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The diminutive woman with a white feather headdress stood on the stage of the majestic colonial theater in Brazil’s Amazon on Monday and addressed the crowd.
The woman, Minister of Indigenous People Sonia Guajajara, declared the day “the milestone of Indigenous participation,” then cited the national statistics institute’s freshly released census data that revealed the full scope of the nation’s Indigenous population: 1,693,535 people.
While just 0.8% of Brazil’s population, the figure marks an 89% jump from the nation’s prior census, in 2010, due to greater willingness of people to recognize their roots and better survey methods, including access to previously unreachable villages, she said. The latter largely explains why their numbers within Indigenous territories grew 20%, to 622,066.
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“This a historic moment with that picture that the statistics agency has made,” she said on the eve of the two-day Amazon Summit in Belem. “It’s a historic moment of the restart of social, popular participation, and of the dialogue of our civil society with government.”
The setting seemed symbolic: a theater displaying European décor — French chandeliers, Italian marble busts and a massive painting across the ceiling depicting Greek deities. It was built during the rubber boom, with fortunes amassed with raw material from deep in the Amazon, and little care for what its extraction implied for local communities. There is no trace of them in the so-called Theater of Peace — except on Monday many of their descendants could be found from the floor seats up to the balcony boxes, wearing tribal vestments.
The gathering formed part of the events leading up to the Amazon Summit, during which presidents and representatives from the eight countries home to the world’s largest tropical rainforests will converge in this city to discuss how best to face up to its myriad challenges.
In the so-called Amazon Dialogues during the days before the summit, there was surprisingly diverse participation of delegations from regions of the Amazon. Some boat trips to reach Belem took as long as five days.
In some 400 events, representatives of Indigenous groups, riverine communities, fishermen and Afro-descendants discussed topics such as harassment from carbon credit companies, ending deforestation and illegal mining. One of their main demands was to cancel new oil projects in the region.
Though the large majority came from Brazil, which holds two-thirds of the Amazon, there were also representatives from all eight countries. Most events took place in the same convention center where the presidents will meet starting on Tuesday.
Maira Tembe stands before the start of a ceremony to present Brazil’s national Indigenous census in Belem, Brazil, on Aug. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
There, Indigenous Warao people from Venezuela sold crafts made of straw next to Kayapo Indigenous people painting their bodies with traditional designs. Riverine community stalls 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 by the previous government,” said Colombian Indigenous leader Anitalia Pijachi Kuyuedo, referring to the administration of far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro. “There are many grievances, much pain, much anger, and you can feel the emotions in the words of those you speak with.”
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Guajajara, the minister, agreed that their anxiety has been palpable, but finally they have a forum.
“There were six years of the complete silencing of civil society, and spaces for social participation were extinguished. People became very afraid to express themselves,” Guajajara said. “This is the first moment when society is once again engaging in dialogue with the federal government.”
Brazil’s government had expected 10,000 attendees, but instead, 24,000 had arrived, according to Guajajara.
Over 1,200 of them were camping in a private recreational park on Belem’s outskirts, with tents arranged in rows beside the stone trail gently winding through the jungle past waterslides coursing into man-made pools. Early Monday, they were rising to eat breakfast and prepare for the events of the day ahead.
Some smiled at the sight of Chief Raoni Metuktire, a leader from the Amazon known throughout the world for defending the environment, sitting on a flimsy chair beside the trail and smoking a pipe. He shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with well-wishers.
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Diolina Krikati had traveled with about 40 others from her native Maranhao state. In an interview, she stressed the importance of the Amazon for generating the rains that irrigates crops in fields far from the forest – ensuring a livelihood not just for Indigenous people, but many non-Indigenous Brazilians, too.
“(The summit) is like taking a moment to hear Indigenous people, and we need to be listened to. It’s a moment we need to speak about our needs, and our difficulties,” said Krikati, 31.
Another attendee was Naldinho Kumaruara, 29, a spiritual leader wearing a crown of blue macaw feathers and a necklace made of snake bones, and who held a giant maraca in his hand.
Kumaruara had come from his Indigenous territory – threatened by illegal logging and fishing, and predatory tourism – to Belem, the state capital. Already he had spoken with members of Para state’s secretariats of education and health who visited the park, as well also officials of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s general secretariat at the convention center.
He sees this gathering, bringing together all nations that are stakeholders in the Amazon, as a step forward, and also one that has better likelihood to advance Indigenous causes than others, like the Free Land Camp in the capital Brasilia.
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“Now it is different, because we can speak for ourselves; It isn’t a white person coming and speaking for us. We are always involved, but we didn’t have a position to speak,” he said. “Today, we can speak.”
Later that afternoon, Naldinho was among those in the crowd of Belem’s colonial theater. From an upper balcony, he watched as a group of adolescent Indigenous people stomped and sang on the stage.
The interim president of Brazil’s statistics institute Cimar Azeredo announced the revised population statistic to the crowd, saying it had “helped to rediscover Brazil.”
Their larger numbers means a greater share of the government resources can be earmarked for investment in Indigenous people’s health and education, 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 underscored just hours earlier, when three people of the Tembe ethnicity were shot.
And in coming months, she told the crowd, the federal government will expel invaders from 32 Indigenous territories; her announcement was met by cheers and applause from the audience, plus the shaking of maracas.
“Never again a Brazil without us!”