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Brazil tribal lands under new threat from farmers, miners

RAPOSA SERRA DO SOL, Brazil (Reuters) - A decade after the Macuxi people won a bloody legal battle to expel rice planters from their reservation in a remote part of Brazil, their hold over ancestral lands has come under threat again from new right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

Indigenous Macuxi children play at the community of Maturuca on the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation, Roraima state, Brazil February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

The sprawling 1.7 million hectares (6,600 square miles) of savannah on the border with Venezuela — a reservation called Raposa Serra do Sol — is home to 25,000 native people whose main livelihood is raising cattle.

But the land remains coveted by commercial farmers and mining prospectors who believe the area is rich in minerals such as gold, diamonds, copper, molybdenum, bauxite and even niobium, a metal used to strengthen steel that Bolsonaro considers “strategic.”

“In the fight for our land rights, 21 of us died,” says Chief Aldenir Lima, the leader of the 70 communities on the reservation. “Since then we recovered what we had lost and today, the white farmers’ rice plantations have been replaced by our cattle herds.”

That could change if Bolsonaro follows through on his promise to review the borders of the reservation — part of his push to repeal a ban on commercial farming and mining on indigenous lands.

Bolsonaro’s first move after his January inauguration was to put indigenous land decisions under the Ministry of Agriculture, which is controlled by farm sector representatives eager to open up new frontiers to large-scale farming.

The president has already singled out Raposa Serra do Sol.

“It is the richest area in the world. There are ways to exploit it rationally. And for the Indians, to give them royalties and integrate them into society,” he said in December.

The Macuxi fear the return of illegal gold miners and other poachers on their lands, emboldened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and his moves to weaken their rights.

“I want to ask the new president Jair Bolsonaro to respect indigenous people and our constitutional rights,” says community leader Tereza Pereira de Souza, her hair crowned with a headdress of yellow feathers.

“It took us 30 years to get our land borders legally recognized and registered,” she says.

Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of the population and live on reservations that account for 13 percent of the territory.

Bolsonaro says they live in abject poverty and hunger and should be assimilated instead of being confined to reservations like “zoo animals.”

In Raposa Serra do Sol, Daniel Andrade butchers a cow’s carcass and holds up a cut of fresh beef. Nobody goes hungry on the reservation, he counters.

Any attempt to change the reservation’s legal status would likely be opposed by the Supreme Court on the grounds that Brazil’s 1988 Constitution protects indigenous land rights.

Anthropologists warn removing that protection would destroy the traditions and languages of the Macuxi and four other related tribes on the reservation.

“Nature is our life, our blood and our spirit, because it gives us sustenance,” says Martinho de Souza, a Macuxi shaman. “We were born on this land, we live here and we will die here.”

Nearby, in the shaman’s village of Tamanduá, chickens run about the earth floor and a pot of food cooks over a wood fire. The village is named after a type of anteater, a large mammal in danger of extinction.

Younger tribe members say they would fight for the land, among them Tiago Nunes Pereira, 24, who shows scars on his leg from a gunshot wound he suffered in a clash with farmers when he was just 12 years old.

“Blood was shed here. That hurt a lot. I’m not scared to die. We will never tire of fighting, to the last one of us.”

Photo essay

Reporting by Sergio Queiroz and Bruno Kelly; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien