animals and fish are becoming scarce. This is largely due to outsiders moving into neighbouring areas, often illegally. Loggers, in particular, are scaring off animals with the noise of chain-saws and other machinery. Indigenous people often see large barges, laden with hardwood, moving down the river. Indeed, we passed temporary ports, hacked out of the forest, where large volumes of timber were stacked, ready to be transported. From time to time commercial fishing vessels scour the river with large nets.
The solution proposed by Benito and others is to incorporate officially into their reserve a large area of even more remote forest, located beside the Mariacuã river. This area is still very rich in flora and fauna but there are signs that a rapidly advancing economic frontier is drawing close. The Sateré villagers tell us that loggers and land thieves are eyeing up this region. If they take it over, a whole new wave of destruction will be unleashed, probably sounding the death knell for the Amazon forest as a whole. If, instead, the Sateré people can occupy it, they may be able to save it. Learning from indigenous experience elsewhere, they will create a network of aldeias de vigilância (surveillance villages), so that they can work together to expel invaders.
If their strategy works, it will be win-win for all except the extractivist loggers and miners: the indigenous people will live in a forest with abundant fish and animals, and Brazil (and the world) will get the forest protected. Time and again surveys have shown that the best way to protect the Amazon forest is to demarcate it as indigenous. Flying over eastern Amazonia, the most damaged area of the basin, you occasionally see patches of bright green amidst the barren brown of the devastated land and, almost invariably, this land is preserved because it is occupied by an indigenous group. But they must have enough land so they can take what they need – and no more – while not threatening the survival of the flora and fauna.
The area they plan to reoccupy is not far from the village of Vila Nova, about 32 kilometres as the crow flies, but at the moment it is only accessible via a long detour by river as there is no land route. You have to travel downstream by boat to Parintins and then upstream again, this time along the Mamuru river, a trip that takes four to five days. Chief Bernardino, Benito’s father, has already moved to the region and he wants other Sateré to follow suit.
Benito has come to the village of Fortaleza not only to take part in the ritual, but to discuss this proposal.
Songs and dolphins
The community holds a meeting in the evening. There is a feeling of excitement, with several of the older members telling stories from their childhood that illustrate how the land was once occupied by their ancestors. An elderly man, Pedro, croons in a wavering voice a snatch of a ditty his grandmother used to sing about the Mariacuã river. Jacó, the chief of Vila Nova and an evangelical, says his grandfather told him that their ancestors used to live beside the Mariacuã river but had to leave when a virulent disease swept through the region, killing off half of the population. Shortly before he died, his grandfather asked him to start a movement to take the people back to this region.
As a first step, several Sateré, including Jacó, agree to travel with Benito to the region to carry out a recce. So the next morning we set off in a mini-convoy. We travel first to Parintins and then upstream along the Mamuru river. When after four days we draw close to the Mariacuã river, the beauty of the unspoilt forest takes our breath away. At times, the river widens so much we can scarcely see the banks on either side. We occasionally see a river dolphin, coming up for air. Caiman alligators become more common. At times, the river narrows to a hidden channel making its way through a mass of vegetation. It’s the beginning of the rainy season so the river level is rising rapidly and in these mysterious waterways our boat is travelling through half-submerged trees.
Large trunks of grey, dead trees, some with epiphytes still growing from them, are slowly rotting, while slim saplings are growing fiercely towards the sunlight. Many trees bear bright pink and yellow flowers. Branches from larger trees lean over the water, with their giant yellow pods ready to drop their seeds into the river, where fish will gobble them up and help to disperse them. Small birds are constantly flitting across the water. Groups of red macaws fly overhead. We notice dark marks on the tree trunks about three to four metres above the water level, showing how much higher the river will rise. Growing everywhere are bushes and creepers, at times so densely interwoven that they look like matted grass. The further we go, the greater the wildlife – more macaws, kingfishers, fish, electric eels and large butterflies glittering brightly when the sun catches their fluorescent blue wings.
When we reach the village of Campo Branco on the Mariacuã river, we are welcomed by Bernadino, Benito’s father, joyful as he starts to realize that this retomada is actually going to happen. Benito’s mother, Sonia, starts to prepare food for the new arrivals, frying freshly caught fish, roasting pumpkins, sweet potatoes, yams and other vegetables, and making tapioca, a kind of manioc bread. A hunter comes in with the body of one of the large howler monkeys that we hear roaring in the trees at night. They put it on the fire to scorch off the skin and then they roast it, roughly cutting it up into big chunks. They offer us an arm, but the hand looks so much like a child’s that we find it impossible to eat. But no-one notices, as the visitors, delighted at finding such an abundance of food, are happy to gorge themselves.
It’s the açai season, so large jugs of juice made from these tasty black berries collected from açai palm trees are passed round. Jacó’s wife, Dilma, stands for hours stirring damp farinha (manioc meal) in a huge circular pan, about a metre and a half wide, placed over a wood fire. Piglets are running around the house and they are treated with far greater consideration than the dogs, possibly because they are seen as a future meal – and the people love roast pork. But they bring another benefit too – it’s said that snakes are scared of pigs. Poisonous snakes are a real risk during the rainy season when the river level rises by as much as 10 metres and the snakes, with their nests flooded, congregate on the dry land. Six years ago, before she moved to Campo Branco, Sonia was bitten on the hand by a surucucu, an extremely poisonous viper, and spent two months in hospital, fighting for her life. She eventually recovered but was left with several fingers on her right hand withered. She has had to teach herself how to do all the household tasks with her left hand alone.
