Growing up, I was proud of my history. Of my country’s history. Portugal was one of the first empires to come out of colonization. “The Discoveries” was what we called it. We have our own version of the Odyssey, detailing the journeys of sailors facing the unknown oceans to look for new land, new places in our planet, yet to be explored. There are monuments celebrating it. History books praising it. Entire chapters of what it means to be Portuguese tied to these times. We discovered the maritime way to India. We were the first ones in Africa. We discovered Brazil. When I thought of these accomplishments, or what I thought were accomplishments, I didn’t think of the ramifications of our “discoveries”.
Portugal, in general, still refuses the recognize the role we had in the trade of African slaves and the murder of thousands of members of Brazil’s indigenous population. In history books, the tale of what we did to Brazil is glorified. We speak of the people we murdered and enslaved as less than people. As product. As mere objects used to work and sell. They describe the need for African slaves in Brazil, said to be more resilient when working in the “fazendas” making sugar, and how Brazilian Natives were like birds, not good for caging. They teach us this in class, put these words on our books, never, not once, speaking of the consequences of what we did, the lack of humanity with which we treated those who we deemed as different, as less than. We explored their land, ploughed through their resources, through Nature that did not belong to us, mined their gold, and left little more than destruction behind.
We’re now in 2017 and the brutalisation of native peoples’ continues. According to The Independent, in September, 10 indigenous members of a tribe inhabiting the Amazon were murdered. Their bodies were dumped in a river, allegedly by illegal gold miners who work in the region’s rivers. Brazil has cut their aid to its indigenous populations and it can take up to 12 days by boat to reach the area. A 5th of Brazil’s uncontacted tribes live in the Amazons: President Michel Temer has proposed a reduction of the protected area of the Amazons and has plans to allow mining companies to go into the region and use it for their businesses. Cleber Buzatto, the executive secretary of the non-profit Indigenous Missionary Council, said that this “makes attacks against isolated Indians more probable” and UN experts denounced a surge in killings in rural Brazil this year alone. This is an example of neo-colonialism.
One of the most isolated tribes, living in one of the reserves President Temer is opening to international mining companies, has promised to fight and protect their homes to the death if necessary, against the imminent threat of destruction. The members of the Waiapi tribe say they will “keep resisting until the last of us is dead”. Fiona Watson, campaigns director for tribal peoples’ rights organisation Survival has said that “these are powerful landowners and business people determined to take over indigenous lands and steal tribal peoples’ resources.” The older members of the Waiapi tribe fear the effect that the “white men” would have on their children – drugs, robberies, cellphones being mentioned – and the preservation of their culture. Not only that, but these mining companies would pollute the rivers and land the Waiapi rely on for sustenance. With a population that has grown from 150 in the 1970’s to 1200 today, the Waiapi have a strong sense of culture, with their own health agencies and teachers. With their bodies covered in red paint and red cloths, they brandish arrows and vow to keep fighting for their land and for the preservation of their people, no matter what it takes. They are aware of what is going to be necessary for survival, as Jawarwa Waiapi, who holds the first political post in the history of the Waiapi, claims to have knowledge of politics as his new weapon and plans on using it wisely.
As a Portuguese woman, I am ashamed that it took me several years to truly comprehend the ramifications of my country’s role in colonising Brazil and how the country is still being affected by their past as an object of colonization centuries later. I also understand that I was taught to see the actions of my ancestors as heroic, but as an educated adult, I am now able to criticize and put their actions into perspective. Even though we have maintained a close relationship with Brazil, we have not done enough to educate our people about the plights of the indigenous population that remains in Brazil, trying to hold on to their culture and preserve their land. Brazil is still fighting for their land, their history, their culture and a Nature that they have known their entire lives and that they wish to see remain unaltered by outside forces. We can’t sit silent and deny that the way we shaped their past is affecting the way they are shaping their future. It is our duty, as those who invited foreigners into their land so many years ago, to now help them defend it and raise awareness in regards to what is happening in the Amazon now and to allow Brazil’s native tribes to carry living in peace and celebrating their cultures the way they would have if we had never stepped foot in their land.
Written by Ines Mendonca