The right to land is a beautiful proposition, which has always been violated. Men have determined themselves as its owners. Men created parliaments and laws in order to rule the earth, to destroy, divide, modify and dig the land, as if it had no rights. We are truly ungrateful. We tread the earth, we kick it, we dig it and when we die, we are buried in the earth. We take our food from the earth, and we poison it. We want to use it to exhaustion, no matter what others, humans or animals, desire. Humans are very bad and cruel. They are not worthy of the earth. A perfect mother like her, who gives us everything, violated all the time.
Indigenous nations are the ones fighting to keep the water clean and the forests standing. We use the land under a different logic. In our lands, there are no floods or winds that kill, there are no major incidents. But, despite this, we are seen as backward, people with no future, an obstacle to Brazil. We are considered a detainment that needs to be taken out of the way so that everything can finally be taken down.
At a recent meeting in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, government representatives explained that they wanted to expand agriculture, but there was an obstacle holding Bahia back. We, the Tupinambá people, were present at the meeting and were astonished when they said “Our obstacle is the Atlantic Forest, which we cannot touch!”. Really? Ninety-eight percent of the Atlantic Forest has been cut down, thrown to the ground! And the small percentage that remains is considered an obstacle to Bahia’s growth? How can anyone understand such a way of thinking?
These are the insane men who run our states and our country. And they still call armadillos, pacas and agoutis “animals”! An irrational being is a being that thinks they must destroy everything in order to satisfy their own desires. A being that believes we need new train lines built just so they can dispose of soybeans. Who eats soy, anyway? For their soy and other commodities to be shipped to Europe, they want to build the Porto Sul logistics enterprise, violating nature, creating one of the largest open seaports in the world. They want to land more than three kilometers of the open sea and remove large stretches of native Atlantic Forest and they think that nature will not respond. What about creating a detour? No, that would make the project too expensive.
This is how we are treated, Indigenous and quilombola(1) people: as something that can be removed, exterminated, criminalized. This is a perspective produced by the university that was brought to Brazil, a university of European thought, with a feudalistic logic. According to that logic, the vassal is always the vassal and the lord, even when bankrupt, is always the lord, and will step on the vassal even if the vassal is now very rich and powerful. Brazil has never had its own university, a Brazilian university.
Is the earth sick and angry? Is it vengeful? The earth will get its revenge more and more often if we don’t start abiding and backing down, correcting our mistakes. Our mother is really kind and forgives our mistakes as it recovers, teaching us again how to be human. Those in power representing us have no humanity.
Farmers in southern Bahia think they have to cut down the forest so that they can plant irrigated cocoa – “high-yield cocoa,” according to them. But no “high-yield” production gets close to Indigenous production, which protects the forest. What kind of people promote “high-yield cocoa”? Today, farmers produce no more than 200 arrobas of cocoa in one hectare of land, which means a crop of 1,200 cocoa trees. Our relatives, in the protected soil in the forest, planted and harvested 1,000 cocoa trees every year. We were pretty advanced, weren’t we? But these people don’t agree with our planting methods, because we don’t depend on the industry. In order to produce, farmers rely on products manufactured by the industry. They need to artificially fertilize the soil and fight pests. And by doing so, they harm us all.
Their pesticides killed the bees that pollinated and made our agricultural production possible. They forget that the bees were the ones who really produced the cocoa. They harmed the bees and they harmed us, who knew that the bees were fundamental for the cocoa fields. We never killed the bees. We drank the honey and left them alone, to do the work we did not know how to do, because everyone does their part. It’s a partnership: they fertilize the flowers by exchanging pollen, they make tasty honey. Together with the farmers there were also the loggers, who arrived in search of hardwood.
They killed and destroyed our traditional agriculture. With their arrogance, they broke our food chain, which worked in perfect condition until the end of the 1980s. We asked ourselves: “How are we going to live without a close and harmonious partnership with the animals?”. When they started cutting jussara trees for trade, it was degrading for the Tupinambá people. They hit our food source in full, because jussara was our food base and also that of many birds. The curassow bird, the rusty-margined guan bird and other forest birds need jussara trees, followed by the bicuíba, the jindiba and the courbaril trees… Without the jussara trees, the birds leave for other regions and our households get poorer in terms of food.
