Plans To Celebrate 500 Years Of Brazil’s ‘Discovery’ Anger Indians

By Beauty Lupiya

BOA VISTA, BRAZIL (PANOS) - Everyday, huge roadside digital clocks in the cities of Brazil remind people that a major celebration is afoot. "There are 438 days to go for the anniversary of 500 years since Brazil’s discovery," proclaimed one recently.

But not everyone is convinced of the need to celebrate - least of all those who belong to Brazil’s many indigenous communities, or Indians. They say their condition has only worsened since the day Brazil was ‘discovered’ by Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvares Cabral, and that plans to celebrate are insensitive.

"There is absolutely nothing to celebrate," Jeronimo Pereira da Silva, a member of the Makuxi tribe in the Amazon jungle, told Panos Features. Pereira da Silva belongs to an Indian organisation called Comissao Indigena 500 Anos, which wants the government to ditch commemorative plans for a huge festival next year.

Indians all over Brazil have denounced the plans, pointing out that millions of their people have been killed since the day Cabral set foot in Brazil. In a recent protest, the northeastern tribe of Pataxo Indians has threatened to invade a region called Coroa Vermelha in Santa Cruz de Cabralia, where Cabral first dropped anchor and claimed it for Portugal.

The government appears to be in no mood to back down - it has officially demarcated Coroa Vermelha as an Indian territory and, jointly with Portugal, intends to build a ‘museum of discovery and colonisation’ there. Indians reject this idea as well and say they will expel hundreds of traders from the area if the plan is not withdrawn.

"To us, this celebration symbolises a continued violation of our rights. It legitimises impunity for all the killings, massacres and other crimes committed since the discovery," says a protest letter written by the Comissao. A copy of the letter has been sent to FUNAI, the government body in charge of Indian affairs.

When Cabral first arrived in Brazil on April 23, 1500, he reported that there were more than five million Indians belonging to 970 tribes dispersed all over Brazil. But subsequent conflicts over land between the Indians and white colonisers, which occur to this day, have reduced the Indian population to 325,000. Only 215 tribes exist today.

The Brazilian constitution of 1988 guarantees Indians the right to land traditionally held by their ancestors. By law, these territories should be protected and demarcated as Indian areas. But the process has been slow and land conflicts are frequent. Gold prospectors, farmers, lumberjacks, hunters and fishermen are among the most common settlers exploiting the rich natural resources of these lands.

According to the Constitution, all disputed Indian land should have been demarcated by 1993 and the non-Indian landlords compensated financially. However, of 556 Indian areas in the country, 201 are yet to be demarcated - 176 in the Amazon area.

"Demarcation is only on paper because there is no money to compensate land owners. There are still many invaders in these areas. It is not an easy process to demarcate Indian land," says Walter Blos, the leader of a FUNAI branch in Boa Vista, the Brazilian jungle town in the northern state of Roraima. The states of Roraima and Amazonia have the largest number of Indians living in the area.

Blos says since 1988 there have been 32 land conflicts between Indians and Whites in just one Indian territory - Sao Marcos near the Venezuelan border. He says these have occurred in spite of the fact that FUNAI has spent three million reals (US$1.71 million) to compensate 70 farmers who had settled in the area.

To stop conflicts in Roraima, Blos said, the government will need to spend 10 million reals (US$5.7m). "That will solve all the problems. Indians want human dignity. They have no choice but to recover their lost land - yet invaders will not give it up without compensation."

Nationwide, there have been innumerable conflicts involving Indians in recent years. In 1992 a leader of the Yanomani Indians was killed by gold prospectors in Roraima, near the Brazilian and Venezuelan border. In 1993 gold prospectors invaded Yanomani land, killing 16 Yanomanis.

In the capital city of Brasilia, another Indian group called CAPOIAB have announced their own parallel event to mark the 500-year anniversary – a protest march through Santa Cruz da Cabralia by some 2,000 Indians.

CAPOIAB says that in addition to their "systematic genocide," Indians also suffer from raging ill-health and the absence of school education.

Indian groups point out that more than half of all Brazilian Indians depend on the government for food handouts under a programme which began two years ago. At the start of it, 37,350 Indians depended on government food. Just two years on the number has jumped to 173,626.

But in the Amazonia and Roraima states, where villages are in remote areas, the government has found it too expensive to distribute food. Here, Indians make a living by hunting, fishing and selling Indian artefacts to tourists visiting nearby national parks.

Meanwhile, the government insists its plans to celebrate the 500-year anniversary will go ahead. At least five Internet sites have been launched to promote the event and a special commission has been formed to scout for ideas.

So far it has approved 150 projects, including art exhibitions, book launches, film and video shows, and boat trips around Santa Cruz de Cabralia.

Mar. 3, 1999, From WWW.PANOS.ORG.UK