RAPOSA SERRA DO SOL INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, Brazil (AP) — In his first trip to indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest since taking office, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed support for creating new territories for these communities, but did not declare any demarcations.
Wearing a white cap and dark shirt in the heat, Lula addressed about 2,000 indigenous people who painted their faces, wore traditional feather headdresses and sang songs to welcome him on Monday in the Rapaça Serra do Sol region, which borders Venezuela and Guyana.
He said he wanted a quick demarcation of their lands “before other people grab them, invent fake documents” to claim ownership rights. This has been common throughout Brazil’s history, prompting the beginning of demarcation processes more than half a century ago.
“We need to quickly try to legalize every land whose study (demarcation) is almost finished, so that indigenous peoples can take the land that belongs to them,” Lula said at the 52nd General Assembly of Indigenous Peoples in the state of Roraima.
However, Lula did not announce any new designations, which indigenous peoples and human rights activists have long awaited. Many have already lost hope that new demarcations will take place in the first 30 days of his administration, which began on January 1.
Their movement led Lula to demarcate 13 new indigenous territories, which have passed all regulatory steps and require nothing more than presidential approval to be official. This marks a sharp change in the policy of the previous administration of Jair Bolsonaro, who did not demarcate land for them during his presidency.
Some of the territories awaiting presidential approval began demarcation decades ago.
Lula authorized the demarcation of Raposa-Cerra do Sol in 2005, during his first term as president. Unlike other reserves in the Brazilian Amazon, Raposa Serra do Sol is predominantly tropical savanna. It is home to 26,000 people from five different ethnic groups.
Since receiving protected status, it has been the scene of conflict between rice farmers and the indigenous population, with periodic violence, making the area something of a case study in the challenges of protecting land that is increasingly under pressure from outside.
Bolsonaro’s relentless drive to legalize mining in indigenous territories has reignited long-standing differences among local communities in Rapoza Cerro do Sol over the best path forward for their collective well-being. In October 2021, he visited an illegal gold mining camp in the same indigenous territory and openly encouraged the activity, despite criticism from local indigenous leaders.
Preparations for Lula’s arrival in Raposa Cerro do Sol began shortly before dawn in the Amazon, with indigenous people from various groups waking up early to gather at a community center for a final song and dance rehearsal for the president. People of all ages in straw skirts swayed back and forth as drums and chants played. The other natives returned to their tents and prepared breakfast for the members of their groups.
Indigenous leaders, including Asmar Lima Batista of the Macuxi people, Leticia Monteiro da Silva of the Taurepang people and Adailton Waiwai of the Waiwai people, told The Associated Press at the meeting that they were expecting better days compared to the previous four years, when they believed that they don’t have a friend in the presidential palace.
However, everyone agreed that Lula’s first visit to the region since 2010 was not enough.
Davi Capenawa, a leader of the Yanomami people, took the microphone during the gathering to tell Lula that his people’s needs are greater than they were four years ago.
“After we get the gold miners out, we need to rebuild our indigenous health system, which has been destroyed,” Capenova said. “We need to save the remaining children. I don’t want any more children to die. We need hospitals in our community. The disease is still strong in the Amazon.”
“I don’t want to mine on Yanomami lands and in the Rapoza Cerro do Sol territory,” he added. “Mining is killing us, it is killing people in the city, the river, the water in the forest. We don’t need strong mining at home.”
In his speech, Lula said his administration would finally drive the gold diggers off indigenous lands, as it had already begun to do in Yanomami territory.
“This gold does not belong to anyone. It is there because nature placed it there. This is on indigenous land,” said Lula.
The president was accompanied by Sonia Guajajara, his minister of indigenous affairs, and Joenia Wapicana, who heads the agency for indigenous affairs.
Lula said that there will be a meeting with the participation of the leaders of the countries of the Amazon rainforest — Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.