The Tupinambá do not fish like the Whites. We fish by following the color of the sky, the rainy season and the thunderstorms. Depending on the rain, we get hoplias fish. If there is a thunderstorm, we make our jiqui, a kind of basket made for fishing, and catch prawn shrimp. We only eat what falls into the jiqui, and we don’t mess with the other fish. If they did not come into the jiqui, they are not ours. But the Whites started to eat prawn shrimp, they found out that it is tasty, so they hired people to throw poison. We know that it is very difficult to catch prawn shrimp when it is not raining, because they live within the rocks. But the Whites learned that if they poisoned the wells, the prawns would come out and die in large numbers. And in doing so, they not only took away our right to feed ourselves, but also the right of the species to reproduce. In the poisoned wells, those who survived were barren.
There is a large tree of the Atlantic Forest that only grows in the south of Bahia, the vinhático tree (Plathymenia reticulata). It is a beautiful tree, with which we make our traditional canoes, because it does not rot. However, the shipping industry discovered the tree and invaded our territory to steal the wood. Farmers began to destroy everything, including our cocoa fields, in order to sell that kind of wood. We used to have 60 water streams, which were reduced to 25, because the Atlantic Forest is made of a shallow soil – it is a brand-new forest planted recently, about two or three thousand years ago. When one takes down the older, taller trees, the sun hits the ground directly and the ground cannot stand it. The soil dries up and not only do the big trees die, the small ones that used to survive under the tall ones also die. Everything dies. The rains become rare, they stop occurring at the right times, preventing us from planting.
That is how we began to die. In 2004, we had 17 deaths in the village of Serra do Padeiro. Pregnant women who did not die in childbirth were losing their children before birth. This is not normal among us, the Tupinambá. We began to look for the reason in our religious culture. Our encantados(2) told us that we had to defend the land that had always protected us. And so we ran into a problem. The anthropologist who was studying the Tupinambá land for the demarcation process(3) told us that if we did a land retake, she would no longer do the study. The Tupinambá do not like to be bossed around. We told her: “You can leave, because the land belongs to the Tupinambá people, it is not up to you or anyone else to demarcate it!”. We are the ones who demarcate our land. We are the ones who say what size it must have and how it shall be. “Go away, tomorrow we will have a retake.”
At that time, around 30 children were admitted to the hospital each week due to malnutrition. Then, in 2004, we took over the Bagaço Grosso farm. We took our families there six months later. The women tended the gardens. A group of warriors threw out the people who were poisoning the land. Another group went after the poachers and we said: “We are handling it”. We took all their chainsaws and told the men to go away.
We shielded our land quickly. We told the farmers: “If anyone starts a chainsaw and cuts down a tree, we will take it back!”. We did our homework. Some farmers thought we were lying and turned on their chainsaws, but we found them and took back the land. The Army arrived by the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. Several Tupinambá from villages on the coast joined us in a week, and we ousted dozens of farmers.
Our encantados said: “You need to keep those who have nowhere to go”. Those were people who were enslaved by farmers and had a maximum of five hectares of land, many children, and lived under the same pressure as we did. If we took them off the land, they would have nowhere to go. They now study at our school, Colégio Estadual Indígena Tupinambá Serra do Padeiro. We give them an education and their lives have also improved.
From 2005 onwards, we no longer had malnourishment. No one was hungry anymore. There was no more infant mortality in our village. Everyone was chubby and nature was recovering. Everything was back to normal. In 2018, it was already possible to go to Serra do Padeiro and find a forest. Some areas had not been touched, and the deforested areas have now recovered and are beautiful! The rivers have returned, the streams have recovered, nature has recovered, and the previously malnourished Indigenous now have cars and motorcycles in their garages and satellite internet at home. The earth gave us everything because we dared to face those who violated it.
How can we think that we are the only ones who have rights to the land? What about the birds’ rights to have a tree to settle and nest? And the sloths’ rights to have branches to live on? The armadillos’ rights to dig the earth and live with dignity? Why should humans be the only ones to have the right to live with dignity on this earth? We, the Tupinambá, do not think like that. We have rights and nature has rights. We cannot tamper with it.
Of course, the animals come to eat in our gardens. A jaguar walks more than 70 kilometers a day and our territory has less than 30 kilometers in length. Jaguars nowadays come to our houses because they find food there. They find collared peccaries, capybaras and several other species that can serve as food. We had to find a middle ground for everyone to survive without having to destroy one another, and we found it. Nobody is offended by nature in our territory. However, White people still think that nature is the problem. They say that the capybara is the problem, and they hire people to kill the capybara because it felled the banana plantation. The collared peccary is eating all the manioc, and therefore it has to be killed because it eats too much. But does anyone think that the place used to be the collared peccary’s house, which was taken over and turned into a farm? That is the mistake.
