The importance of “territory” in the struggle against climate change and ecological breakdown

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This blog post was written by Barbara Magalhães Teixeira, PhD Candidate in Peace and Conflict Studies at Lund University, Sweden.

In 2022, the Humans Rights Festival in Lund dedicated one session to screening and discussing the documentary “The Territory”, which follows the constant and tireless struggle of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people in the Brazilian Amazon to protect their territory against the expansion of deforestation in the region. Since being granted sovereignty over their ancestral territory in the 1980s, the Uru-eu-wau-wau people have faced continuous attacks to their lands and territory by illegal settlers, aiming to exploit the rainforest for logging, mining, farming and cattle ranching. This has been a constant fight for the Indigenous peoples in the Amazon region. Indeed, the struggle to protect Indigenous lands and territories is as old as the resistance to the colonization of Brazil since 1500. However, attacks intensified when Bolsonaro came to power as president in 2019. By explaining the political, historical, and environmental context of “The Territory”, I find three important take-aways; in this post, I share how these can help us think and act differently to support human and more-than-human communities of the Amazon and beyond.

The central theme of the documentary is this idea of “the territory”, which is not only based on a legal demarcation of an area, region, or piece of land, but it is closely related to the emotional, psychological, spiritual, cultural, and ancestral connection to the land, the forest, and its resources. The film closely follows the story of Bitaté, a 19-year-old who is chosen by the elders of his community to represent their association ‘Jupaú’ in engagements with the government and outside entities. When describing his community’s connection to their territory and the reason why they keep fighting, Bitaté says that:

“we have a special love and care for our territory because it is where our ancestors are from, it is where all the wisdom is. Our culture, our traditions, our traditional foods and medicinal plants are all inside the forest. It is a wealth we want to preserve for future generations. That’s why we’ve fought, and are still fighting, for this territory.”

The film also follows the story of Neidinha, an environmental and human rights activist who has been working closely with the Indigenous populations in the Amazon to protect their rights and territories for over 40 years. The Uru-eu-wau-wau were first ‘contacted’ in 1981, and since then, Neidinha has been working with them on their fight to demarcate their territory, their forest, and in connection, their rights and culture. This is because the invasion of Indigenous people’s land is not only an attack to their territory, but an attack to their way of life and the ecosystem that they protect. In this sense, the importance of protecting traditional territories is not only tied to the legality of ‘ownership’ over a piece of land, but is connected to the defense of culture, knowledge, ways of life and cosmovisions. Indigenous peoples defend their territories not only for their own security, but also to ensure that forests are not devastated and the environment is not destroyed beyond repair.

Bolsonaro destroyed, now we have to reforest

During four years of the Bolsonaro government, 2019-2022, the rate of degradation of the Amazon more than doubled from 2018, reaching record-high numbers. This degradation has been fomented by change in legislation that makes fiscalization more “flexible”, meaning that a lot of environmental crimes were not being investigated and fined. This strategy was supported by the then Environmental Minister, Ricardo Salles, who was recorded saying to government officials that they should take advantage of the situation with COVID-19, changing legislation while people were distracted by the pandemic – changes that might otherwise cause popular commotion and be questioned by the Justice system.

Bolsonaro is not only responsible for the legal loop-holes created to allow more illegal and unregulated degradation of the Amazon, but he has also always been openly against the rights of Indigenous peoples. During his political campaign, he stated that he would not create more reserves to demarcate Indigenous territories or preserve their ways of life. On the contrary, Bolsonaro has reproduced an extremely violent and colonial view on the rights of Indigenous peoples to their land and their resources, claiming that these groups “do not do anything” with all the land that they already have: that they do not work the land, they do not produce, and do not contribute to the country’s economy. He has actually claimed that Indigenous people’s claims to their territory were “destroying” Brazil because they refused to exploit their territory and their resources as commodity for the international markets.

Bolsonaro’s support during the 2022 election was clearly correlated with areas of Brazil where people benefit from his flexible environmental policies that favor the expansion of agribusiness. The map below shows the “arch of deforestation” correlates with political affiliation: the orange color in the top picture shows areas of forest fires in 2020, used to deforest and encroach on the land; the map below shows election results, with blue indicating municipalities where Bolsonaro won the majority of the votes.

