How Indigenous Brazilians are fighting for their home

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Deforestation is a prevalent issue in Brazil. The deforestation of the Amazon rainforests have threatened the Indigenous peoples’ homelands. Photo by Roya Ann Miller/Pexels

UConn’s celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Week continues with a slew of events and activities that acknowledge and commemorate the history and culture of Indigenous populations worldwide. On Thursday, UConn Journalism and El Instituto co-sponsored a presentation by Brazilian political ecologist and journalist Felipe Milanez titled “Indigenous Resistance to Environmental Destruction and Political Violence in Brazil.”  

Milanez is a professor at the Institute of Humanities, Arts and Sciences at the Federal University of Bahai in Brazil. He holds a Ph.D. in political ecology and is a columnist for CartaCapital, Mídia Ninja and Mediapart. He is a former editor of National Geographic Brasil, where he worked with UConn Journalism associate professor Scott Wallace, who introduced Milanez and orchestrated the visit.  

Students gathered in Oak Hall to hear Milanez discuss the ongoing threat to Indigenous peoples and their homeland from political agitators like Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Since Bolsanaro took office in 2019, Amazonian deforestation has skyrocketed, generating tremendous concerns for the indigenous population and for ecologists like Milanez.  

Milanez explained how racist attitudes toward Indigenous people and the devaluation of their lives and culture have made way for the aggressive extractivism that is destroying the environment.  

“‘We need to understand the racism in Brazil to understand the violence that is being organized today,” Milanez said. “Mobilizing racism is directly associated, in my view, to the dispossession of land and violence.” 

Disregard for Indigenous lives and culture is not the only driving force behind deforestation, however. Milanez also discussed the ways in which financial interests aid the destruction of the land. He cited major corporations such as JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and BlackRock as big players in the Amazonian extraction game.  

“‘They have all found financial interests behind the destruction of the Amazon.” Milanez said. “Billions of dollars were invested in activities associated with invasion, deforestation and violation of indigenous rights … Sometimes to understand the conflicts which spring locally, we need to track the money.’” 

Despite the devastation, Milanez is hopeful and has faith in the power of Indigenous resistance, or as he prefers to call it — rebellion.  

“‘It’s not only resistance, but it’s also a rebellion in the sense that they are keeping their territory alive while moving forward.” Milanez said. “They are not only keeping what they have, they are moving forward as a society.’” 

Indigenous groups in Brazil have made tremendous efforts to protect themselves and their homelands. This past summer, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil demanded President Bolsonaro be investigated by the International Criminal Court for genocide and ecocide. Milanez also discussed how groups like APIB and Free Land Camp use strategic litigation and territorial resistance to fight back.   

“Indigenous people today, they are leading probably the most intense struggle against Bolsonaro and the most creative one as well,” Milanez said. “We’re even teaching other social movements, giving new horizons to fight for.’”  

Milanez is glad and hopeful for the criminalization of ecocide, which Oxford defines as “the destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action.” He thinks it will help humans to acknowledge the existence of other species and be more mindful of how they treat the environment.  

“‘Having that specification of crime can help us to discuss the violence against nature and the rights of nature too.” Milanez said. “We may not completely change attitudes but we will at least realize that we are not alone in this world and every form of life has the right to exist.” 

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