A manager of a large multinational in the palm heart industry, which has plantations close to our village, came to my house and said: “Cacique, I came to talk to you because I know you don’t like us killing animals. But we need to do something because the capybaras are eating too much palm heart”. So, I said: “I’m going to defend the capybaras, because someone has to defend them. I want to know the following: is your farm close to the Una River?”. He replied that it was, that the entire bank of the river is part of his farm. “The farm extends into the forest, doesn’t it? Well, the capybaras live in a strip of the riverbank up to 20 meters long. They like to be in the water and they also like the land. They go into the river to take a bath, then come back and feed, then go back to the water. You came and took their house, you planted food they like to eat, and now you want them to leave? They are not wrong. Here’s what you are going to do: tell your employees to leave about 40 meters of land untouched by the edge of the river. Don’t cut the palm heart that is there, just leave it, it will be for them”. He obeyed, and soon the capybaras stopped eating the crops because he was now respecting a limit. He had been disrespecting them. We disrespect the rights of others and want them to be quiet about it. We want them to not violate our rights. This happens all the time.
In the Tupinambá territory near the beach, other caciques, or chiefs, and I are going to have to start a new confrontation. We had a confrontation before, because some people wanted to build a resort on top of our mangroves. We faced them and they retreated. Now, there is a Portuguese tourism company that wants to build a condominium for rich Europeans, with hundreds of houses and apartments. They want to set it up in front of the beautiful Tupinambá beaches, where there are no residents – there is only the beach and the mangrove, where we catch crabs. What gives them the right to violate our rights? Our mangrove? Our crabs? Has the world gone mad? Did people study to go crazy? You do not mess with mangroves! Mangroves are the cradle of nature between land and sea, and it feeds both. Why do we have scientists in this country, if it is not to say that one cannot touch a nursery? The problem is that people want things too quickly. And nature acts slowly.
I never studied at a university, I never thought of being a scientist, a geographer, I never felt the need. But I know that if you embank a place where there is water, that water goes somewhere else. If one lands 3 kilometers of open sea, one will change that region’s sea currents and disorient the fish, the dolphins, the turtles. The entire Southern shore, from Olivença to Canavieiras, will be flooded, because the water that will be moved and the excess earth will go South, where it is lower. They are going to alter the marine life in that entire region. All mangroves will be permanently flooded. How come there are no studies being done for that type of project? How can a country not realize that it is paving its self-destruction? There are other methods, other effective ways of doing things that would not cause such damage. Some limitations must be respected. We walk on our legs and guide ourselves with our eyes and ears, but birds have their sonars. When we change something, it can affect other species in ways we do not understand.
It is exhausting. We, Indigenous people, see this kind of thing happening all the time. People who claim to be intelligent, who create knowledge, who teach, who travel to Mars, who manufacture everything that is important, and do not know the basics. They see the end, but they do not see the beginning. And therein lies the problem. It’s not that we are radical or that we don’t want expansion, growth and technological evolution. We, the Tupinambá, really like progress, but we must all evolve together, towards the possibility of having a powerful country, where there is no social exclusion, where there is no hunger, where there is no extreme violence.
Our village in Serra do Padeiro has always had its own way of life, its own balance. We never liked being ruled by anyone. Generally, when someone gives us something, the Tupinambá custom is to give something back as a gift. If we do not have something to give back, we feel ashamed. How do we fight poverty while repossessing our lands? We organize ourselves through planning. We plan everything, but not like White people plan: every year, every day, every hour. The lack of time ends up enslaving people. So, the Tupinambá planning is far-reaching, it is aimed at five or ten years. We have been doing it since ancient times, before the Portuguese arrived here.
Back then, we did our planning according to the moon. We all knew that we had to get together in order to plan the Tupinambá advance over the land. Every five years, we would get together and define how many married women and how many curumins(4) we would have in the next five years, and we would determine if what we had was enough. Would we have run out of food in the region? If so, soon we had to move forward and build a new village. “We are going to have to split this village in five years.” We thus planned how many villages were going to be created in the next five years.
