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Story Publication logo October 27, 2022

Brazil’s Indigenous Communities Confront Challenges to Their Land and Way of Life


red wave leaves the Brazilian capitol

The future of Brazil's rainforest and democracy hang in the balance.


This weekend, millions of Brazilians will go to the polls to vote in the final round of a hugely consequential presidential election. Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson takes us inside the Amazon to explore how this election could impact Indigenous people there.


Judy Woodruff: This weekend, millions of Brazilians will go to the polls to vote in the final round of the presidential election, which pits right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro against former two-time President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

That election could have huge consequences for the Amazon rainforest and for the Indigenous people who live there.

"NewsHour" special correspondent Jane Ferguson traveled into the Amazon for this story, produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

Jane Ferguson: It's an Indigenous version of the Olympics in the Amazon, complete with opening ceremony.

Here, every four years, 13 different Indigenous communities gather as young people compete at age-old traditions, running races, bow and arrow, swimming, tug-of-war. Above all, these youth games are an effort to keep their cultures alive, at a time when those cultures are under fierce attack, says the local community leader, Abraao Atman.

Abraao Atman, Indigenous Leader (through translator): Our culture is being assassinated by white culture. The games really come to the rescue. So it's of the utmost importance, because the younger generation begin to understand themselves.

They see all these people here together. It serves as a kind of appreciation for our culture.

Jane Ferguson: We were invited to witness the event and traveled to a tip of land where the Tapajos and Amazon rivers nearly meet in an Indigenous community known as Villa Franca. Communities like this are fighting to stay on their land.

Auricelia Arapiun, Indigenous Leader (through translator): We are at war with the Brazilian government.

Jane Ferguson: Auricelia Arapiun has been struggling for the rights of her community for years, and never as hard, she says, as during the years since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019.

Auricelia Arapiun (through translator): When Bolsonaro was campaigning in the last elections, he already said he would not preserve even a centimeter, not even a millimeter of Indigenous land, of our territories that were already being threatened.

Jane Ferguson: Territory designated for Indigenous communities is meant to be protected from industries, such as mining, which is highly pollutive, or forest clearing to grow crops like soy or graze cattle.

Right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro counts those agribusinesses as his loyalists. To get elected, he campaigned to develop untouched land in the Amazon. And he continues to do so. One of his first acts as president was taking the federal bodies in charge of Indigenous rights and forest conservation and moving them from the Justice Ministry to the Agriculture Ministry.

Auricelia Arapiun (through translator): We don't sell our land because it is like our mother. Our territory is our body. And we don't sell our body. We don't sell our mother. We wouldn't sell it, because it is sacred.

And we start suffering pressures of invasion, pressure from mining, from agribusiness, which has expanded a lot, pressure from logging companies, which are deforesting our territories. And we have been resisting.

Jane Ferguson: As Bolsonaro faces former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known widely as Lula, in a run-off for reelection, the Amazon rain forest and its people have become part of a wider political battle, development vs. conservation, job creation vs. Indigenous rights.

Humanities Professor Felipe Milanez says this is all part of a political playbook with messaging by Bolsonaro that stokes fears, like:

Felipe Milanez, Federal University of Bahia: So, we don't have money today. The economy in Brazil is broke because of international support to Indigenous people. And Bolsonaro appeals to that to, let's say, middle class: That's why you don't have jobs, because you don't have the economy running because Indigenous people doesn't allow us to extract the rich of the nation.

Jane Ferguson: In June, British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous conservation activist Bruno Pereira were murdered in the Amazon while investigating illegal fishing.

President Bolsonaro's response was unsympathetic.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian President (through translator): Two people on a boat in a completely wild region is an adventure that is not recommended to do. Anything can happen. It could be an accident. It could be that they were executed.

Jane Ferguson: Environmentalists in Brazil, many of them Indigenous, have seen an uptick in brutal murders in recent years. Activists blame the government for, at best, not cracking down on the violence and, at worst, condoning it.

