HomeTop StoriesBrazil has 1.7 million indigenous people, nearly double the count from previous...

Brazil has 1.7 million indigenous people, nearly double the count from previous censuses, the government says

BELEM, Brazil (AP) — The petite woman with a white-feathered headdress stood on stage at the majestic colonial theater in Brazil’s Amazon on Monday, addressing the crowd.

The woman, Indigenous Peoples Minister Sonia Guajajara, declared the day “the milestone of Indigenous participation,” then cited newly released National Statistical Institute census data that revealed the full size of the country’s indigenous population: 1,693,535 people.

Although it only accounts for 0.8% of Brazil’s population, this represents an 89% increase from the country’s previous 2010 census, thanks to people’s greater willingness to acknowledge their roots and better research methods, including access to previously unreachable villages, she said. The latter largely explains why their numbers grew by 20% within Indigenous areas to 622,066.

“This is a historic moment with that image that the statistics office has made,” she said on the eve of the two-day Amazon Summit in Belem. “It is a historic moment of the restart of social, popular participation and of our civil society’s dialogue with the government.”

The setting seemed symbolic: a theater with European decor — French chandeliers, Italian marble busts, and a huge painting on the ceiling depicting Greek gods. It was built during the rubber boom, with fortunes amassed from raw materials deep in the Amazon, with little concern for what its extraction meant for local communities. There is no trace of them in the so-called Theater of Peace — except Monday, many of their descendants could be found from the seats on the floor to the balcony stalls, dressed in tribal robes.

The meeting was part of the events leading up to the Amazon Summit, where presidents and representatives of the eight countries that host the world’s largest tropical rainforests gather in this city to discuss how best to tackle the myriad challenges.

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In the so-called Amazon Dialogues in the days before the summit, there was a surprisingly diverse participation of delegations from regions of the Amazon. Some boat trips to reach Belem took up to five days.

At some 400 events, representatives of Indigenous groups, riverine communities, fishermen and Afro-descendants discussed topics such as harassment by carbon credit companies, ending deforestation and illegal mining. One of their main demands was the cancellation of new oil projects in the region.

While the vast majority came from Brazil, which controls two-thirds of the Amazon, there were also representatives from all eight countries. Most of the events took place in the same convention center where the presidents meet as of Tuesday.

There, indigenous Warao people from Venezuela sold crafts made of straw alongside Kayapo indigenous people who painted their bodies with traditional designs. The stalls of the Riverine community sold native honey, Brazil nuts and cassava flour. There were also protests against oil exploration near the mouth of the Amazon River.

“You can clearly see that Brazil has a significant social problem to solve, a social problem left behind by the previous government,” said Colombian indigenous leader Anitalia Pijachi Kuyuedo, referring to the government of far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro. “There are a lot of grievances, a lot of pain, a lot of anger, and you can feel the emotions in the words of those you’re speaking to.”

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Guajajara, the minister, agreed that their fear was palpable, but at last they have a forum.

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“For six years, civil society was completely silenced and the space for social participation was extinguished. People became very afraid to express themselves,” said Guajajara. “This is the first moment where society is again entering into a dialogue with the federal government.”

The Brazilian government had expected 10,000 visitors, but 24,000 had arrived instead, according to Guajajara.

More than 1,200 of them camped in a private recreation park on the outskirts of Belem, with tents in rows next to the stone path that wound gently through the jungle past waterslides that ended in man-made pools. They rose early on Monday to eat breakfast and prepare for the day’s events.

Some smiled at the sight of Chief Raoni Metuktire, an Amazonian leader known around the world for defending the environment, sitting on a flimsy chair next to the trail and smoking a pipe. He shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with well-wishers.

Diolina Krikati had traveled with about 40 others from her native state of Maranhao. In an interview, she emphasized the importance of the Amazon for generating the rains that irrigate crops in fields far from the forest – providing a livelihood for not only indigenous people, but many non-indigenous Brazilians as well.

“(The summit) is like taking a moment to hear the indigenous people, and we need to be listened to. It’s a time when we need to talk about our needs and our difficulties,” says 31-year-old Krikati.

Another participant was Naldinho Kumaruara, 29, a spiritual leader who wore a crown of blue macaw feathers and a snake bone necklace and held a giant maraca in his hand.

Kumaruara had come from his native area – threatened by illegal logging and fishing and predatory tourism – to Belem, the state capital. He had already spoken to members of the secretariats of state for education and health who visited the park, as well as officials from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s general secretariat at the convention center.

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He sees this gathering, which brings together all the nations involved in the Amazon region, as a step forward, and also one more likely to advance indigenous causes than others, such as the Free Land Camp in the capital Brasilia.

“Now it’s different, because we can speak for ourselves; It’s not a white person coming to speak for us. We are always involved, but we didn’t have a speaking position,” he said. “Today we can talk.”

Later that afternoon, Naldinho was among the people in the colonial theater of Belem. From an upstairs balcony, he watched as a group of adolescent indigenous people stomped and sang on stage.

The interim president of Brazil’s statistics institute Cimar Azeredo announced the revised population statistics to the crowd, saying it had “helped rediscover Brazil”.

Their larger numbers mean that a greater share of government funds can be earmarked for investment in the health and education of indigenous people, Planning and Budget Minister Simone Tebet said at the event.

And Guajajara stressed that it also means more money for security — a need she said was underlined just hours earlier, when three people of the Tembe ethnicity were shot.

And in the coming months, she told the crowd, the federal government will expel invaders from 32 indigenous territories; her announcement was met with cheers and applause from the audience, plus the shaking of maracas.

“Never again a Brazil without us!”

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