We Were Always Here The Indigenous Movement iN an AMAZON METROPOLIS

The Sateré-Mawé of the Amazon basin refer to the sacred land of their mythical heroes as Noçoquém. In this enchanted forest on the left bank of the Tapajós, in a region geological formations “where the rocks speak”, there lived two brothers, Ocumáató and Icuaman and their sister, Onhiámuáçabe. She was beautiful and intelligent, knowing all about the plants and their cures for illnesses, and all the animals wanted to marry her.

When she became pregnant, her brothers were enraged and expelled her from their paradise. Disobeying these orders, one day Onhiámuáçabe took her son there to eat Brazil nuts, which only the brothers were allowed to eat. In retribution, the furious brothers had the child killed. Onhiámuáçabe, upon discovering her son was missing, ran to Noçoquém and found him there, decapitated. Crying and speaking to her son as though he were still alive, she said: you will be the strongest force of nature, you will make men well, you will cure diseases. She buried him there and from his eyes grew two plants: from the left eye came a false plant and from the right the guaraná tree, from which came the first Sataré-Mawé.

Residents carry 'cestas básicas', basic food kits for needy families to the indigenous community known as Terra Preta, several hours from Manaus city center by slow boat on the Rio Negro.

Marcivana Sateré-Mawé knows this story well. She was born in the village of Maués, a community in the heart of her people’s ancestral territory, now reduced to a fraction of its original size since the arrival of Europeans to the region in 1499. As the 19th century rubber boom swept through the Amazon, followed by the opening up of the region to industry and agriculture under the military dictatorship during the 1970’s and 80’s, their way of life became increasingly under threat even as their current territory was being officially recognized.

It was during this time when the government created the Zona Franca industrial district in the Amazonas state capital of Manaus, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, that an exodus of indigenous peoples from up and down the watershed migrated to the fast-growing metropolis for its jobs, hospitals, schools and a chance at a better life. In 1981, anthropologist Jorge Osvaldo Romano counted 88 Sateré-Mawé living in poor neighbourhoods of the city’s outskirts. By the end of the 1990s, some 500 Sateré-Mawé lived in Manaus’ western edge.

“I never knew my father, like thousands of indigenous children I have on my documentation for my father: unknown,” Marcivana relates, adding how the men would often leave their villages to find work and never return. Her single mother brought her two children to live in Manaus along with a grandmother and an uncle who intended to study engineering. The indigenous leader is one of the first women to occupy such a high position among the Sateré-Mawé, whose culture has traditionally been patriarchal. Times are changing and in the city change can be an unstoppable force. She insists her story doesn’t belong with her birth but at its roots, which are her ancestors.

“This is important for us indigenous, to pass on their knowledge and experiences to future generations.” Luckily, her ancestral story was dutifully passed down from her mother,

“She told me everything, and I’ll tell my daughter, and she will tell hers, and that’s how we keep our memories alive.”

After arriving in the city, Marcivana’s mother started teaching for MOBRAL, the government literacy program rolled out just after the military coup in 1964, and she soon became active in a budding movement for indigenous rights. Her mother was headstrong and independent, and it was through her that Marcivana would be introduced to activism:

“She was a leader, ahead of her time. She was never comfortable with the reality of being an indigenous woman in the city, with what her own mother went through.”

This thinking conflicted with what white society in Manaus typically expected of indigenous women. The new tariff-free Industrial District created by the military dictatorship with the idea of developing the Amazon (a “land without men for men without land,” according to propaganda at the time) brought in dozens of companies along with countless industrialists, administrators and their families. Maids, cooks and cleaners in the houses of the white upper classes were common occupations for Brazilian women of colour; a legacy of centuries of slavery and exploitative colonialism which still haunts Brazil to this day.

“It wasn’t for me,” Marcivana admits, “I didn’t have time for that. I was born to fight, to be a part of this struggle. My mother was very critical of the system that looked at indigenous women as simply servants or slaves to their white masters, doing the work the white women didn’t want to do; washing their clothes or fetching water so they could have their bath.” It was a nefarious system that, she asserts, became very ingrained in the minds of the indigenous population.

A young Kokama girl watches her mother prepare a hard-shelled river fish, Bodó, for a feast celebrating the "Divine Holy Spirit" in the aldeia Karouara in the northeastern edge of the city of Manaus. In traditional Kokama culture, women are expected to learn how to cook, clean and care for children as their principle function once reaching adulthood, while the men primarily hunt. City life and exposure to western european customs is challenging the traditional gender roles of Kokama society while also threatening the extinction of traditional beliefs and customs.

