Lula pledges to land first presidential visit with Indigenous people in Brazil’s Amazon

RAPOSA SERRA DO SOL INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, Brazil — In his first trip to Indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest since taking office, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed his support for the creation of new territories for these communities, but did not announce delimitations.

Wearing a white cap and dark shirt in the heat, Lula addressed about 2,000 indigenous people who painted their faces, wore traditional headdresses and sang songs to welcome him on Monday in the Raposa Serra do Sol region that borders Venezuela and Guyana.

He said he wanted a quick demarcation of their lands “before other people take over, invent fake documents” to claim ownership rights. This has been a common occurrence throughout Brazil’s history, leading to the initiation of demarcation processes half a century ago.

“We must quickly try to legalize any land whose (demarcation) studies are almost finished so that indigenous people can take the land that is theirs,” Lula told the 52nd general assembly of the indigenous peoples of Roraima State.

However, Lula stopped short of actually announcing any new designations that are highly anticipated by indigenous peoples and rights activists. Many had already dashed their hopes that redistricting would be done in the first 30 days of his administration, which began on January 1.

Their movement pushed Lula to demarcate 13 new indigenous territories that have cleared all regulatory steps and require nothing more than presidential approval to be official. Doing so would mark a sharp change in policy from the previous government of Jair Bolsonaro, who did not demarcate any land for them during his presidency.

Some of the areas pending presidential authorization began their delineation processes decades ago.

Lula approved the demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol in 2005, during his first term as president. Different from other reserves in the Brazilian Amazon, Raposa Serra do Sol is mainly tropical savanna. It hosts 26,000 people from five different ethnicities.

Since receiving protected status, it has been the scene of conflict between rice farmers and indigenous peoples and has seen sporadic violence, making the area a case study in the challenges of protecting land that is under increasing pressure from the outside.

Bolsonaro’s relentless push to legalize mining in indigenous areas has reignited long-standing disputes among the local communities of the Raposa Serra do Sol over the best way forward for their collective well-being. He visited an illegal gold mining camp in the same Indigenous region in October 2021 and openly encouraged the activity, despite criticism from local Indigenous leaders.

Preparations for Lula’s arrival in Raposa Serra do Sol began shortly before dawn in the Amazon, with indigenous people of different groups waking up early to gather at a community center for their final rehearsal of songs and dances for the president. People of different ages wearing straw skirts ran back and forth as drums and chants resounded. Other indigenous people returned to their tents preparing breakfast for their group members.

Indigenous people dance in the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve in Roraima state, Brazil, on March 13, 2023. Edmar Barros / AP

Indigenous leaders, including Osmar Lima Batista of the Macuxi people, Letícia Monteiro da Silva of the Taurepang people and Adailton Waiwai of the Waiwai people, told The Associated Press at the meeting that they expect better days compared to the previous four years, when they believed they had no friend in the presidential palace.

However, all agreed that Lula’s first visit to the region since 2010 was not enough.

Davi Kopenawa, a leader of the Yanomami people, took the microphone during the rally to tell Lula that his people’s needs are greater than they were four years ago.

“After we get the gold miners out, we have to recover our indigenous health care system, which was destroyed,” Kopenawa said. “We must save the children we have left. I don’t want more children to die. We need hospitals in our community. The disease is still strong in the Amazon.”

“I don’t want mining on Yanomami lands and in the Raposa Serra do Sol area,” he added. “Mining is killing us, it’s killing people in the city, the river, the forest water. We don’t need heavy mining at home.”

Lula said in his speech that his government will permanently evict gold miners from indigenous lands — as it has already begun to do in the Yanomami region.

“This gold does not belong to anyone. It is there because nature placed it there. It’s on indigenous land,” Lula said.

The president was accompanied by Sonia Guajajara, his minister for indigenous peoples, and Joenia Wapichana, who heads the agency for indigenous affairs.

Lula said there would be a meeting involving leaders of Amazon rainforest countries – Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

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