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Vincent Carelli: In Brazil we are all indigenous people now

He is pessimistic about a decent settlement now that Congress is dominated by right-wing groups. His lifelong respect for the indigenous way of life leads him to say that it is the politicians who are truly savages: they are destroying their own means of existence with agribusiness. “Martírio” tells the story of the Guarani Indians and their struggle for land rights against the wealthy Ruralista landowner lobbies.


Graham Douglas


During the dictadura, he began working with an isolated group of Indians who were survivors from previous wars, and quickly became disillusioned with the role of the State, a feeling which has not changed.

Like the Aborigines in Australia, the Indians, confined in small reservations have high rates of suicide and alcoholism.

Despite the relatively good settlement for indigenous rights in the new 1988 Constitution the government in 2013 began attempting to dismantle their rights, claiming that the indigenous could not own land unless they were living on it in 1988, and ignoring the fact that with their nomadic lifestyle they are not always living on their ancestral lands.

And corrupt chiefs have also exploited the indigenous, using them to provide labour on large plantations. In these circumstances, only the shamans have been able to lead the resistance. The film title is Martyrdom, because this is how he sees their struggle. Those who were killed during a confrontation over ancestral land are buried there, and those who remain are more determined: “This is the place where we will stay”.

Social media have helped make Brazilians aware, and helped the indigenous people to organise, while the mainstream media do not report clashes. Carelli’s NGO “Video nas aldeias (Video in the villages) receives messages about attacks, and can spread the news. He also works with the Centro de Trabalho Indigena, and can be contacted through both NGOs.

He spoke to The Prisma after the showing of  his new documentary “Martírio” documentary at the DocLisboa Film Festival in Lisbon.

You’ve been involved with the Guarani for 34 years, how did it begin?

I was interested in indigenous as a child in São Paulo, and when I was 16 my brother knew a Dominican missionary working with the Kaiapoi indigenous  in the south of Pará State, and going there changed my life.

I went to university to study anthropology, but after a year I left everything and went to live with them.  I worked in health care. I was the only white person, in 1969.

I could not influence the State decisions, so I went to Brasilia and worked for FUNAI, having promised the indigenous I would return as a state agent.

And then I had my first big lesson about bureaucracy, during the dictatorship. The coronel called me and said: “You are not going back to this group – because you are the indigenous’ friend.”

One day a group of the Kraho indigenous I knew from the Goiás, came to Sao Paulo and asked us to go back and work with them.

The government policy at that time was assimilation, which we were completely against, so we formed an NGO to raise funds and help them from outside. And while we were working with them, we tried to deconstruct FUNAI’s authority – we told them start to deal with their problems themselves.

The militarists tried to pass a law to separate the indigenous who were considered ‘acculturated’, so they could say that the majority didn’t need any special assistance. Or help with land rights. This was blocked because there was opposition all over Brazil. That was the moment you saw in the film, when the leader of the Krenak indigenous in Minas Gerais State, came to the Senate in 1987 and began putting black paint on his face as a gesture of mourning.

The new Constitution in 1988 established that the federal ministry should intervene to resolve conflicts between the State authorities and the indigenous.

FUNAI were compromised because they were supposed to help the indigenous but also to defend the State interests. After the dictatorship, there was a spirit of freedom, and the indigenous influenced the writing of the Constitution, but now the Brazilian government is trying to destroy it.

What happened in 2013 under Dilma, the 25 anniversary?

They voted point-by-point to reform the Constitution. There were several strong lobbies in Congress, which we call the BBB, Boi, Bala and Biblia (Cattle, Bullets and the Bible). Fundamentalist Christians are getting stronger and they wanted control of the Presidency.

The most important attack on indigenous rights was when the Supreme Court tried to misinterpret the Constitution, by saying that the indigenous people who were not on their traditional lands in 1988 have lost their rights. For the Guarani that was terrible, because the state agents, together with the landowners and the missionaries had pushed them out and confined them in very small reservations. There was a lot of international pressure on the Supreme Court, but they said: “This is the last time, no indigenous reservation will be expanded from now on”.

When did indigenous resistance get organized?

By about 1978, close to the city of Dourados, in Matto Grosso do Sul, there was a reservation of 2,000 hectares for 80,000 indigenous. They were committing suicide, had problems with alcohol.

And the indigenous chiefs that were elected by public service, were corrupt, they were paid by the big employers to find men to work on the sugar cane plantations. So, the shamans had to lead the movement, each family would go back to their original place.

The families were scattered and first they had to come together and spend 2 or 3 years in prayers, which they believed would prepare and protect them. Before they re-occupied a place, they would pray for 3 days without stopping.

And often they were killed and ejected, and after another 2 or 3 years camping by the road they would try again. And it’s hard to say so, but every time some indigenous were killed that allowed them to gain a bit more land, because it would attract the attention of the press, the police, the NGOs. That’s why the title of the film is Martírio (Martyrdom).

You talked about the Paraguayan War in the 1860s.

After the Guaranitic War in the 16th century the Guarani were massacred, so they retreated to Paraguay, and only began moving into Brazil in the 19th century. Their lands had been part of Paraguay until they were taken by Brazil after the Paraguayan War. The Brazilians took the land from Paraguay, and now the Indians are accused of being Paraguayans with no rights there!

I was shocked by some of the racist statements during that Leilao de Solidariedade (Solidarity auction), by the Ruralistas. The guy who said they wanted to get rid of ‘all these indigenous, blacks and lesbians’. There seems to be a deep ideological component, with the March to the West under Vargas.  I feel pessimistic.

I am very pessimistic too, because there is no judicial solution, it must be political. The situation in Brazil is getting worse, they can vote anything they like. A lot of Brazilians are leaving for Europe.

Temer is distributing billions, forgiving big debts, and only the poor people will pay.

Is FUNAI not doing a good job now?

There are very good people in FUNAI, but the first thing Temer tried to do was to bring back the general who used to run it, a Christian Fundamentalist, and FUNAI has practically no budget nowadays.

But there are several other NGOs, like ISSU, Instituto Socio Ambiental, the church, CIMI, and a lot of Attorneys trying to defend the indigenous.

Anything to add?

Nowadays in Brazil, we say “we are all indigenous people now” – we are losing our rights. Obviously the poor and the indigenous will suffer more.

(Photos: stills from the film)



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