According to Marcivana, “urban society doesn’t want to admit that an indigenous person can become a doctor, lawyer, or an accountant. For example, some people don’t see me as indigenous simply because I’m wearing clothes. They expect the indigenous to be semi-nude with exposed breasts. That’s what tourists from the outside are after, when they come here in their big cruise ships. They don’t care to see that we want to eat, dress and raise our children with dignity, with the same opportunities that non-indigenous people have.”

(L) An installation depicting an indigenous forest deity, the "sacred soil guardian" in a dilapidated state park in the middle of Manaus. (R) Maira "Jûgoa" Dessano, 22, started a social media channel where she showcases traditional artwork, body painting, crafts, and dance to the outside world. It's been one year since her tiny community established an internet connection via satellite. "It makes me happy when people ask me about my culture. I feel proud."

Regardless of the hardships being experienced in the city, migrants kept coming with dreams of a better quality of life than what they had in the interior, where their lands were being squeezed by ranchers, loggers and illegal mining, regions plagued by lawlessness, with little to no access to healthcare, jobs or a formal education. But what they found upon arriving was often far from what they had imagined.

Manaus, a metropolis of over two million inhabitants, has been a disorganized and poorly planned city for most of its history. Today it faces an acute housing shortage, with a conservative estimate of at least 128,000 units. For many indigenous migrants coming from relatively small, close-knit communities in the interior of the Amazon, life in the city could prove very difficult: high rent, poor access to services and expenses that simply didn’t exist in the villages. Not everyone was able to afford an apartment or find work in the industrial sector, as they often faced discrimination or had trouble with literacy – Portuguese is still a second language for many and the rate of illiteracy in the north of Brazil was about half the general population only a few decades ago.

The dry igarapé (river stream) below the bairro Glória, one of the oldest in the city of Manaus, which gets its name from a pre-European indigenous community known as 'Manaós', which means "mother of the gods".

Marcivana’s family lived in one of the first major indigenous housing “occupations” (an indigenous favela or squatter’s community) in Manaus, in the Compensa neighbourhood, on the western edge of the city. Today it is just another area of sprawling concrete low-rise buildings next to the Rio Negro, but in those days it was still forested and green. She remembers her mother tending to plants in their yard, many of them medicinal, using the knowledge she brought from her community, so that they “would take care of us.” Marcivana describes her house growing up as being surrounded by trees, and of always being close to nature, just like the village in the interior. The water was even clean enough to drink and bathe in. Today, every one of the hundred or so of Manaus’ small rivers, known locally as ‘igarapés’, is polluted.

While Marcivana’s mother was often homesick she was never able to afford the trip back home, as she explains, “this was the reality of many women who came to Manaus. They came looking for a better life for themselves and their family but it meant they couldn’t go back home.”

Marcivana remembers when Jesuits arrived in her community to help the poor. It was one of the moments she says, when she became fascinated with social work and devoted herself to improving the lives of others in her community.

(L) Veronica Mura, 23, came with her family from the interior to Manaus at four years old, only identifying as indigenous after her family settled in the Sol Nascente "occupation". The community is under the control of traffickers and suffers from problems related to alcoholism and drug addiction. She was studying nursing before the pandemic came, now she works as a caretaker for the elderly. "I used to work in mental health. Here there's lots of fights, unemployment, but I had to stop. It was voluntary and I had to work. I have a child to feed." (R) Jubertino dos Santos Silva, 44, of the Kokama people, harvests manioc roots from a forest plantation next to the housing occupation of aldeia Ipixuna in the industrial district of Manaus. "It's important for us to not only maintain our culture, our way of life, our manner of living alongside the forest but also to feed and sustain ourselves. We don't need to have money to eat, so as long as we have forest, anyone who goes hungry simply doesn't want to work."
Residents of the aldeia Karouara of the Kokama people celebrate the festival of the Divine Holy Spirit, a syncretic religious ceremony blending indigenous traditions with catholicism.

In 2005, Marcivana started to notice the movement for indigenous peoples in Manaus becoming truly organized for the first time. She started to see dozens of different indigenous peoples represented throughout the growing capital. There had been indigenous organizations in the city for years but they often only represented individual ethnic groups and individual communities, and as a whole the movement within the city entirely decentralized. As a result, a community could be completely unaware of others working for the same goals in another part of the city.

