Miguel Vilela
Brasil -
June 26, 2023

“If the right to Mother Earth is negotiated, life is negotiated.”

For the indigenous peoples of Brazil, the legal thesis of the ‘temporal framework’ denies the history of dispossession and violence against them and determines that they only have the right to their ancestral lands if they were occupying them at the time of the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution. While the Supreme Court takes years to make a decision that could declare the thesis unconstitutional, right-wing deputies from the ruralist bloc are pressuring to turn it into law. It is a threat not only to the lives of the people but also to the ecosystems: in the last 30 years, 68% of the loss of native vegetation in the country has been concentrated in private areas, compared to only 1.6% in demarcated territories, mostly caused by invasions. To prevent what they call a ‘legislative genocide,’ indigenous people from all over Brazil are organizing protests and strikes.

By Miguel Vilela / Photographs by Richard Wera Mirim

In April 1904, ten “Bugreiros” (murderers of indigenous people) ventured into a forest near the city of Blumenau, in southern Brazil, with a mission. Within a few days, they discovered a camp where approximately 230 indigenous people lived, primarily women and children. Stealthily, they planned their attack for the following morning.
“The panic and consternation caused by the assault were so great that the Bugres [a racist term for indigenous people] didn’t even think of defending themselves; all they did was protect the lives of the women and children with their bodies,” reported the newspaper Novidades from the city of Itajaí at the time. “The enemies spared no lives; after commencing their work with bullets, they finished it with knives. They were unmoved by the moans and cries of the children clinging to the lifeless bodies of their mothers. Everything was massacred. Some Bugres who arrived later, seeking revenge for their own but unarmed, were also massacred and left lying there.”
The Bugreiros were groups of eight to fifteen men hired by settlers, colony administrators, or even the government to drive away the natives and ensure the safety of European immigrants. Anthropologist Silvio Coelho dos Santos, in his book “Índios e Brancos no Sul do Brasil – a dramática experiência dos Xokleng,” records not only news stories like this one but also communications between authorities discussing the need to hire assassins.
The massacre, sanctioned by the rulers and carried out by the Bugreiros, took on additional dimensions starting in 1914 when the newly created Serviço de Proteção ao Índio attempted to pacify the region by restricting indigenous lands and forcibly settling historically nomadic peoples. Initially, they were promised 40,000 hectares, a minuscule size compared to the vast lands occupied by the Xokleng, Guarani, and Kaigang peoples. Throughout the 20th century, with the natives weakened by epidemics that nearly wiped them out, the so-called Terra Indígena Ibirama was repeatedly usurped and reduced, dwindling to less than 14,000 hectares by the 1980s. It was only in the 1990s that the Xokleng people began to reclaim part of the lost territory.
The dispute over these lands is at the center of a discussion about the constitutionality of a legal thesis that threatens the lives of hundreds of indigenous peoples: the temporal framework. The theory disregards this entire history of invasions, displacements, and massacres to which indigenous people were subjected since the arrival of Europeans, stating that territory can only be demarcated if indigenous people were already inhabiting it at the time of the promulgation of the Federal Constitution of 1988.

Guarani Indians block the Bandeirantes highway, an important access to the city of São Paulo.

Hortêncio Karai Tataendy, Guarani elder.

Thiago Henrique Karai Jekupe, leader of the Guarani people, negotiates with the police.

“It is legislated genocide. Bill 490/07 is a danger to humanity by allowing entry into indigenous territories,” said Indigenous federal deputy Célia Xakriabá in a speech in the Chamber. “If the right to Mother Earth is negotiated, life on the planet is negotiated, their mothers are negotiated.”

New Arena of Struggles

The history of the Xokleng people in southern Brazil, the massacre perpetrated by settlers and authorities, and the ongoing invasion and theft of their lands is common to many other indigenous peoples. The Federal Supreme Court understood this and, in 2019 granted general repercussions to a lawsuit filed by the government of Santa Catarina, based on the temporal framework thesis, seeking the eviction of an area occupied by the Xokleng. Since then, the country has been awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on the validity of this thesis, which will have to be followed by all Brazilian courts. In early June, when the trial returned to the Court and seemed to be progressing, Minister André Mendonça requested more time to review the case. The decision will be delayed for at least a few more months.

