21 April, 2019
Ten years ago, the Macuxi people won a legal battle to expel rice planters from their homeland in northern Brazil. Now, their control over ancestral lands is under attack, this time from Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro.
The 1.7 million hectares of grassland lies along the border with Venezuela and Guyana. The area is called Raposa Serra do Sol. It is home to 25,000 native people, many of whom raise cattle.
But the land is considered highly desirable by farmers and miners. They believe it is rich in minerals such as gold, diamonds, copper and niobium. Niobium is a metal used to strengthen steel that Bolsonaro considers "strategic."
Chief Aldenir Lima is the leader of the 70 Macuxi communities in Raposa Serra do Sol. He told the Reuters news agency, "In the fight for our land rights, 21 of us died. Since then, we recovered what we had lost and today, the farmers' rice plantations have been replaced by our cattle..."
But that could change if Bolsonaro follows through on his promise to reexamine the area's borders. He wants to overturn a ban on industrial farming and mining on indigenous lands.
Bolsonaro's first move after becoming president in January was to put indigenous land decisions under Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture. That government office is under the control of farm industry representatives who want to open up new areas to extensive farming.
The Macuxi fear the return of illegal gold miners and hunters on their lands.
Community leader Tereza Pereira de Souza told Reuters, "I want to ask the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, to respect indigenous people and our constitutional rights."
She added: "It took us 30 years to get our land borders legally recognized and registered."
Brazil's 900,000 indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of the population. They live on areas of land that make up 13 percent of Brazil.
Any attempt to change the reservation's legal standing would likely face opposition from the Supreme Court. Brazil's 1988 Constitution protects indigenous land rights.
Some experts warn that removing that protection would destroy the traditions and languages of the Macuxi and four other tribes in the area.
Martinho de Souza is a Macuxi spiritual leader. He said, "Nature is our life, our blood and our spirit...we were born on this land, we live here and we will die here."
I'm Jonathan Evans.
Bruno Kelly and Sergio Queiroz reported this story for the Reuters news service. Jonathan Evans adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
cattle – n. large farm animals; cows
strategic – adj. related to long-term goals or interests
indigenous – n. produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment