From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
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Who speaks in the name of the Indians?

by Beto Ricardo, founding partner of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). Article originally published in the book Povos Indígenas no Brasil 1991-1995 (pages 90-91)

In the 1980s ‘the Indians’ became key figures in various high profile scenes at national political level. Recorded by photographers and filmmakers, these events made the headlines in newspapers and TV news shows: the leader Mário Juruna (Xavante) with his tape-deck, recording the promises made by politicians in Brasilia; Ailton Krenak’s striking gesture of painting his face black during a speech in the plenary meeting of the National Constitutional Congress; or the warning gesture made by Tuíra, a Kayapó woman, in Altamira, Pará state, when she touched the face of an Eletronorte director with the blade of her machete.

Among many such scenes, there is one, involving the leader Raoni Metuktire of the Txucarramãe (Kayapó), as they were then called, and the Minister of Internal Affairs, Mário Andreazza, which deserves to be recalled here in more detail. In May ‘84, Raoni left his village and came to Brasilia, after his warriors hade blocked the BR-080 highway linking the towns of Xavantina and Cachimbo, in the north of Mato Grosso, for more than a month, in response to the federal government’s failure to fulfil its promise to demarcate an additional area to their territory on the right shore of the Xingu. In the middle of the Minister’s Office and stood before the press, the demand of Raoni’s people was finally met. He sealed the agreement by presenting Andreazza with a war club and, pulling his left earlobe, declared: “I agree to be your friend, but you have to listen to the Indian”!

But how so? Who speaks in the name of ‘the Indians’? Apparently simple, this question is difficult to answer. In this specific case Raoni was the bearer of a very concrete local demand and spoke with complete legitimacy for his village and his warriors who had met to plan their actions in the Men’s House in just one of the many villages belonging to the Kayapó people.

The agenda pursued by national and international society for Brazil’s ‘Indians’ in the early 1990s encouraged the emergence of a form of representing indigenous peoples as a whole. Here I refer to the following set of processes and events: the elaboration of the Federal Constitution (1987/88), the UN summit on ecology and development held in Rio de Janeiro (1992), the commemorations or anti-commemorations for the 500 years of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas (1992), the passage of the Statute of Indigenous Societies through the National Congress (1992/94), the end of the constitutional deadline for the demarcation of all indigenous territories (1993), the revision of the Constitution (1993/94) and the presidential elections (1994).

In 1995 the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso set off an enormous national and international polemic with the announcement of a new decree establishing rules for the demarcation of indigenous territories, finally formulated by the Minister of Justice Nelson Jobim and promulgated under decree no. 1775 at the start of 1996.

Villages, factions and registry offices

The further away one moves from local level, the more indigenous politics tends to appear at regional, national and international levels as an intermittent action associated with non-indigenous intermediaries who for their part have an institutional profile with their own very different objectives and strategies. Even taking into account the recent phenomenon of the so-called ‘registry office’ indigenous organizations, it should be pointed out that the question of the representation of indigenous interests at supralocal level in Brazil can only be understood and evaluated by including a sociology of the wide variety of non-indigenous intermediaries linked to the area, as a group that both constitutes and shapes it.

Especially after the promulgation of the new Federal Constitution of 1988, there was an increase in the formal registration of indigenous organizations with elected directorates, official statutes and their own bank accounts. In effect, this amounted to the incorporation by some indigenous peoples of mechanisms of political representation through delegation as a way of negotiating with public and private institutions at national and international level and coordinating territorial demands (land demarcation and control of natural resources), public service issues (healthcare, education, transportation and communication) and commercial affairs (placement of products on the market).

