This year’s Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp) brought 6,000 Indigenous people to Brasília to demand recognition of their land rights. Ana Pessoa / Mídia NINJA, Flickr

‘The Indigenous future is today’: Brazil’s Free Land Camp

A conversation with Tarisson Nawa and Ariane Susui

No matter where in the world they live, Indigenous Peoples are some of nature’s best guardians: despite representing roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, they’re responsible for sustaining 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity on their lands

And nowhere is this more evident than in Brazil, home to over 300 Indigenous Peoples whose lands cover roughly 14 percent of the country’s territory and primarily consist of vast forested areas in the Amazon region.

In Indigenous-controlled parts of the Amazon, only 2.5 percent of the total land area has been deforested. Elsewhere, in areas occupied by rural properties, 52.5 percent of forest cover has been destroyed.

Yet, despite playing such an important role in the protection of nature – and their constitutionally protected status – Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples have suffered constant attacks from agribusiness interests, the development of large-scale infrastructure, and invasions in the name of extractive industries, most notably mining. 

These invasions surged by 212 percent under the watch of Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s notoriously anti-Indigenous former president, occurring an average of 275 times a year between 2019 and 2021.

Lula and Sônia Guajajara
Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara, made an appearance at this year’s Free Land Camp. Ana Pessoa / Mídia NINJA, Flickr

After four years of assuming a mostly defensive position against the hostile Bolsonaro administration, the Indigenous movement is receiving renewed attention to their struggles from the freshly elected government led by new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In his first five months in office, Lula has revoked several of Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous decrees and measures, such as those permitting mining on Indigenous lands. 

But despite these major victories, the National Congress, dominated by agribusiness and extractivist interests, is attempting to obstruct the newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, led by internationally recognized Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara, from demarcating Indigenous lands. 

The Free Land Camp

In this context, one of the Indigenous movement’s main priorities is ensuring that their demands can withstand the hostile political environment at the legislative level. Last month, around 6,000 Indigenous people gathered in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, for one of the largest Indigenous mobilizations in the world: the Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp), organized by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB)

Now in its 19th edition, the event brought together participants from over 180 ethnicities and all of the country’s biomes for a series of demonstrations, dialogues and cultural activities under the guiding theme of land demarcation. Indigenous leaders of all ages gathered to reiterate the need for the demarcation of Indigenous lands and to reaffirm that the climate crisis cannot be solved without the active participation of Indigenous Peoples.

Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp), Brasília, 2023
Thousands of Indigenous activists attended the march in Brasília. Ana Pessoa / Mídia NINJA, Flickr

Securing land rights through demarcation continues to be the movement’s flagship struggle. As such, the camp serves as a space to ramp up pressure on the Lula administration to openly oppose worrisome proposals such as the Marco Temporal (temporal milestone) – a legal thesis that would change the process of recognizing and demarcating Indigenous lands in Brazil.

The proposal, which will be voted on by Congress on 30 May and the country’s Supreme Court in June, would require Indigenous Peoples to provide documentation proving that they owned or controlled their territories in 1988, when Brazil’s current constitution came into effect.

This ignores the fact that many Indigenous Peoples had been expelled from their lands despite having owned and managed them for centuries. It also fails to consider that Indigenous Peoples did not have access to such documents or to the judiciary systems as they were legally under the guardianship of the National Indigenous People Foundation (FUNAI) at the time.

Despite the looming backdrop of the temporal milestone, this year’s Free Land Camp was considered a success for the movement, with President Lula officially demarcating six more Indigenous lands at the event.

To better understand the power of the camp and its importance for Indigenous politics in Brazil, we caught up with two inspiring young Indigenous leaders from the Brazilian Amazon: Tarisson Nawa, from the Nawa peoples in the state of Acre, and Ariene Susui, from the Wapishana people in the state of Roraima. 

Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp), Brasília, 2023
Indigenous people march at the Free Land Camp in Brasília. Ana Pessoa / Mídia NINJA, Flickr

This week, we’re witnessing an incredible mobilization, with more than 6,000 Indigenous people occupying the center of Brazilian political power. Just how important is this space to the Indigenous movement?

Tarisson Nawa: The camp is the main platform for the struggle of the Indigenous movement, where we unite all of our forces into a single movement and central agenda, which is land demarcation. Of course, there are some policies that can be exercised without our territories being demarcated, but they will be compromised without first securing access to territory. In many Indigenous territories that aren’t legally demarcated by the state, such as mine in the Serra do Divisor National Park, access to education and health is precarious as the territory isn’t recognized as Indigenous land.

The camp is an opportunity to strengthen Brazil’s different Indigenous Peoples through collective action, as we have all of Brazil’s ethnicities here in this space working together to pressure the government to defend other Peoples that have smaller populations or struggle with inadequate protections for their territories.

The Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), together with all its grassroots organizations, has used this camp to declare a climate emergency. What is the role of Indigenous Peoples in the struggle against environmental and climate collapse?

Ariane Susui: The Indigenous movement has declared a climate emergency because we have reached a very dangerous situation, but issues associated with the climate crisis are not new to us Indigenous Peoples. We’ve been talking about climate change, deforestation, mining and the devastation of countless environmental conservation areas and Indigenous territories for a long time. The movement has been playing its part in addressing these issues by defending our territories, given that the most important spaces for the preservation of fauna and flora in Brazil and in the world are on Indigenous lands.

When we talk about the different biomes of Brazil, it’s always important to remember that there have always been people in these territories, and it’s only because of the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples that these biomes have been able to continue nurturing life. That’s why it’s vital to demarcate our lands so that we can continue and further consolidate this protection of life.

Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp), Brasília, 2023
An Indigenous demonstrator holds up a sign reading “We are the answer.” Ana Pessoa / Mídia NINJA, Flickr

The Free Land Camp is also organizing marches to bring the main demands of the Indigenous movement to the streets of the capital. What are these demands?

Ariene Susui: Our main demand is the demarcation of the lands that have completed all the necessary legal processes, and the continuation of these processes for other territories that are not yet ready for the final signature.

Another issue on our agenda is the temporal milestone, which also addresses the issue of territory. If approved, this proposal will affect several Indigenous lands in Brazil. Within policy discussions, we’re also moving against extractive projects on Indigenous lands and other bills affecting our territories that are being discussed in Congress. There are also various demands in the fields of Indigenous education and health and in strengthening the spaces of power in the current government where the Indigenous movement is present.

To take the issue of climate change to our territories, we’re also pushing for resources to be directed to land demarcation processes and for political articulation, as well as to discuss the role of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiatives on our lands.

Acampamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp), Brasília, 2023
Indigenous participants at the Free Land Camp in Brasília. Mrê Krijõhere / Mídia NINJA, Flickr

As young Indigenous leaders already recognized in your territories and at the national level, how do you understand the role of Indigenous youth in the struggle for rights and for the demarcation of your ancestral lands?

Tarisson Nawa: Indigenous youth is in a continuous process of updating itself and being aware of the changes happening around us in this modern world. In the Amazon, especially, we have a very strong mobilization around communication as a tool for our struggles for rights, which is largely driven by young people. In this sense, Indigenous youth play a central role in bringing visibility to the struggle of those ancestral leaders who have already departed: we are the lifeblood and a breath of fresh air for the movement in a world that is in constant transformation.

Many Indigenous leaders have also become part of this new favorable government. These young leaders are occupying this transitional space to make demands and to exert pressure on allies to our movement who are in the government. As such, the role of young Indigenous people has been not only to raise awareness of our situation but also to assume the reins of the movement in this new political moment.

Article tags

Amazondeforestationforestsindigenous peoplesindigenous rightsland rights

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