In Brazil, an indigenous woman joins Bolsonaro in fight for mining

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Stephen Eisenhammer
·8 min read
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By Stephen Eisenhammer

RAPOSA SERRA DO SOL, Brazil (Reuters) - Irisnaide Silva is female, Brazilian and indigenous.

And for once, in her view, she is being heard.

For decades her family picked and panned the borderland near Venezuela, scouring the hills for diamonds and gold.

They kept digging even after Brazil in 2005 marked the land as indigenous territory, a measure that prohibited mining despite protests from her family and other wildcatters in her Macuxi tribe.

Now, Silva has the ear of none other than Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president.

A fervid nationalist abhorred by the global green movement for his eagerness to develop the Amazon rainforest, Bolsonaro has twice met Silva in the capital Brasilia.

He first saw her, together with some other like-minded tribal leaders, soon after taking power in January 2019 to discuss a bill that would authorize mining on native lands.

"Some people want you to remain on indigenous territories like prehistoric animals," Bolsonaro said at the meeting. "Under the soil you have billions or trillions of dollars."

Silva, 32, leads one of two main indigenous groups in the Amazonian state of Roraima. But the other group, and many other indigenous associations, see her as a traitor manipulated by rapacious intruders eager to grab lands and resources.

She does not care.

"I've been called a white Indian," Silva told Reuters over squawking chickens at her steel-roof home in the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve. Although her mixed race background is not uncommon, critics use it to question her credibility.

"Others said I couldn't lead because I'm a woman."

Her push for development - and Bolsonaro's desire to enable it - goes far beyond questions of mining and material wealth. It challenges decades of government policy that strove to keep intruders out and stirs historical debate over whether some of the world's most isolated tribes should be integrated into modern society or left alone, along with the Amazon.

Larger than Western Europe and home to nearly all of Brazil's indigenous lands, the world's biggest rainforest is a bulwark against climate change, its vegetation a giant filter for greenhouse gases.

Native lands make up 13% of Brazil - a protected area roughly the size of Egypt. But with indigenous people numbering less than 0.5% of Brazil's population, farming and mining groups have long eyed these lowly-populated areas greedily.

It is not clear whether Bolsonaro's bill will make it through Brazil's unwieldy Congress nor how lucrative mining would be on these lands. But the timing has never been more favorable for the president, with allies recently winning leadership of both houses and a COVID-stricken economy desperate for investment. Bolsonaro has made the bill a 2021 priority.

By teaming up with some indigenous people, activists say he is exacerbating tensions within tribes through divide-and-conquer methods that historically helped destroy native lands worldwide.

"Bolsonaro is using the strategy of the colonizers," said Antenor Vaz, a veteran former field agent for Brazil's indigenous affairs agency Funai.

'NEW EL DORADO'

The prospect of legalisation has already led thousands of gold seekers to encroach on indigenous territory.

Bolsonaro's bill lays the regulatory framework to open these areas to legal mining for the first time. Controversially, it would not give indigenous communities a veto.

Many native communities continue to live rural lifestyles, pursuing little modern development beyond small-scale farming. But Silva and those like her believe indigenous people have as much right as other Brazilians to exploit their resources.

The state of Roraima, with little industrialized mining due to its many reserves, is already courting investors. Anastase Papoortzis, head of state development company Codesaima, told Reuters the company owns 29 exploration permits on indigenous territories and will attend a mining fair in Canada this year.

"It's already set for us to go and present Roraima as a new mining frontier, a new El Dorado," he said.

Lust for treasure, and the destruction it wrought, have shaped this northern part of the Amazon basin since Europeans arrived in the 18th century. Early maps even placed El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, somewhere among these green hills and scars of purple rock.

The seekers have come ever since.

In the 1950s, Silva's grandfather arrived from northeast Brazil to try his luck. He married a local Macuxi woman and started a family. Silva's father Celson, now 68, was out digging with his father from the age of eight.

Silva panned as a child too, but only during holidays as her father insisted she stay in school, walking three hours a day to attend class. "I still mine occasionally," she said, "but it's terrible for my nails."

In the 2000s, as she finished school and trained to be a teacher, rival indigenous factions fought over how to protect their homeland. That struggle in Raposa Serra do Sol became emblematic of Brazil's debate over indigenous policy.

While the larger Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR) wanted a continuous reserve that removed outsiders from the area, Silva's Society for the Defence of the United Indians of Roraima (Sodiurr) believed farmers should be allowed to stay, defining tribal territory as islands around their properties.

Sodiurr argued the rice and cattle farmers, who had moved there in prior decades, brought jobs and development.

After 15 April 2005, when the government ratified Raposa Serra do Sol as a continuous reserve, many farmers resisted eviction. Sporadic attacks on indigenous opponents flared for several years, injuring over a dozen people.

'THERE WILL BE BLOOD'

Silva did not fight, but it informs her politics.

After a term as town councillor, she won Sodiurr's leadership election in 2019 and doubled down on the pro-development, pro-integration message. As she puts it: "No one here wants to walk around with their bits out."

She has expanded their social media presence and aligned the organization with right-wing state and federal governments.

Membership is growing too, according to Silva. Seven communities have changed allegiance, ditching CIR to join her, while eight others are in conversation, she said. There are around 350 indigenous communities in the state.

Edinho Batista de Souza, a CIR leader, said he was unaware of communities switching sides.

"The presidency (of Sodiurr) does not speak the same language as its people," he told Reuters. "The government is trying to manipulate some leaders, including the president, but the base doesn't agree with these ideas."

Although Sodiurr's membership is less than half CIR's, the smaller organization now has backing in Brasilia.

"This is an old issue, but back then they were a minority, now they have the President of the Republic … now they are in power," said Marcio Meira, a former Funai head who worked closely with both sides during the demarcation.

Funai, in response to Reuters questions, said it did not know the size of each group or how they might have changed. It declined to comment on the rivalry, beyond saying it did not condone violence.

Bolsonaro's agenda appears to be fueling change before a single vote on his mining bill.

Near Napoleão, an indigenous town of 1,200 people in the mountainous south of Raposa Serra do Sol, workers sweat dawn to dusk, cutting deep into yielding rock.

Some have pneumatic drills, but most chase the purple veins with only muscle and a pickaxe. Miners lumber from the rock face, bent under sacks of fortune.

The "mountain", as the five wildcat mines are known, has run since July 2019. It has driven the change Silva craves.

The town gets 4% of mining profits, according to Carpejane Lima, 38, the town's indigenous leader and a Silva ally. Diggers take 74% and those with machines to extract gold take the final 22%.

"The power company had cut off the electricity because we couldn't pay the bills," Lima said, under the shade of a mango tree. Now a cavalry of diesel generators whirrs next to a reopened general store. Across the street, a stand sells replica soccer shirts.

"We can make this a prosperous town," Lima said, a 48-gram gold bracelet glittering on his wrist.

But mining brings outsiders. Few tribes have the expertise or capital needed to crush and process ore. These arrivals, critics say, bring drugs, prostitution and disease. Mercury, used to separate the gold, has also appeared at alarming levels in the blood of some indigenous populations.

Since Bolsonaro was elected, CIR says 2,000 miners have trespassed on Raposa Serra do Sol to work mines like this. Silva insists only natives wildcat the land.

At a riverside pit near Silva's home, where her father has been living under tarpaulin for weeks, a small group dig below the beating sun.

"We will fight for what is ours," Celson said. "If people who don't belong come here to try and stop us, then there will be blood."

(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer; Additional reporting by Leonardo Benassatto; Editing by Brad Haynes and Andrew Cawthorne)