For Indigenous Brazilians, capital attack was ‘scenario of war’ akin to deforestation

For Indigenous Brazilians, capital attack was ‘scenario of war’ akin to deforestation

  • The morning after protesters attacked government buildings in Brazil’s capital, Mongabay spoke with Indigenous Congresswoman Célia Xakriabá, who compared the act of vandalism to forest destruction: “This is this scenario of war when you deforest.”
  • * Célia Xakriabá had just returned from seeing the damage to the National Congress building: “When they [the rioters] were there also in the Green Room, it made me remember that it is this scenario of war when the repossession takes place in the [Indigenous] territory.”
  • One of the immediate effects of the attack was the temporary suspension of the official inauguration of longtime activist Sonia Guajajara as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples and Anielle Franco as minister for racial equality.
  • The two women were finally sworn in on Jan. 11 at the Presidential Palace, despite the missing glass on the walls, the destroyed gallery of photos of former presidents, and a swath of destruction throughout the building. “[This] is the most legitimate symbol of this secular Black and Indigenous resistance in Brazil!” Sonia Guajajara said.

BRASÍLIA — Since Jan. 8, the whole world has watched as Brazil gets to grips with a violent attack led by supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro on key government buildings in the nation’s capital. The National Congress, the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Federal Court, the centers of the three branches of government, were invaded and vandalized in what appeared to be a coordinated attack that immediately drew comparisons to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of that country’s former president, Donald Trump, two years ago to the week.

Many observers characterized the violence as a right-wing attack on democracy. But for Brazil’s Indigenous peoples, this “war scenario” resembled the destruction of forests and the invasions of their territories that were strongly encouraged under Bolsonaro, who has often been described as “the Trump of the south.”

“This is this scenario of war when you deforest,” Célia Xakriabá, an Indigenous activist who won election to the lower house of Congress last October, told Mongabay in Brasília on the day after the attacks. “I felt it yesterday [and] seeing the [damages] today in the National Congress, in the Senate, and in the [Presidential] Palace. It is as if you had deforested, cut down the trees, cut down forests somewhere.”

The morning after protesters attacked government buildings in Brazil’s capital, Mongabay spoke with Indigenous Congresswoman Célia Xakriabá, who compared the act of vandalism to forest destruction: “This is this scenario of war when you deforest.” Image by Fellipe Neiva for Mongabay
Violent attack led by supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro on key government buildings in the nation’s capital. Image courtesy of Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.
Violent attack led by supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro on key government buildings in the nation’s capital. Image courtesy of Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.

Célia Xakriabá had just come back from seeing the damages in the Green Room, an antechamber to Congress’s main hall and one of the most emblematic places in the parliament building, when she spoke with Mongabay.

“And when [the rioters] were there also in the Green Room, it made me remember that it is this scenario of war when the repossession takes place in the [Indigenous] territory,” she said. “And also this scenario of war that people don’t know that the Indigenous people go through when they set fire to the Pantanal because there was an attempt of fire there [in Brasília] as well.”

Célia Xakriabá also pointed out how the police response to the Bolsonaro supporters differed from their response to Indigenous people when they hold peaceful protests in the capital.

“When we were here, mobilizing in favor of the [our] rights, in favor of the demarcation of Indigenous territories, to prevent mining, gold mining, and mercury from contaminating our rivers, we were always received with strong police repression, with rubber bullets and pepper spray,” she said, noting that Indigenous protesters had never invaded the National Congress.

“We, Indigenous peoples, historically have always had this place of doing mobilizations. But a mobilization that cannot even be compared to this moment, this terrorist attack that should not be called ‘mobilization’ or ‘’demonstration.’ It is a terrorist attack, this attempted coup,” she added. “The question to be asked is: why did they get a free pass?”

Watch the interview in the video below.

Symbol of ‘secular Black and Indigenous resistance’

One of the immediate effects of the attack was the delay of the official inauguration of Sonia Guajajara, an internationally recognized Indigenous rights activist, as Brazil’s first-ever minister of Indigenous peoples. That ceremony had been scheduled for Jan. 10. Anielle Franco also saw her inauguration as the country’s first minister for racial equality, slated for Jan. 9, put on hold because of the attack. Anielle is the sister of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro city councilor who was murdered in 2018, allegedly by police and militia.

On Jan. 11, the two women were sworn in at the Presidential Palace, despite the missing glass on the walls, the destroyed gallery of photos of former presidents, and a wide swath of destruction in the building as witnessed by Mongabay.

“We are here, standing up! To show that we will not surrender,” Sonia Guajajara said in her inauguration speech. “Our inauguration here today, mine and Anielle Franco’s, is the most legitimate symbol of this secular Black and Indigenous resistance in Brazil!”

The ceremony, which Mongabay witnessed, was full of symbolism from both Indigenous and the Afro-Brazilian cultures, including the sounds of rattles and drums. The national anthem was sung partly in the Tikuna Indigenous language by Indigenous singer Djuena Tikuna and partly in Portuguese by Black singer Marina Iris.

On Jan. 11, longtime activist Sonia Guajajara was sworn in as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples and Anielle Franco as minister for racial at the Presidential Palace, despite the missing glass on the walls, the destroyed gallery of photos of former presidents, and a swath of destruction throughout the building. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

“We created the ministries of Indigenous Peoples and of Racial Equality to promote policies with which Brazil has a historical obligation,” President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tweeted after the inauguration. “Count me in, Sonia Guajajara and Anielle Franco, to build a Brazil of the future with respect and rights.”

Bolsonaro won the 2018 election on a campaign streaked with racist and offensive rhetoric against Brazil’s Native peoples. During his single-term presidency, he refused to demarcate any new Indigenous territories, in keeping with a campaign promise. During his term, deforestation of Indigenous territories and violence against their inhabitants soared, along with measures to open up Indigenous lands for mining and agribusiness — in clear violation of Brazil’s Constitution.

Bolsonaro has also made frequent racist remarks against Afro-Brazilians, including  denying the existence of the descendants of slaves and the historical debt owed to them.

Longtime activist Sonia Guajajara was sworn in as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples on Jan. 11. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.
Longtime activist Sonia Guajajara was sworn in as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples on Jan. 11. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

Sonia Guajajara thanked President Lula “for his courage and boldness in recognizing the strength and the role of the Indigenous peoples” by creating “this unprecedented ministry in the history of Brazil.”

“[Indigenous] peoples have resisted for more than 500 years to cowardly and violent daily attacks, as shocking and terrifying as we saw last Sunday here in Brasília, but always less visible,” she said. “From now on, this invisibility can no longer camouflage our reality.”

“We know that it will not be easy to overcome 522 years in four. But we are willing to make this moment the great recovery of the ancestral strength of the Brazilian soul and spirit. Never again a Brazil without us!”

Indigenous people cheer Sonia Guajajara during her inauguration as Brazil's minister of Indigenous peoples. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert @ricardostuckert
Indigenous people cheer Sonia Guajajara during her inauguration as Brazil’s minister of Indigenous peoples. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert @ricardostuckert

At the end of the ceremony, President Lula sanctioned a bill that makes racial outrage a crime of racism, increasing the penalties for insults related to race, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The audience strongly applauded and cheered, yelling “No amnesty.”

Sonia Guajajara, as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples, and Anielle Franco, minister for racial equality. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert @ricardostuckert
Sonia Guajajara, as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples, and Anielle Franco, minister for racial equality. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert @ricardostuckert

Banner image:  Broken windows at Brazil’s Presidential Palace after terrorist acts on Jan. 8 in Brasília. Image courtesy of Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil. 

Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes

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