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The history of indigenous populations in Brazil is a history of struggle and resistance. When the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the indigenous population in Amazonia numbered 3 million people. Over the past five centuries, these indigenous people have been exterminated by diseases brought by the colonisers, by predatory occupation projects and by invasions of their territories. According to the last national census of 2010, only 430,000 indigenous people now live in the Brazilian Amazon basin.

With the election of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 and his pronouncements against environmental protection and indigenous populations, the Amazon has undergone a new destructive cycle with large-scale exploitation of natural resources in protected areas and indigenous territories.

Abandoned by the government and federal protection agencies, indigenous people have been forced to organise themselves to defend their territory and fight against deforestation as matter of survival. Ironically, four years of Bolsonaro government, with unprecedented levels of destruction in the Amazon, has boosted indigenous peoples' activism and raised their awareness of their rights to land and livelihoods. Increasingly well connected, indigenous communities now form the vanguard of opposition to the destruction of the Amazon.

This project focuses on three indigenous communities that have mobilised to oppose the previous government's policies and resist the pressure on their native lands.

In southern Para state, on the Bau Indigenous lands, two villages face each other across the Curua River. On one side, the village of Bau, bearing the same name as the indigenous lands, has become the focal point of resistance to illegal mining. The community lives off the land, collecting nuts and fruits, fishing and hunting game. They have devised a monitoring system to overseas their lands, with lookout-points in strategic places and patrols along the waterways keeping outsiders from entering their territory.

On the other bank of the river is Kamau village. Here, so called 'garimpeiros' or illegal gold prospectors, have paid off local people to gain access to riches buried underneath their feet. The Curua river that divides the two villages is now polluted with mining effluent with large swathes of forest cut down and excavated in the search for gold. These two villages, home to the Kayapo Mekragnoti people, are a microcosm of the harmful effects of the previous government that turned a blind eye to illegal mining and thus undermined indigenous resistance to encroachment.

In Para State the Arara people, in an unprecedented initiative, have created a consultation document called the 'Arara Indigenous Land Consultation Protocol' that defines rules and conditions to negotiate with the State on large projects that threaten their territory. Over the past five decades the Arara people have suffered systematic invasions of their land by loggers and settlers brought in by the Transamazonian Highway (BR-230) that has plowed through their ancestral lands. More recently, the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam which has been in full operation since 2019, rode roughshod over Arara objections to non-indigenous people accessing their lands and their attempts to keep outsiders out with look-out posts and patrols. Having learned their lesson from these experiences, the Arara now know that they need to be prepared for meetings with government officials or business people in order to avoid falling into the trap of agreeing to offers that can be reneged on later. Created in partnership with NGOs, the Protocols clearly define the rules that outsiders need to follow if they want to pursue large scale projects on indigenous lands. One of the Araras' main concerns at the moment is the paving of a 250 km stretch of the Transamazonian highway that exposes their lands to further incursions by unscrupulous outsiders.

On Waimiri Atroari land, the Kinja people are fighting against the so-called 'marco temporal', a legal loophole that if approved by the Supreme Court could legalise theft of their land. In an ironic twist, the legislation was initially enacted to protect indigenous rights. It stipulates that indigenous people only have legal title to their lands if they were living on them when Brazil's current constitution was implemented in 1988. In the summer of 2022, 700 Kinjas, almost a third of the population, met in the village of Mynawa to protest against the law.

The Kinja have had to suffer the effects of a number of infrastructure projects over the past decades, starting in the 1980s when the Transamazonian highway was laid across their lands by the military government with complete disregard for indigenous land rights, bringing disease and armed clashes with the army that decimated their numbers. Survivors from that time remember bombs being dropped by the air force to weaken their resistance.

The next wave of infrastructure projects included large-scale mines and the Balbina hydroelectric dam that did irreparable damage to the Kinjas' lands. The dam flooded a huge area, displacing a third of the Kinja population and created a dead-zone of submerged. As compensation, the Kinja were allowed to extend the borders of their territory but if the marco temporal is enforced in its original interpretation they stand to lose these lands again.

The Kinja may not be on the electoral register and thus are irrelevant to the political wrangling in far-away Brasilia but they are as determined as ever to fight the marco temporal from depriving them of their ancestral lands.

Lalo de Almeida travelled to the heart of the Amazon to meet local indigenous communities and document their struggles for their rights and their land.
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