Back in September, Moana Maniapoto interviewed a couple of guests from the Amazon, Txai Surui and her husband Gabriel Unchida, who were in Aotearoa to promote their film The Territory and spread the word about the good fight being fought by Brazil’s Indigenous tribes to save the Amazon rainforest. Here she writes about why that should matter to us all.
As the Auckland traffic whizzes past our old villa on Sandringham Rd, Txai Surui talks of the jaguars and snakes and monkeys and people living their lives in the Amazon rainforest.
She’s wearing a halo of blue, green and yellow feathers. An exotic fish out of water in this city suburb. But she’s here in Aotearoa with her husband, Gabriel Uchida, to spread the word, especially through their film The Territory, about the ongoing calamity in Brazil where the rainforest is being cleared at the rate of a football field every minute.
Txai says her feathered headdress represents strength. And it’s a reminder that she’s never alone, that she carries her people and the spirits of the Amazon rainforest with her as protection.
I look down at my beautiful hei tiki, and think: I can relate to that.
But, after an hour of so with her and Gabriel, I realise I have no idea of the scale of the deforestation nor of the danger for environmental activists such as these two are.
The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, took offence with Txai’s account to world leaders at Cop21 about the impact of his deforestation policy on Indigenous tribes. Bolsonaro, described by some as the Trump of the Tropics, accused Txai of “attacking Brazil”. And defaming him.
Txai says she’s had death threats after the president’s comments. Her mother, Neidinha Bandeira, gets them too. She’s head of the ethno-environmental defence NGO Kanindé, and is an impressive wahine toa and staunch advocate for the Amazon tribes fighting against deforestation.
Neidinha mentors the likes of 22-year-old Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau, who leads his iwi. That means her home is behind high walls festooned with razor wire — and that she changes her hair colour and length to avoid being recognised.
Gabriel is a producer of The Territory which was funded by National Geographic and directed by Alex Pritz. Txai was the executive producer.
Thanks to Chelsea Winstanley (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi te Rangi), one of our high-flying film producers, I watched it at a film festival here in Auckland. And I sat in my chair in the theatre long after the screen had faded to black. It’s an unsettling experience.
In the film, we watch as Neidinha farewells one of the young leaders we’ve come to know as he heads off into the forest on his scooter. He’s Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau. And she urges him to be careful.
In a later scene, she breaks down at news that his battered and bruised body has been found on the side of the road. And they still have no answers to the questions about that.
“Ari was a guardian of the forest,” says Txai. “He was my friend, a father, a son, a teacher, a leader . . .”
Jair Bolsonaro swept to power as Brazil’s president in 2018 with a right-wing, populist agenda. He’s clinging to it too. Only a few weeks ago, the former military man was narrowly defeated in Brazil’s elections by “Lula” — Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former leftist president. Bolsonaro has yet to concede, although he’s started the transition of power.
Bolsonaro built his appeal with the poor, with farmers and miners. In the runup to the election, the pro-gun, former army captain described the race as a battle between good and evil, and demanded that leftists be “eradicated from public life”.
It’s a dangerous and familiar dog-whistle. I had a flashback to the time I spent in the Philippines many years ago on a human rights course run by some brave lawyers.
I learned how those with a “leftist” agenda — human rights activists, unionists, priests, lawyers and journalists — were framed as “communists” by Bible-carrying, gun-toting paramilitia vigilante groups dancing to the tune of more powerful forces.
As I joined the lawyers at the funeral of a slain student leader whose face was bruised and misshapen, I recall feeling blessed that activists in Aotearoa could criticise policies, political parties and leaders without fear of assassination.
Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud have led to mass protests. His supporters continue to denounce the election results, to block roads, and to call for military intervention and for the Supreme Court to be disbanded.
Meanwhile, Lula, the 77-year-old new president-elect headed to COP27, where he committed to a path of zero deforestation including his wish to talk with the leaders of Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, all part of the Amazon whānau. And he’s called for the next COP to be hosted in the Amazon — as well as pledging to create a new Ministry of Indigenous People.
The Amazon is home to around a million Indigenous people, including tribes that haven’t yet had contact with the outside world. It’s hard to get your head around it, but then Gabriel tells me the forest is 18 times bigger than Aotearoa.
Txai’s father is a highly respected chief of the Surui tribe. They were forced out in 1981 when the government of Brazil built roads into the forest. Forced assimilation has long been a thing there.
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, the iwi that features in the film, live in the western state known as Rondonia. Half the tribe’s population was wiped out by the flu and measles within two years of contact in 1981.
It’s undoubtedly one reason why the tribe’s young chief, Bitate, refused entry to even the film crew when Covid hit Brazil.
