For four decades, the CIMI, a Brazilian Catholic agency, has been encouraging autonomy and rights for indigenous peoples. Treaties, constitutions, and rules exist to defend them, but theory is far from reality. For indigenous tribes in Brazil as in other places, the land continues to be a harbinger of sadness, loss, and humiliation.The Indigenist Missionary Council, CIMI, a Catholic institution linked to the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, has been fighting to defend indigenous peoples for 40 years. The organization’s final goal is to guarantee indigenous life, culture, and traditions, while helping society and non-indigenous organizations get to know and respect the indigenous peoples.
In Rio Branco, capital of the northwestern state of Acre, the CIMI’s local leaders, Rosenilda Nunes and Lindomar Dias Padilha, are a couple that is living testimony of the moral strength of this organization that has never been afraid to take the side of the most vulnerable.
The Jaminawa, a people adrift
CIMI’s office is full of people. Those in charge, Nunes y Dias Padilha, explain that the guests are Jaminawa, an ethnic group of about 2,000 people.
One of the women has come searching for news of her husband who is in prison. One man is here to receive the government aid known as Bolsa Familia. To receive between 80 and 120 reales a month (US$ 40 and $60) — amount depending on the number of children — indigenous people have to travel for days and spend most of what they receive on gas and food.
“Among other things,” Nunes explains, “according to custom, when they need to go to the city, not just one person goes — the entire family goes.” The Jaminawa are the most marginalized of the indigenous peoples. They live in riverbanks and in city suburbs in inhumane conditions.
“They have no land to settle on,” Nunes explains. “If they had their land marked off, they would live very well because they are hard-working. They cultivate yuca, rice, and millet. Without demarcation, conflicts with non-indigenous people are more likely. Additionally, they have a bad reputation in the eyes of the state government because they beg for money or scavenge trash in the streets of Rio Branco and Sena Madureira.”
The Jaminawa are one of the 17 indigenous tribes (plus six uncontacted tribes) that live in the state of Acre. A total of 20,000 people are estimated to be living in 305 communities. Dias Padilha is very critical of the state government — led by the Workers’ Party since 1999 — pointing out that the state’s policy has been to break up the indigenous struggles with the creation of state institutions that give some indigenous leaders salaries and many benefits to encourage them to stop their peoples’ protests.
From hatred to assassination
The CIMI must operate within this complex network.
“Aside from the contingencies of time, there are basically three problems,” explains Dias Padilha. “The first and foremost is the failure to recognize indigenous territories. The second is the lack of respect that leads to marginalization of indigenous peoples in Brazilian society. Last, there is criminalization, a consequence of the land struggles and other issues. Because of this there are many indigenous people in prison. Henceforth, equally serious is the criminalization of the movements that support the indigenous cause.”
Regarding the country as a whole, Dias Padilha explains that “there are at least two Brazils. Southern Brazil, primarily the state Mato Grosso do Sul, where [landowners] feel a deep hatred towards indigenous peoples. The number of assassinated indigenous people proves it. A week doesn’t go by without one or two shot down indigenous people, especially guarani kaiowa indigenous people.”
According to the CIMI, Mato Grosso do Sul, with 279 indigenous people killed since 2003 in conflicts with landowners, is the state where the greatest number of indigenous people have been murdered in all Brazil. In 2011, 51 indigenous people were killed in all the country, 32 of them in Mato Grosso do Sul. Indigenous lands in that state are highly coveted to develop livestock and planting soybean and sugarcane for ethanol.
“Prejudice is rampant in the rest of Brazil,” adds Dias Padilha. As happens frequently, prejudices are rooted in ignorance and a lack of knowledge. “This way people fill their heads with falsehoods and racism. Because of this, one of our tasks is to provide accurate information about indigenous peoples: who they are, what they do, and how they live. We do so by giving testimony in person but also with our media outlets: our Internet website and Porantim, the only Brazilian magazine that is exclusively dedicated to indigenous issues.”
The current situation of isolated and uncontacted peoples is even more delicate. Dias Padilha is clear about this topic: “This [isolated] condition is without a doubt more desirable because contact with white people would brutally interfere [with their lives]. Isolated peoples continue to live as they wish and according to their traditions. We of the CIMI are against making contact with them, except in the case of extreme threats like the invasion of petroleum or logging companies.”
Politics is also to blame. “My biggest disappointment,” says Dias Padilha, “has been waiting in vain for a government to respect indigenous peoples and their rights. [Former President Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] went from being a great supporter to a great opponent of the indigenous cause. It was a huge disappointment to see a supposedly leftist government abandon social movements to support low-level policy, based on environmental and personal compensations. For example, the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which we fought against for years, is an affront to human dignity and life.” —Latinamerica Press.