The exploration warriors took their canoes and others went out on foot, in large groups. The Tupinambá, wherever they went, did not fail to take cassava flour, because flour takes longer to make. The fish they could catch, but the beiju(5) needed to be stocked for transport. So, these groups would walk and, when they found a very beautiful place, they would settle and tell the other groups that they had found a good place. From there, another group would already be advancing further. They knew that, if they followed the plan, everyone would have found a place when the expedition ended. This is fantastic, because we were not just moving forward to change the life of the family group. Maybe at some point we would be faced with another ethnic group, and we had to create a battle strategy to push them or else become friends with them and share the territory.
Today, we still do the same thing, but differently. We calculate in how many years most of our children will probably be married. We then plant more gardens, in order to maintain a greater number of people when families grow. We calculate how much manioc, bananas and other fruits and vegetables we are going to plant. Everything is planned: how many houses are going to be built, what improvements are going to be made to the existing houses, how many parties are going to be held, how much are we going to spend…
All this planning – which was not written down – used to be discussed for three or four days, and wrapped up in the mind. But the National Employment System (Sistema Nacional de Emprego – SINE) sat with us and said: “You better to write this down”. So we started to make written plans for us, the Tupinambá. Since the world had changed and we are fighting for territory, we needed money in order to be able to go to Brasília, Brazil’s capital. Locally, we do not have that much need for money, but in order to travel we need resources. When we realized that, we looked for SINE and for a lawyer, who would help us create an association. We created the Serra do Padeiro Tupinambá Indigenous Association (Associação dos Indios Tupinambá da Serra do Padeiro – AITSP) in 2004, and we were able to access money to travel, to fight for our territory and to fight against hunger in our community. We don not want to borrow money from banks. We do not want the National Indian Foundation (Funai)(6) to come here and tell us what to do.
Thinking about the issues and struggles that we face here, we planned our cassava plantation, which grows faster. Cassava ripens quickly, starting at eight months, but it can also be harvested little by little, until it is two years old. So, we planted a garden that we don’t need to harvest all at once. We take the cassava out as needed, and when we take one piece out we can replant it, so that when we get to the end, the first rows are ripe again. We use the same soil for five or six years. When it degrades, we leave it, and the garden gets replaced.
We also planned how to recover the cocoa plantations. We decided to take 30% off everything we sell and give it to the association, in order to invest in the production of the next harvest. Today, we collect BRL 750,000 a year within the association. Our cocoa production, which was below 1,000 arrobas, has grown to over 14,000 arrobas per year. We collect more than 30 thousand kilos of rubber per year. We do not even calculate how many bananas and plantains… We have an annual pineapple production of around 300,000 fruits. Everyone gets some, no one is left without our products, because the plantations are attended by the community. The association sells our products, and 30% stay here and the other 70% are divided among all those who worked. But everyone really gets their share! Not like with White people. Everyone who worked will be present at the time of sharing.
We now have a village where young people can dream. They dream and do not want to leave. They want to study, research, date, marry, still being Tupinambá. They are proud to be Tupinambá. Everyone who expresses their desire will be supported, even if they are wrong. There is only one way to learn: making mistakes. If you are afraid of making mistakes, you will not learn. You only know you got it right when you get it wrong. Mistakes are the most important part of learning. We make mistakes and we learn, and we will continue to make mistakes and to learn.
We have managed to guarantee our territory even though our land has not been demarcated and homologated. We have managed to stay here because we have spiritual, financial, and collective autonomy. With our sense of collectivity we can face any war, with our spirituality we will not tremble before the enemy, and our financial health keeps us supplied. In the tripod of the Tupinambá struggle, there are priority elements. First, study the enemy. Second, store plenty of food. Third, look for the main water sources and occupy the land. Then create a barrier to stop your enemy from getting to the food and water. From thirst, they will surrender, and it will not be necessary to kill a soul.
1 Quilombos are communities originally formed by enslaved Black people who were able to escape and resist slavery, in search for freedom and autonomy. With the end of slavery such communities persisted and still do today. People born in a quilombo are called quilombolas.
2 Spiritual beings in some Indigenous religion in Brazil. Also part of Afro-Brazilian religion.
3 In Brazil, for the demarcation of Indigenous and quilombola land an anthropological report is needed.
5 Kind of starch pancake made with cassava flour.
6 In Portuguese: Fundação Nacional do Índio. The National Indian Foundation was founded in 1967 and is a Brazilian governmental protection agency for Indigenous interests and their culture.