Samba Parade Spotlights Threats To Rivers, Forests and Indigenous Rights at Rio's Carnival

Brent Millikan, with Christian Poirier and Alan Azevedo


Parade's message angered agri-business lobby, but provided an important opportunity for participants to highlight the importance of indigenous rights and environmental protection 

 In a colorful and highly energized samba parade at Rio de Janeiro's world-famous Carnival on Monday morning, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, one of Brazil's most traditional and respected samba schools, paid a special tribute to indigenous peoples of the Amazon's Xingu River, highlighting threats to their territories, livelihoods and rights.

Photo credit: Todd Southgate

Under the theme, "Xingu: the Clamor from the Forest," Imperatriz Leopoldinense's samba parade paid homage to indigenous peoples, while recognizing their fundamental role in protecting the environment. The theme also served as an alert to growing threats to Amazon forests and rivers resulting from unbridled deforestation and pesticide use by agribusiness interests, and compounded by destructive hydroelectric dams and mining projects. An indigenous delegation of over thirty leaders from the Xingu and Tapajós river basins as well as other parts of Brazil participated in the parade, led by legendary Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó people, one of several tribes that live along the Xingu River.

In the lead-up to Carnival, Imperatriz Leopoldinense was subjected to repeated criticism from Brazil's powerful agribusiness lobby, accusing them of "sensationalism and unfounded attacks." In response, Imperatriz's Cahê Rodrigues stated, "It was never our intention to offend anyone. Our message is: respect the indigenous peoples of Brazil."

One of the main floats in the Carnival parade featured Chief Raoni and other indigenous leaders from the Xingu in front of an enormous animated monster, reminiscent of a horror film. The theme is reflected in passage in the lyrics of this year's samba anthem:

"Sacred garden discovered by the white man, the heart of my Brazil bleeds. A beautiful monster steals the lands of its children, devours forests and dries up the rivers. So much wealth that greed has destroyed."

Photo credit: Todd Southgate

The lyrics refer to the controversial Belo Monte mega-dam project on the Xingu River, which has provoked dire social and environmental consequences in the region, especially for indigenous peoples. In recent months, investigations by the Federal Police and public prosecutors have uncovered evidence of graft related to the project, leading many to conclude that corruption was the driving force behind the project, noted for its disregard for indigenous people's rights and environmental law.

"For us, this parade is very important, because it brings a story, not only of the Xingu, but of indigenous peoples from all over Brazil," said Valdenir Boro, a leader of the Munduruku people from the Tapajós basin. "Belo Monte is an example of destruction that must not be repeated. This parade is an opportunity for us to show Brazil and the world the importance of preserving nature."

Photo credit: Todd Southgate

With over 3,500 participants, the samba school's parade included an impressive array of floats, costumed dancers and percussionists, organized into sectors entitled "Tribal Celebration", "Paradise Was Here", "The Eyes of Greed (The Invasion)", "Destruction", "The Indigenous Struggle" and "Preserving Life". In one memorable moment of the samba parade, farmers and ranchers with skulls on their chests were armed with pesticide sprayers, plaguing forests and indigenous peoples. The apocalyptic scene was contrasted by a final passage in the samba's lyrics:

"Save the green of Xingu, the hope / the seed of tomorrow, heritage / Our voice will echo nature's call: Preserve!"

In a press conference before the parade with members of Imperatriz Leopoldinense and indigenous leaders, artistic director Cahê Rodrigues said, "When Imperatriz decided to raise this flag of the Xingu... we didn't want to just do another samba parade. We wanted to organize an event that would give voice to the indigenous people, to present their struggle for survival, their struggle to defend the forest, a struggle that has been ongoing for many years".

Kayapó Chief Raoni Metuktire sounded an alarm to the continuing destruction of forests and rivers of the Xingu. "I don't like deforestation around indigenous lands. I don't like the pollution of our waters. I don't accept Belo Monte. I don't accept people coming into indigenous lands to practice mining. I want to preserve this territory for my grandchildren. I want them to live with the forests and rivers, which they need to survive."

Photo credit: Todd Southgate

For Bel Juruna, leader of the Juruna indigenous people inhabiting the Big Bend of the Xingu River, the destruction caused by the Belo Monte is irreversible. "We live just below the Belo Monte dam. It's a catastrophe. We're living in a situation of complete disrespect for our rights. They destroyed our forests and river. Now, we're fighting Belo Sun, a Canadian company that wants to install a huge gold mine just below the Belo Monte dam. We demand that this company leave us alone on our lands, that the government respects us and respects our nature."

The indigenous leaders also called attention to a series of legislative proposals in the Brazilian Congress, supported by a majority of politicians linked to agribusiness and mining interests. The bills include proposals to open mining, agribusiness and dam construction on indigenous lands, as well as initiatives that cut basic services in healthcare and education for indigenous peoples.

Photo credit: Todd Southgate

The most dangerous of these proposals is the Constitutional Amendment Proposition (PEC 215), which would transfer power for demarcation of indigenous lands from the executive to legislative branch. In practice, PEC 215 would suspend new demarcations of indigenous lands, given the enormous influence exercised by agribusiness and mining interests in Congress.

The indigenous leaders also criticized a recent executive order issued by the Brazilian Ministry of Justice (Portaria no. 80/2017) that further complicates demarcation of indigenous lands by undermining the authority of the National Indigenous Agency (FUNAI). As such, the parade's high-profile message is extremely timely, given today's unacceptable attacks on indigenous rights and environmental protection in Brazil.

"Carnival can be much more than a fantasy. This samba, valuing the cultures of indigenous peoples and calling attention to our struggles, is strengthening the movement to defend our rights," said Sônia Guajajara, coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. 

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017