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Lula meets natives in the Brazilian Amazon and promises land



INDIGENOUS TERRITORY OF RAPOSA SERRA DO SOL, Brazil — On his first trip to indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest since taking office, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed support for the creation of new territories for these communities, but did not announce any demarcation.

Wearing a white cap and dark shirt in the heat, Lula addressed some 2,000 natives who painted their faces, wore traditional feather headdresses and sang songs to welcome him on Monday in the Raposa Serra do Sol region, on the border of Venezuela and Guyana.

He said he wanted a quick demarcation of their land “before other people take over, invent fake documents” to claim property rights. This has been a common phenomenon throughout Brazil’s history, prompting the start of the demarcation processes more than half a century ago.

“We must quickly try to legalize all the lands that are almost finished with the (demarcation) studies so that the natives can take the land that belongs to them,” Lula told the 52nd General Assembly of the indigenous peoples of the state of Roraima.

Yet Lula did not announce any new designations eagerly awaited by indigenous peoples and rights activists. Many already had their hopes dashed that further demarcations would take place within the first 30 days of his administration, which began January 1.

Their movement lobbied Lula to demarcate 13 new indigenous territories that have gone through all the regulatory steps and require nothing more than presidential approval to be official. This would mark a sea change in policy from the previous administration of Jair Bolsonaro, which marked out no land for them during his presidency.

Some of the territories awaiting presidential clearance began their demarcation processes decades ago.

Lula authorized the demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol in 2005, during his first term as president. Different from other reserves in the Brazilian Amazon, Raposa Serra do Sol is mostly tropical savannah. It is home to 26,000 people of five different ethnicities.

Since it received its protection status, it has been the scene of conflicts between rice farmers and indigenous peoples and has experienced sporadic violence, making the territory a textbook case in the challenges of land protection that are increasingly under pressure from outside.

Bolsonaro’s relentless efforts to legalize mining on indigenous territories have reignited long-standing divisions among local communities in Raposa Serra do Sol over the best path forward for their collective well-being. He visited an illegal gold mining camp on the same Indigenous territory in October 2021 and openly encouraged the activity, despite criticism from local Indigenous leaders.

Preparations for Lula’s arrival in Raposa Serra do Sol began shortly before daybreak in the Amazon, with indigenous people from different groups waking up early to gather at a community center for their final rehearsal of song and dance to President. People of different ages wearing straw skirts swayed back and forth as drums and chants rang out. Other Natives were back in their tents preparing breakfast for the members of their groups.

Indigenous leaders, including Osmar Lima Batista of the Macuxi people, Letícia Monteiro da Silva of the Taurepang people and Adailton Waiwai of the Waiwai people, told The Associated Press at the meeting that they expected better days compared to the previous four years, when they thought they had no friends in the presidential palace.

All agreed that Lula’s first visit to the region since 2010 was not enough, however.

Davi Kopenawa, leader of the Yanomami people, took the microphone during the rally to tell Lula that the needs of his people are greater than four years ago.

“After eliminating the gold miners, we need to recover our indigenous health care system, which was destroyed,” Kopenawa said. “We have to save the children we have left. I don’t want more children to die. We need hospitals in our community. The disease is still strong in the Amazon.

“I don’t want mining on Yanomami lands and in Raposa Serra do Sol territory,” he added. “Mining kills us, it kills people in the city, the river, the water in the forest. We don’t need heavy mining at home.

Lula said in his speech that his administration will permanently expel gold diggers from indigenous lands – as he has already begun working to do in Yanomami territory.

“This gold does not belong to anyone. It is there because nature placed it there. It is on indigenous land,” Lula said.

The president was accompanied by Sonia Guajajara, his Minister of Indigenous Peoples, and Joenia Wapichana, who heads the Indigenous Affairs agency.

Lula said there will be a meeting involving the leaders of the Amazon rainforest countries – Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.

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