In contrast, the presidential campaign of Lula in 2022 highlighted the Indigenous struggle and their fight to defend their territory and the environment against climate change. He had a harsh view of Bolsonaro’s policies for degradation of the Amazon, and pledged to zero deforestation by 2030. In his first days in office, he created a Ministry for the Indigenous Peoples and chose Sônia Guajajara, an influential Indigenous leader, to head the agency and give back to Indigenous peoples the right to govern themselves. Lula has also given ‘back’ to Indigenous peoples the National Agency of Indigenous Peoples, to be headed by Joênia Wapichana, an Indigenous lawyer and former member of congress. During the Bolsonaro government, the National Agency was headed by a white man, nicknamed as ‘the enemy of the Indigenous peoples’ because of his hatred towards Indigenous people and his policies that authorized the registration and sale of unregistered Indigenous territories.

After the disastrous years of Bolsonaro government, Lula’s policies and pledges for the Amazon and for safeguarding Indigenous peoples’ rights and territories are hopeful in the path towards reforesting the Amazon and Brazil as a whole. However, many challenges still remain in the fight against environmental breakdown and climate change. For example, the national plan is still focused on promoting economic growth and development based on the exportation of raw materials and agricultural commodities, based on a capitalist model of extractivism. Because Brazil is positioned as a dependent economy in the global capitalist system, domestic production and exploitation of natural resources are driven by global demands of the international market, rather than domestic demand to meet basic needs. This holds Brazil hostage to the idea of economic growth and development, which might lead to more environmental conflicts and political instability rather than helping to solve conflicts.

Small-scale farmers vs. the global economy

In the film, we see that small-scale farmers and agricultural workers reproduce Bolsonaro’s economic and colonial narrative that Indigenous communities have too much land in their territories while they did not ‘do anything’ with it – they do not use large-scale planting, sell their crops, nor contribute to the country’s economy. These farmers claim that the Indigenous population is very small and an insignificant number of people, while their reserves and territory are usually seen as very vast and more than they are able to use. However, this is in contrast with the reality of land inequality in Brazil: it is true that a huge population of ‘landless’ people work in small plots of land, but rather than majority Indigenous-held territories, 10 large proprietors occupy 73% of Brazil’s agricultural area.

Important to note is that, while we might be quick in portraying the small-scale agricultural workers as ‘the enemy’ in the case of the documentary, it is necessary to understand the structural constraints that put them in this position. Often times, these small farmers are financed by large land-owners and multinational corporations, which pay them to invade Indigenous territories and burn down the forest in order to replace it with agricultural land. Once the workers have prepared the land and risked their lives, and finally ‘legalized’ their claim to the land (in accordance to Brazilian legislation), the large land-owners swoop in and offer a large sum of money for these small farmers families in order to take over the land and expand the frontier of their agribusiness. The agricultural workers are used as ‘pawns’ by large businesses for the illegal work because of their position of vulnerability and desperation to provide for their families. In this context, it becomes clear that demands of the global economy for increasingly higher number of natural resources drives the expansion of deforestation frontiers, which is connected to climate change.

In this sense, it becomes imperative to investigate and challenge the way the global capitalist economy works, and how demands from Europe and North America are contributing to environmental degradation and conflict in the Amazon.

Indigenous resistance and protection of the environment

The film shows very clearly how important it is to center Indigenous agency and resistance in defense of territories, forests, and ecosystems, and against the expansion of deforestation and climate change. Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of climate change impacts, direct violence from invaders, as well as structural violence from economic, political, and social marginalization. It is important for us to learn from their strength and their struggle in defending not only their own territories, but all of humanity’s chances of survival in the coming decades.

For Indigenous populations, defending their territories is not only based on securing a piece of paper that legalizes their ‘ownership’ to the land, but it is about defending their ways of life, their cultures, their spiritualities, their knowledges. It is about defending a different way of relating to nature and the environment away from an exploitative relationship of extractivism, and instead as a relationship of reciprocity and care. This is why in the environmental justice movement, a lot of Indigenous communities claim that “the future is ancestral” – which does not mean that we want to go back to prehistoric times, but rather that without recovering ancestral knowledges from the people that have resisted and guarded the forests and territories for centuries, we will not be able to liberate ourselves from the colonial and exploitative dependency on nature and economic growth. Rethinking and taking action to challenge the system that organizes how we relate to nature and other more-than-human beings, can we begin the process of taking care of the planet – and consequently care for ourselves.

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