Felipe Milanez: There's a war against the environment. And there's a war against Indigenous people. It's public-private partnership, because the state supports the killing, or at least the Brazilian state allows the killing to be made, or it's — very often, it's a policeman that is doing the killing as a freelance job, for example.

Jane Ferguson: Further down the Tapajos River, we meet with Alessandra Munduruku, who continues to fight agribusinesses encroaching on her people's land.

She showed us what her community is up against, growing industrial development. On the Tapajos, Itaituba Port is a hub for much of the soy grown upriver in areas cleared deeper in the forest. That soy passes through here on route to such faraway states as Mato Grosso and Bahia.

That's a new port there? So they're just expanding all the way down here?

Alessandra Munduruku, Indigenous Activist (through translator): It is a governmental project. And who gets in the way a lot? Who disturbs? They say, these Indigenous have to move. They have to be put somewhere. They are not to be here.

And there is no space for us.

Jane Ferguson: Munduruku doesn't feel safe to stay for more than a short time. She is known here and abroad for her Indigenous activism.

So, we were just filming here outside the port. And some of the men standing on the port on the industrial side started filming us filming them and making calls. So we're going to move a little bit further up the river.

All along the river's banks, signs of development as the port grows. It is a logistics hub to transport grains out of the areas already cleared inside the rain forest. Even the mayor seems to be doing well in the current circumstances. This is his yacht.

Since Bolsonaro came to power, illegal mining, logging and development has boomed inside the Amazon, under a culture of impunity and looking the other way.

Alessandra Munduruku (through translator): We saw companies trying to enter Indigenous lands. We saw mining going further inside the territory. We started to see very strong fires, land-grabbing in the territory, and threats. We started seeing our River Tapajos dirtier and dirtier.

Jane Ferguson: Bolsonaro has defended his policies, arguing in the past that Indigenous people have a right to prosper also from the development of the Amazon.

Jair Bolsonaro (through translator): Unfortunately, some people both inside and outside Brazil supported by NGOs have stubbornly insisted on treating and keeping our Indians as if they are real cavemen. The Indigenous people do not want to be poor, large landholders sitting on rich lands, especially sitting on the world's richest lands.

Jane Ferguson: With so much money at stake, some members of the community have cooperated with developers, selling land and working within the mining and agricultural businesses.

Alessandra Munduruku (through translator): Unfortunately, among our people, not only our people, but in other peoples in general, there is always a rotten apple. There is always someone who wants things only for themselves.

Some who live in the city thought they could speak for our people in general, but the children need to speak, the women, the chiefs, the warriors.

Jane Ferguson: Earlier this month, two Indigenous women won election to Congress, Sonia Guajajara in Sao Paulo state, and Celia Xakriaba in Minas Gerais.

But Bolsonaro's party won the highest number of congressional seats. Their work ahead will be difficult.

Alessandra Munduruku (through translator): These two women, they have always been from the movement. They have always been women who listen to us. Suddenly, these women are there sitting with a lot of people who are against us.

It will be a challenge for them. But we will be here to always give them strength.

Jane Ferguson: She will need plenty of strength herself. Munduruku doesn't advertise her movements and tends to travel last minute, but there's no denying she is completely exposed out here. These are risks she has made peace with.

Alessandra Munduruku (through translator): I will continue this life. I will continue to defend my territory, my people, my children, sacred places. I will not stop now, even if they kill me, and I am not scared. I always continue fighting and protecting.

Jane Ferguson: You have two sons, so you have got children. When you picture their future, what do you see? What do you hope for?

Alessandra Munduruku (through translator): I always say, my sons, if, today, I am in this fight, if, today, there are these attacks, it is because I'm defending what is best for you. Your future is the territory. Your future is the river. Your future is the forest.

Jane Ferguson: Brazil's immediate political future will be decided on October 30, when millions vote for their next president.

That moment in political history and the impact it has will reach deep into the Amazon along its waterways and through its forests to the people fighting for both its future and theirs.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Itaituba, Brazil.