Sonia is a fighter. It was shortly after this traumatic incident that she agreed to move with Bernardino and her children to the remote Mariacuã river, where there is no public health service. Sonia says that the forest is her hospital and she uses plants from it to treat common complaints, like fevers and diarrhoea. But she knows that some medical emergencies require modern medicine, and she worries that one of her children could get seriously ill and die before they reach a hospital. She likes the tranquillity of her new home and the abundance of food, but life is tough – five years ago she had the last of her 10 children, Christopher. Her contractions started when she was alone, out working in the fields. She squatted down, guiding the baby’s descent. She cut the umbilical cord and made her way home.
Another thing that worries her is the lack of schools, without even a primary school in the area. She is hoping that when the other Sateré families arrive, they may then have enough children to force the government to open a small school. If this happens, the families would also qualify for Bolsa Familia, a hugely popular cash transfer programme by which very poor families get paid half a minimum wage (that is, about $10) a month for every child attending school. Until then, Sonia and Bernardino are trapped in an impasse: they would love to send their children to school, but they can’t and, as their children don’t attend school, they don’t qualify for the payment.
Benito is delighted to be spending a few days with his parents. He takes us around a small clearing near the house where they have planted manioc, maize, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, passion fruit, guaraná, and other crops. Benito says he loves the rhythm of life in the village. They work very hard during parts of the year, particularly at the beginning of the dry season, when they plant crops and repair huts, replacing the palm roofs every five or six years so that the houses remain waterproof during the rainy season. Later they collect products from the forest, particularly açaí, Brazil nuts and copaiba seeds, extracting oil from the seeds.
Their main problem is a very low cash income. They need money to pay for clothes, tools, pots and pans, and diesel for their canoe. They produce goods, mainly copaiba oil, manioc flour and indigenous handicrafts, but they find it difficult to sell them at a decent price. Bernardino says that the traders in Parintins offer low prices, even lower than the already poor prices paid to non-indigenous riverine families. It is a problem all indigenous communities face, he says.
Indigenous direct action
The day we leave to travel downstream once more to Parintins, Benito, Jacó and the others continue upstream to plan their occupation. We give Benito some basic instructions about filming their arrival on his phone and he later sends us good footage. Later this year they are planning to carve out a rough track through the forest to Vila Nova so they can be in touch with the rest of the Sateré without making such a huge detour. This will make resistance easier to organize. They are confident that they can make the new venture prosper and invite us to visit them later in the year when they are fully installed in their new homes.
The Sateré are not the only indigenous group that is resorting to direct action. Since he came to office, President Bolsonaro has acted rapidly to isolate indigenous people. He has removed from the indigenous agency, FUNAI, authority to demarcate indigenous land and handed it over to the Agriculture Ministry, dominated by agribusiness. He is preparing legislation that will give the go-ahead to big development projects without the need for proper consultation with the communities. He is doing little to curb the wave of violence as land-grabbers and loggers illegally invade indigenous land. Brazil’s indigenous people are increasingly aware that they will only survive if they get organized, forming alliances with non-indigenous groups, such as the riverine populations and landless families, even though these groups were once considered their enemies. Today they have a much bigger common enemy in Bolsonaro.
Brazil’s National Truth Commission calculated that over 8,000 indigenous people were massacred during the 21 years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, while thousands more died through neglect. Even though Bolsonaro venerates the military, repression on this scale is no longer possible. Public opinion has changed. A poll carried out just after Bolsonaro had announced that he would not recognize any more land as indigenous, and indeed wanted to seize some already demarcated, showed that 60 per cent of the population believed that the indigenous people had a right to their land.
But the indigenous struggle to maintain control over their land will be hard, particularly in remote regions. A powerful lobby of farmers, mining companies and politicians is keen to take control of the 1.7 million hectare (6,563 square mile) Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve, located in the very north of the country, near the frontier with Venezuela and Guyana. The region is known to have rich mineral reserves, particularly of niobium and uranium. Shortly before he took office, Bolsonaro expressed support for this lobby, saying: ‘This is the richest area in the world and it has to be exploited rationally. The Indians can be given royalties, integrated into society.’
Another battle will be fought over the country’s largest indigenous reserve, the 9.6 million hectare (37,000 square mile) Yanomami territory also located in the very north of the country, to the west of Raposa Serra do Sol. It is home to around 32,000 Yanomami, including some groups who have never been contacted. Bolsonaro opposed the creation of the Yanomami territory in the 1980s, calling it a ‘crime against the motherland’ and a ‘scandal’. Few doubt he wants this territory taken away from them.
The outcome of the indigenous struggle is important to all of us. A Guarani person recently put it this way: ‘If indigenous peoples become extinct and dead, the lives of all are threatened, for we are the guardians of nature. Without forest, without water, without rivers, there is no life, there is no way for any Brazilian to survive. We resisted 518 years ago [when the Europeans first arrived], we fight in victory and defeat, our land is our mother. As long as the sun still shines, and while there is still fresh air under the shade of a tree, while there is still a river to bathe in, we will fight.’
Support for this reporting was made possible by the Rainforest Journalism Fund, in association with the Pulitzer Center.