Anger mars opening of World Indigenous Games

Johannes Myburgh
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Anger among Brazil's tribes over land theft and the slow destruction of their culture took center stage at opening of World Indigenous Games in Palmas

Anger among Brazil's tribes over land theft and the slow destruction of their culture took center stage at opening of World Indigenous Games in Palmas (AFP Photo/Christophe Simon)

Palmas (Brazil) (AFP) - Loud protests by native Brazilians against President Dilma Rousseff over what they say is their loss of rights marred the opening of the first international games for indigenous tribes.

The official opening ceremony for the World Indigenous Games at a stadium in the Amazon city of Palmas was meant to celebrate ancient skills like spear throwing and archery, with athletes from as far as Mongolia and New Zealand joining descendants of Brazil's original inhabitants.

But anger among Brazil's tribes over what they say is land theft and the slow destruction of their cultures quickly took center stage.

"This land is ours!" shouted a large group in the crowd of several thousand, as the ceremony, attended by Rousseff, was about to start several hours behind schedule.

To loud cheers, one elder took the microphone and addressed Rousseff, protesting moves in Congress that tribes fear will further erode their control over ancestral lands already under pressure from armed farmers.

The scenes were a long way from the message of world harmony that organizers said they wanted to promote, with the official website even claiming, "Now we are all indigenous."

With their plight generally ignored in Brazil and their communities located in some of the most remote parts of the continent, activists made sure to take their opportunity to speak out in front of the international media and the president.

In a dramatic moment, an indigenous man, bare-chested and with long black hair, confronted Rousseff as she toured a tent displaying artisanal wares.

"You are killing our people!" he shouted, before rushing out.

Rousseff did not appear to reply.

Controversy had started even before the games when several Brazilian ethnic groups said they were refusing to attend.

- Alternative Olympics -

The opening ceremony finally got underway with accordion-playing children and a parade. Three traditional leaders came out onto the sand arena chanting.

Tribal delegations decked out in traditional garb and elaborate headdresses followed, marching in with chants and whoops.

About 1,800 athletes from 23 countries were scheduled to take part, watched by an expected 10,000-30,000 spectators a day.

This was the first year that Brazil has opened its annual indigenous games to foreigners, giving it the flavor of what some describe as a low-key version of next year's Summer Olympics, being staged in Rio de Janeiro.

Other events at the games include canoeing, racing with heavy logs, and an ancient version of football called xikunahity in which players are only allowed to use the head.

The games got off to a start earlier in the week with a modern football tournament -- one of the mainstream sports programed -- and the lighting of a sacred fire Thursday in central Palmas.