There’s a poignant scene in The Territory where one koroua laments how the iwi was enticed from the forest by the equivalent of our old Ministry of Māori Affairs offering mirrors, axes, cloth — all the shiny stuff. Government agents worked to push the tribe into small reserves so they could strip the forest of the trees.
Poor people from other parts of Brazil were encouraged to flock to the Amazon to build their own little piece of paradise. Brazil’s tangata whenua were, and remain, an unfortunate inconvenience.
The Amazon is the last frontier and it’s turned into the wild west. In this film, one side (with fewer than 200 people) is armed with bows and arrows. The other side? Well, some have firearms.
The Indigenous tribes aren’t just fighting against the fires set by the invaders. They’re up against a mentality where non-Indigenous peoples see the forest and think “there’s nothing there”.
“It’s tragic,” says Gabriel. “For us, it’s the opposite. We see the forest as everything. It is life.”
The couple travel the world to speak about the film and help the rest of us connect the dots.
Three years in the making, The Territory documents the war against deforestation. Gabriel explains that many Brazilians are ignorant when it comes to Indigenous tribes or even the significance of the Amazon — a habitat to an estimated 1 in 10 of the known species of plants and animals on earth.
Often described as the lungs of the world, the Amazon is a carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming. But it’s one that has quickly been undermined by those determined to make a buck at the forest’s expense.
“It’s not only about territory,” says Gabriel. “It’s also about life on earth. We’re talking about climate change. We’re talking about so many things that connect us all. So it’s not a problem for Brazilians only. It’s a problem for the whole world.”
There are some remarkable moments in the film. One is when as an 18-year-old, Bitate, is chosen to be the one from his tribe to engage with the government, media and outside entities.
Can you imagine that here? A teenager being the “face of the iwi?”
Another heart-stopping moment is watching “the invaders” deliberately torch the forest.
But what is particularly special about the film is that it includes the perspective of those the tribe describe as invaders. And it’s so revealing. Sergio comes across as a good, hardworking, determined man whose mission is to clear the land and plant crops. He’s dismissive of those whose lands they occupy: ”They don’t farm or create anything. They just live there.”
And Txai dismisses the suggestion that the Brazilians outside the rainforest have been the discoverers. “How do you discover a place,” she insists, “when there are people already living there?”
She explains that, after a Q & A in Brazil, one man said: “You know, when you show the other side, I see me. Because my father went there and they taught us that you, the Indigenous peoples — you are the enemy. You’re the bad guys.”
Bolsonaro has never been a champion of Indigenous rights. He’s on record as comparing isolated tribes to animals in a zoo, and praising General Custer for his role in “exterminating Indians” in the US. In the runup to his previous campaign in 2017, he announced: “If I become president, there won’t be one square centimetre of land designated for Indigenous reservations.”
While Brazil’s 1988 constitution guarantees tribes rights to their ancestral lands, the Bolsonaro government declared that the agriculture ministry has the authority to decide on the boundaries or reservations. That decision was rejected by the Supreme Court.
In office, he’s said: ”Indians are undoubtedly changing . . . they’re increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” His administration investigated Indigenous leaders who spoke out against his policies. And, under his watch, there were more fires in the first week of September than in any month last year.
While his officials blame Covid, Bolsonaro scaled back the enforcement of environmental laws and gutted inspection budgets for the agency in charge of regulating deforestation. In doing so, NGOs suggest he’s basically given the green light to criminal networks for illegal logging. And for undermining Brazil’s ability to reduce its greenhouse emissions.
As with any strongman, he’s not inclined to buckle in the face of internal political pressure. And, to date, he’s kicked back as well against global criticism. He says such criticism is an affront to Brazil’s sovereignty.
I learned a new term during my meeting with Txai and Gabriel. Eco-cide. It’s part of a campaign by conservationists to provide a name for a new crime to be established at the International Crimes Court to cover environmental destruction. Twenty countries have expressed support for it.
Aotearoa New Zealand isn’t one of them. Not yet.
The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) says the “unbridled” destruction of the Amazon will most likely continue until the Lula government is officially installed on January 1, 2023.
Meanwhile the Indigenous people are still fighting — with drones and cameras added to their arsenal. And Txai is clear she doesn’t see her people as victims. She sees them as champions who are “helping to save the planet”.
The Territory premiered in the World Cinema competition at Sundance 2022, winning both the audience award and the Special Jury Award for documentary craft, making it the only film at that year’s festival to win awards from audience and jury alike.
Moana Maniapoto is the host of Te Ao with Moana on Whakaata Māori. Her interview with Txai Surui and Gabriel Unchida can be found here.
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