RAPOSA SERRA DO SOL, Brazil (Reuters) – Irisnaide Silva is female, Brazilian and native.
And for once, in her sight, she was heard.
For decades his family selected and panned the border near Venezuela, scouring the hills for diamonds and gold.
They continued digging even after Brazil marked the land in 2005 as indigenous territory, an act that banned mining despite protests from his family and other wildlife in his Macuxi tribe.
Now, Silva is none other than the ear of Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil.
A nationalist who deeply resents the global green movement for his desire to develop the Amazon rainforest, Bolsonaro has twice met Silva in the Brazilian capital.
He first saw him, along with several like-minded tribal leaders, soon after taking power in January 2019 discussing a bill that would allow mining on native land.
“Some people want you to stay on indigenous territories like prehistoric animals,” Bolsonaro said at the meeting. “Below the ground you have billions or trillions of dollars.”
Silva, 32, heads one of the two main indigenous groups in the Amazon state of Roraima. But other groups, and many other indigenous associations, see him as traitors manipulated by greedy intruders seeking to seize land and resources.
He doesn’t care.
“I’ve been called a white Indian,” Silva told Reuters of the chicks chirping in his steel-roofed home in the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve. Although his mixed-race background was unusual, critics used it to question his credibility.
“Others say I can’t lead because I’m a woman.”
His drive for development – and Bolsonaro’s desire to activate it – goes far beyond questions about mining and material wealth. It challenged decades of government policies trying to deter intruders and sparked a historical debate over whether some of the world’s most isolated tribes should be integrated into modern society or left alone, along with the Amazon.
Larger than Western Europe and home to nearly all of Brazil’s indigenous lands, the world’s largest rainforest is a bulwark against climate change, its vegetation serving as a giant filter for greenhouse gases.
The native land makes up 13% of Brazil – a protected area roughly the size of Egypt. But with indigenous people making up less than 0.5% of Brazil’s population, agricultural and mining groups have long watched this low-population area voraciously.
It is unclear whether Bolsonaro’s bill will pass the tough Brazilian Congress or how profitable mining is on this land. But the timing has never been more favorable for the president, with allies recently winning leadership in both assemblies and the COVID-hit economy desperately in need of investment. Bolsonaro has made the bill a priority for 2021.
By working with several indigenous people, activists say he is exacerbating tensions within tribes through division and conquest methods that have historically helped destroy native lands around the world.
“Bolsonaro is using a colonial strategy,” said Antenor Vaz, a former veteran field agent for Brazil’s customary affairs agency Funai.
‘NEW EL DORADO’
The prospect of legalization has led thousands of prospectors to venture into indigenous territories.
The Bolsonaro bill lays down a regulatory framework to open up this area to legal mining for the first time. Controversially, it will not give indigenous peoples veto power.
Many indigenous communities continue to lead rural lifestyles, pursuing little modern development beyond small-scale agriculture. But Silva and people like him believe that natives have the same rights as other Brazilians to exploit their resources.
The state of Roraima, with a small mining industry due to its large reserves, is already attracting investors. Anastase Papoortzis, head of state development company Codesaima, told Reuters the company had 29 exploration permits in indigenous territories and would attend a mining fair in Canada this year.
“It’s been set for us to go and present Roraima as a new mining frontier, the new El Dorado,” he said.
Lust for treasure, and the destruction it causes, has shaped this northern part of the Amazon basin since the Europeans arrived in the 18th century. Early maps even place El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, somewhere between green hills and scarred purple stone.
Since then the seekers have come.
In the 1950s, Silva’s grandfather arrived from northeast Brazil to try his luck. He married a local Macuxi woman and started a family. Silva Celson’s father, now 68, has been out digging with his father since the age of eight.
Silva was also looking forward to his childhood, but only during the holidays because his father insisted he stay at school, walking three hours a day to attend class. “I’m still mine sometimes,” she said, “but it’s bad for my nails.”
In the 2000s, when he finished school and was trained to become a teacher, indigenous factions competed over how to protect their homeland. The struggle at Raposa Serra do Sol has become a symbol of the Brazilian debate on indigenous policies.
While the larger Roraima Adat Council (CIR) wants sustainable nature reserves that remove outsiders from the area, Silva’s Society for the Defense of the United Indians of Roraima (Sodiurr) believes peasants should be allowed to stay, defining tribal areas as islands in around them. property.
Sodiurr argues that rice and cow farmers, who moved there in the previous decades, brought jobs and development.
After April 15, 2005, when the government ratified the Raposa Serra do Sol as a sustainable nature reserve, many farmers resisted eviction. Sporadic attacks on indigenous enemies raged for several years, injuring more than a dozen people.
‘THERE WILL BE BLOOD’
Silva didn’t fight, but it did inform his politics.
After a tenure as a city councilor, he won the leadership election of Sodiurr in 2019 and amplified his pro-development, pro-integration message. As he put it: “Nobody here wants to walk around with their sobs.”
He has expanded their social media presence and aligned organizations with right-wing state and federal governments.
Membership has also increased, according to Silva. Seven communities have changed allegiance, leaving CIR to join him, while eight others are in conversation, he said. There are about 350 indigenous communities in the state.
Edinho Batista de Souza, a CIR leader, said he was not aware the community was changing sides.
“The presidency (Sodiurr) does not speak the same language as the people,” he told Reuters. “The government is trying to manipulate some of the leaders, including the president, but the bases don’t agree with this idea.”
Although Sodiurr’s membership is less than half the CIR, smaller organizations now have support in Brasilia.
“It’s an old problem, but they used to be in the minority, now they have the President of the Republic … now they are in power,” said Marcio Meira, a former head of Funai who worked closely with both sides during the demarcation.
Funai, responding to a Reuters question, said he did not know the size of each group or how they might change. He declined to comment on the competition, other than saying it did not condone violence.
Bolsonaro’s agenda appears to trigger change before a vote on his mining bill.
Near Napoleao, a customary town of 1,200 people in the mountains south of Raposa Serra do Sol, workers sweat from dawn to dusk, cutting deep into the rocks.
Some have pneumatic workouts, but most chase purple veins with only muscles and pickaxes. Miners of wood from the rock face, bent under the lucky sack.
The “mountains”, as the five feral cat mines are known, have been running since July 2019. It has driven the change that Silva so desperately wants.
The city gets 4% of mining profits, according to Carpejane Lima, 38, the town’s traditional leader and ally of Silva. The diggers took 74% and those with the machines to extract gold took the last 22%.
“The power company has cut off electricity because we can’t pay the bills,” said Lima, in the shade of a mango tree. Now a cavalry of diesel generators is turning next to the general store which is reopening. Across the street, there is a stand selling replica soccer shirts.
“We can make this a prosperous city,” said Lima, a 48 gram gold bracelet gleaming on her wrist.
But mining brings in outsiders. Some tribes have the skills or capital needed to crush and process ore. This arrival, say critics, brought drugs, prostitution and disease. Mercury, which is used to separate gold, also appears at alarming levels in the blood of some indigenous people.
Since Bolsonaro was elected, CIR said 2,000 miners had trespassed on Raposa Serra do Sol to work on mines like this. Silva emphasized that only the native wild in the country.
In a hole by the river near Silva’s house, where his father lived under a tarp for weeks, a small group dug in the scorching sun.
“We will fight for what is ours,” said Celson. “If people who don’t belong come here to try and stop us, there will be blood.”
Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer; Additional reporting by Leonardo Benassatto; Edited by Brad Haynes and Andrew Cawthorne