The thesis was first raised in 2009 by a judge of the Federal Supreme Court and then began to be used to prevent or invalidate the demarcation of indigenous lands in the courts. The far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro, backed by a 2017 decision by a minister under then-President Michel Temer, also from the right, used the thesis as an argument to reverse all ongoing demarcation processes. If confirmed, the temporal framework will prevent the demarcation of new lands and increase the risks faced by indigenous peoples in already demarcated territories.

Last week, the conservative Chamber of Deputies also joined this trend: it urgently approved, with 283 votes in favor and 155 against, the bill 490/07, which codifies the temporal framework thesis. The bill, which still needs to be voted on by the Senate and sanctioned by President Lula, is considered unconstitutional by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office and can be legally challenged if it progresses. However, it shows the magnitude of the attacks suffered by indigenous peoples. The movement in Congress is led by the influential Ruralist Caucus, a group of lawmakers that defends the interests of rural landowners and is composed of 300 out of 513 deputies and 47 out of 81 senators.

“It is legislated genocide. Bill 490/07 is a danger to humanity by allowing entry into indigenous territories,” said Indigenous federal deputy Célia Xakriabá in a speech in the Chamber. “If the right to Mother Earth is negotiated, life on the planet is negotiated, their mothers are negotiated.”

While authorities from the three branches of government are advancing against the rights of indigenous peoples, the indigenous communities themselves are more mobilized than ever.

Empowered by occupying for the first time both the Esplanade of Ministries through Minister Sonia Guajajara of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and the presidency of the National Fundação Nacional do Índio through Joenia Wapichana, the peoples from all over Brazil have intensified protests following the approval of bill 490/07 and the scheduling of the temporal framework trial at the Federal Supreme Court last Wednesday. Just a few months after the 19th Terra Livre Camp, thousands of indigenous people returned to Brasília to demonstrate.

Resistance in the streets and social media

In early June, protests against the temporal framework closed highways in at least ten states. In the city of São Paulo, in the early hours of May 30, the date set for the plenary vote on bill 490/07, the Guarani indigenous people blocked the Bandeirantes Highway, one of the main access routes. Photographer Richard Wera Mirim, a Guarani indigenous person whose images from that day illustrate this report, followed the events and described the brutality with which he and his relatives were treated.

“The protest started well, with prayers and the highway blockade. But within an hour, the police arrived,” said Wera Mirim in a video interview. He recounted that there was negotiation to clear the road, and the police agreed to open up some lanes for the group to walk towards the avenue that borders the Tietê River, one of the city’s most important rivers, about six kilometers away. “The idea was to get there and say a prayer, speak to the river because, for us, Tietê represents the true mother,” he explained. “We started walking a bit when the riot police arrived from behind. They threw bombs, rubber bullets, water cannons. We cleared the highway and stayed on the street below, a street that Guarani people use to go to the market and the train station. And they started throwing bombs from the bridge onto the street, targeting women, children, and people recovering from the tear gas.”

According to Wera Mirim, the police illegally entered, flew low-altitude helicopters, and occupied two exits of the Jaraguá Indigenous Land for four days, in the north of the city of São Paulo, where he lives, as a form of intimidation. Prohibited by a state court order from returning to the highway to complete the prayer to the Tietê River, the group decided to demonstrate by walking up to Pico do Jaraguá, a park and the highest point in the city of São Paulo.

Wera Mirim is part of a generation of young indigenous communicators who have used social media and other technological tools to voice their demands. In response to those who claim that an indigenous person with an “iPhone, internet, and television” is no longer indigenous, he has a firm answer: “The white people didn’t bathe in 1500. They learned that bathing was good thanks to the indigenous people, and now they bathe. We don’t say they are no longer white because of that.”

He shares that he started working in audiovisual production during the pandemic, although he had been interested in cameras since childhood due to his fascination with technology. Now, with social media, he works to create a network of communicators from the Guarani people, an ethnic group scattered across six Brazilian states. The idea is to quickly spread reports of injustices committed in each village.

“If we rely on traditional media, our complaints won’t reach where we want them to,” says Wera Mirim, who will continue to use his camera and social media to document the violation of laws against his territory. “Communication is crucial in this matter, to spread information and find partners and allies in this struggle.”