Most of these organizations are ethnic and locally based (by village or community) like the Shavante Association of Pimentel Barbosa, or interlocally based (a group of villages or communities) like ACIRI (Association of Indigenous Communities of the Içana River), or the Ticuna Tribe General Council (CGTT). A number of regional organizations also emerged, such as UNI (Union of Indigenous Nations of Acre), the Roraima Indigenous Council (CIR), the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro (FOIRN) and, at a broader level, the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of Brazilian Amazonia (COIAB). There was also a short-lived experience of national representation via UNI (Union of Indigenous Nations), which, in fact, was never formally institutionalized. A new attempt was launched through the General Council of the Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Brazil (CAPOIB), founded in 1992 at an Assembly of COIAB, accompanied and hosted by CIMI (the official organ of the CNBB, part of the Roman Catholic Church), but whose first General Assembly was only held in 1995.

Operating at local level are the traditional political institutions of each people, not always so visible as the men’s house among the Kayapó or the Council of Elders on the village clearing among the Shavante. These organizations play an effective role in regulating outside interferences. These traditional forms of organization were and still remain internal mechanisms that frequently resist the impositions of government officers who, always in search of ‘the leader’ with whom they can negotiate, end up nominating ‘chiefs’ who fail to coincide with the traditional authorities. The same applies to missionaries who select their favoured interlocutors in an indigenous community, appointing them as pastors or religious instructors in opposition to shamans. Both are forms of cooptation that contact agents establish to ‘enter’ with their own political aims and configurations within a particular indigenous area.

The case of the Nacional UNI, now disbanded, illustrates the difficulty the Indians face in building stable and permanent forms of representing their interests in Brazil with such a profoundly diverse and dispersed base. Founded in 1979 at an encounter hosted by the Mato Grosso state government without any direct connection to the various Assemblies of Indigenous Leaders active in the 1970s, and backed by CIMI (Indigenist Missionary Council), UNI performed an effective role as a symbolic reference point for Brazil’s indigenous peoples in the period of democratization undergone by Brazilian society in the run-up to the elaboration of the new Federal Constitution (1986/88). In the process it deployed a wide range of non-indigenous alliances that included various non-governmental support organizations, CIMI itself, parliamentary members from various political parties, professional associations such as CONAGE (National Association of Geologists) and ABA (Brazilian Anthropology Association), and other bodies. The ‘indigenous scene’ that formed in Brasilia during this period included the presence of representatives from around half of the country’s indigenous peoples, enabled by the support received from their non-indigenous allies. However the commission set up to accompany the decisive moments of the votes on indigenous rights in the National Congress contained an expressive and bellicose group of Kayapó, the only people to reach the capital by their own means, whether by controlling key connections with the FUNAI bureaucracy or using income from the sale of mahogany and the taxes levied on miners extracting gold from their lands.

The Statutes approved by the members of the 1st General Assembly of CAPOIB in 1995 established a curious criterion for inclusion in article 2 (“members of CAPOIB comprise indigenous organizations and the indigenous peoples and communities who do not participate in any indigenous organization affiliated to it in the act of its constitution”) and set up a vertical institutional structure (General Assembly, Steering Commission and Executive Commission).

It would be somewhat premature, but above all inappropriate and reductionist, to consider just these kinds of recent experiences of political representation and assess the level of social recognition and performance of the organizations’ directors through quantitative and qualitative indicators more appropriate for the analysis of vertical mechanisms of political representation in modern institutional society – such as the capacity for mobilization, the number of votes, the alignment of positions vis-à-vis common issues and so on. In the evolving demographic, linguistic and spatial context described in the previous items of this article, the question of political representation of indigenous interests in Brazil is fairly singular when compared, for example, to the situation in Bolivia (where 57% of the national population is indigenous), Peru (40%) or Ecuador (30%). Here properly indigenous politics, autonomous and permanent, is fundamentally local (of each village, community or family), factional (in the case, for example, of villages where social organization is based on ritual moieties each with its own leader) and decentralized (without the recognition of a single centre of power).

Recognizing and valuing the particularity of indigenous forms of organization and representation carries a contemporary importance: for example, the current Federal Constitution requires prior consultations with indigenous communities concerning any project for exploring mineral resources by third parties in their territories. Holding these consultations in situ wherever possible and ensuring adequate conditions for expression in the native language increases the probability of knowing what a particular indigenous people really thinks and wants.