Curtain Raiser

Native Brazilians’ New Woe, Colltalers

There’s another concern related to the ouster of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, aside weakening of democratic institutions, end of most social programs, and widespread feeling of dread about the political process: increased vulnerability of the country’s indigenous peoples.
The issue has been highlighted by the uproar about an official press release of the Summer Paralympics, currently taking place in Brazil. On it, the games’ organizers unwittingly gave credence to an old, unsubstantiated claim accusing a Brazilian tribe of infanticide and other crimes.
Explaining the choice of Iganani Suruwahá, who has cerebral palsy, to be a Paralympics torch bearer, they stated that her mother, Muwaji, fled their Amazon tribe to prevent the child from being killed due to her disability. But they offer no proof about the story’s veracity.
Also not mentioned is the fact that the claim was made by the Evangelical missionaries who adopted mother and daughter. And that there’s a concerted effort, by Brazilian messianic religions, to pass legislation to regulate what they see as indigenous ‘pagan’ customs and practices.
Two of the most articulated political groups in the Brazilian Congress, both intimately involved in the dubious Rousseff impeachment process, are the so-called Bible block, and the ‘Ruralistas,’ big land owners who’ve been Brazilian indians’ traditional, and powerful, enemies.
During the impeachment, faith-controlled Brazilian media routinely showed pastors praying for Rousseff’s demise. But at the end of the day, they did way more than that: besides voting

for her ouster, the 87 congressmen and five senators actively engaged their flock against her.
Even though their qualified support to Maronite Catholic Michel Temer depends on Brazil’s former vice president, and now its new unelected leader, to periodically wave exemptions and benefits to the block, no one doubts that, when needed, they are part of his political constituency.
Unlike Catholic Rousseff, who was largely perceived as agnostic, and whose disastrous overtures to the religious right may have aggravated her political isolation during her last year in office. In Brazilian politics these days, however, no one gets anything done without their votes.
As for the Ruralistas, it’s not hard to see why they favored the forced change of direction in Brazil. After all, four successive election cycles won by the Workers’ Party, the PT, meant defeat to their expansionary claims, specially in the Amazon region. And some progressive legislation, such as extension of land for indigenous peoples, passed during the PT’s tenure, was downright against their best interests.
To be fair, though, the PT in general, and Rousseff in particular, were not exactly champions of indigenous causes, and during their time in power, crimes against activists and community leaders actually increased. Brazil is sadly the world’s number one on that category.
The new Forest Code, for instance, approved while PT’s was still enjoying its peak popularity, it’s known to have pleased pretty much no one. But it still was specially generous to land developers and big property owners, and glossed over their past violations depleting the forest.
The Ruralists, however, want more, of course. Their interests may now reach out across Brazilian borders, and with the new government, will face no likely challenges to their intentions. You haven’t heard it from us, but they may as well seek an alliance with the religious right.
Going back to the Suruwahá, hostility from Christian missionaries towards their ‘primitive’ ways, shared also by other tribes, comes from Brazil’s colonial past. The struggle of Europeans settlers to control the territory set a centuries-old pattern of violence against them.
It has also decimated their populations, from over five million in the 1500a, in modest, estimated figures, to the currently less than a million. To have an idea, some studies number pre-Columbian native Americans in the 18-million range. The current 10.2 million amounts to about two percent of the U.S. population. For comparison, of the over 200 hundred million Brazilians, less than 0.2 percent are natives.
To Brazil’s religious right, the effort to regulate the lifestyles of indians sits within the context of a larger cultural war it’s currently waging. Crucial to such strategy is to dictate, and if necessary, dial back achievements of the women’s rights movement, for example.
Even PT detractors agree that the unprecedented national conversation about rape, abortion, equality, and other women- and family-centered issues wouldn’t be possible without it. And it’s has been beneficial to the Brazilian society as whole, despite a rise in sexual violence.
Thus, using a vulnerable and isolated community, such as the relatively small indigenous population, may be just the testing grounds needed to a larger, overarching effort to dominate the conversation, redirect it to a familiar faith-based context, and pass legislation accordingly.
Moreover, strident allegations of brutality, sexual abuse, slavery and ‘harmful traditional practices’ are not new, and have long been the tenor of evangelical missions, or ‘visionaries,’ trying to convert natives. The Internet if full of videos of some quite bizarre characters, who all of a sudden decided to make their lives a quest to bring them to their faith. Some won’t hesitate to make outrageous claims in order to achieve it.
But Hakani, a 2009 disturbing movie seen by almost a million people, goes beyond the solitary zealot on a mission theory. It claims to show a child being buried alive by her tribe, creating the illusion that infanticide is widespread. But despite being debunked by experts as staged, the missionary group that produced it has refused to withdraw it from the Web, and the video still incites hostility against native Brazilians.
Without the above context, it’s almost inexplicable to see the point of the Paralympics organizers to stray into the hot minefield of cultural wars in Brazil, in what may be a demoralizing stain on such a progressive initiative: after all, the main point of the games is inclusion.
But they went as far as supporting the ‘Muwaji’s Law,’ a Bible block-sponsored bill, that uses Iganani’s case as a springboard to allow the breakup of tribal families, if one of these claims is invoked. The new political winds may increase the chances for the bill to become law.
A final word about so-called traditional practices: some should most definitely be fought and ended, as in the case of ancient, and repulsive, child marriage, and the Bacha Bazi, customs, female circumcision, the caste system, and so many other despicable beliefs around the world. Nothing should be preserved just because it’s old. We’d love to list religion here too, but Ok, we understand, it’s still too early for that.
The Muwaji is not it, however. Regardless how their sponsors got the Paralympics on their side, it’s a clear effort to what used to be called ‘culturalization’ of native Brazilians, many of whom, who survived its last wave in the 1970s, are still reeling from its nefarious effects.
Although the fate of Brazil’s indigenous peoples is a complex and challenging issue, needing clear goals and political will to be addressed, it is above all, a social matter. Many of its intricacies can be approached from a sociological and humane standpoint, but never from a religious one. It needs advocates within the Brazilian society, not interest groups aiming at controlling them. Here’s to the new Equinox. WC


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