Tupinamba Fighting a Low-Intensity War

Indigenous Tupinamba Recover Their Land in Brazil

An indigenous Tupinamba leader from the coastal region. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F.)
An indigenous Tupinamba leader from the coastal region. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F.)

By Santiago Navarro F., Renata Bessi
Translated by Miriam Taylor

The extreme south of the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil is a region of intense conflict over indigenous lands. A judge asked Rosivaldo Ferreira da Silva, a leader from the indigenous Babau tribe, about the actions the Tupinamba are taking in order to recover their ancestral lands from the hands of rich landowners.

“You said that your Enchanted One – the spirit of the ancestors of the Tupinamba – ordered you to take back your lands and that you will not return them, even if that means you have to die in a confrontation with the police,” the judge said. Da Silva responded: “Exactly.”

The judge, trying to change the idea that he had proposed, said, “But we can propose something that can mediate this situation. We can offer a basket of basic goods to families, something that they can live off of.”

Da Silva, indignant, responded, “We the Tupinamba, this is how we are, judge. If food is lacking in our homes, we will eat wild plants; we will eat what the land gives us; we are not going to ask for anything from anyone. Because then we would be allowing others to govern our lives.”

The Tupinamba were the first indigenous people to form a front against the Portuguese invasion in 1500 in Brazil. They are a great warrior people whose organizational structure uses tactics and strategies of war based on their worldview. In 2004, they started a process to recover their lands.

The government body, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), recognized in its studies that the Tupinamba possess over 47,000 hectares of land, but the government still hasn’t authorized the demarcation of this territory. This is in violation of Article 169 of the International Labor Organization, which establishes their right to “the consultation and participation of indigenous peoples and tribes to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control over their economic, social and cultural development, including the right to land and the use of natural resources found in their traditional lands.”

Even after having received only silence as a response from the government, the indigenous Tupinamba have recovered a good part of their land. They are one of the few indigenous groups in Brazil that has dared to self-demarcate their borders and occupy them at the same time. They reclaimed huge properties that were in the hands of landowners; they took over fresh water springs; they took over abandoned houses. In the community of Serra do Padeiro alone, close to 70 properties were taken over.

“We drove out the landowners who were deforesting and who did not need the land to live on because they have houses elsewhere. And the people that need a place to live, the small producers, will stay with us,” da Silva told Truthout. “Our goal was to stop deforestation; our motto is zero deforestation. All the rivers would return to their natural pathways; nature would be laughing with happiness; the animals would come back,” he added.

The reaction to all of this quickly became systematic and relentless. In 2008, police made their first large-scale attack in Serra do Padeiro. They invaded the Tupinamba territory with two helicopters, 130 agents and heavy vehicles. They said that they wanted to stop da Silva, but they didn’t have an arrest warrant. “It was a day of war. For an entire day, they had fun with us and we with them,” joked da Silva. “The fight for the Tupinamba is not an affront; we are children of war. The thing is that they want a war, but with a group that doesn’t know how to fight; they want us to sit back and cross our arms.”

“They believed that we were going to flee, but this didn’t happen. When they came in and began to attack, our answer was to use slingshots and stones and we used the strategy of isolating them. The Enchanted Ones prohibited us from using bows and arrows; they said that these people aren’t ready for war with the Tupinamba, and in addition it isn’t in our best interest to cause a single casualty. They came onto our land without asking permission and afterward they couldn’t leave. And when the final day came, they were desperate and called for reinforcements, and only then were they able to remove the barricades that we put up in the roads.”

There’s interest in Tupinamba land from large-scale landowners and producers, such as the owners of the luxury tourist complexes that have been built in this territory, like the Hotel Fazenda da Lagao, with investors such as Arthur Bahia and Arminio Fraga. Fraga is a naturalized US citizen and former president of the Brazilian Central Bank. He is also an ex-member of the World Bank, and affirms that there are no indigenous people in the region, and that there are only opportunists who want to steal the land from the rightful owners.

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