Activists like Marcivana began to see the necessity to unite the various urban indigenous organizations under one banner to fight for the betterment of the entire community. In 2008, all the leaders of the various groups got together in one place for the first time. They laid out four main fronts in their struggle for equality and justice: rights to the land and housing, access to healthcare, education and preservation of culture, including indigenous languages. The next year another meeting was held. On the third meeting, in 2011, COPIME (the Coordination of Indigenous Peoples in Manaus and the Surrounding Area, by its Portuguese acronym) was born.

Ludimar Kokama, 40, vice-coordinator of COPIME (Council of Indigenous Peoples of Greater Manaus) delivers 'cestas básicas', basic necessity kits for needy families up to their riverine indigenous community known as Terra Preta, several hours from Manaus city center by slow boat, as the pandemic disrupts their local economy.
Villagers of the Tuyuka ethnicity receive their 'cestas básicas' and hygiene kits. Communities like these are close enough to the city to be easily reached by tourists and merchant boats but far enough away that costs are too high when the tourists stop coming.

It was the Kambeba people who led the charge for unity and soon after the Sataré-Mawé became the most active, with Marcivana's predecessor, Turi Sataré-Mawé, taking over as coordinator in 2014. Five years later he completed his mandate and Marcivana herself was elected – the first woman to hold such a position in Brazil. COPIME’s objectives are the full implementation of the rights guaranteed to them by the 1988 Federal Constitution, established after a decades-long period of military rule, as well as those laid out by the United Nations' Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Our biggest challenge is visibility. The system of government created since the forming of the Brazilian state doesn’t recognize indigenous people living in the city, just those in the villages.”

Measuring the number of indigenous inhabitants in Manaus has proven difficult, due to a spread out and amorphous distribution of ethnicities, as well as issues with self-identification on the part of the population and a lack of rigorous study on the part of the government and academia. The few censuses performed, mostly by NGO’s, tended to focus on specific ethnic groups and not the population as a whole. In the 1990’s it was thought there were several thousand indigenous people living in the city, while studies performed in the last decade indicate the population to be anywhere between 15,000 - 20,000. COPIME’s most recent assessment, carried out 2016, claims there are around 30,000 self-declared indigenous people living in the capital of Amazonas state.

But Marcivana is eager to reinforce that just because an indigenous person lives in the city it doesn’t make them any less indigenous. In fact, the city on the banks of the Rio Negro was was built on the site of one of the largest pre-Columbian communities in the region and the name, Manaós, refers to the local tribe that was exterminated by the Portuguese in a bloody genocidal war that lasted from 1723 to 1728.

(L) The beginnings of an evangelic church in the "Cemetery of the Indians" community in the north of Manaus. (R) Josefa Texeira dos Santos, 30, of the Mura people wearing traditional body paint made from crushed genipapo seeds. In traditional Mura culture only men can be warriors and same-sex couples are banished from the community. In the indigenous village Ipixuna in Manaus, home to various ethnicities, Josefa and her partner live freely as female warriors.

Over the following two centuries into the rubber boom and industrialization of recent history the settlement ballooned, swallowing up the surrounding rainforest. Neighbouring indigenous communities were either exterminated, enslaved or assimilated into the city proper and their history was largely forgotten. Marcivana echoes the sentiment among many in her community, that the pattern of human development dating from colonial times up to the present is unsustainable.

“What starts as a dirt road soon becomes asphalt and the city advances into the forest and destroys everything there is. It is disharmonious.”

It’s this harmony with nature that she attributes to the indigenous way of life which for centuries had gone uninterrupted until the arrival of Europeans.

“No indigenous person looks at the land and sees a commodity. For us Sataré-Mawé, we look at the land as part of your body, and it is there we will return.”

Marcivana’s mother taught her about the forest and how to benefit from it without exploiting it. But how can she pass on this knowledge to her daughter and future generations in a place where nature is treated as an obstacle to progress?

“This is why we need a different system, one that values not only our traditional medicine but also our culture of living in proximity to nature.”

Through this new way of living and organizing society, Marcivana believes both the indigenous and non-indigenous populations will benefit.

Summer rains over the Tarumã-Açu river, on the western edge of metropolitan Manaus.

Language is key to maintaining this culture and awareness. According to COPIME, there are nineteen indigenous languages spoken within the city of Manaus. Laws exist that make these languages official in other municipalities throughout the state, but in Manaus only Portuguese (Brazil’s sole official language) is recognized. As a result the city is becoming a place where indigenous language comes to die.

“What we have is a situation where the parents speak the language amongst themselves," says Marcivana, "the children understand it, but they don’t speak it. Then when they have children of their own, these children learn nothing of their language, and it is lost. There is not a single indigenous language school in the entire city of Manaus.”

The activist believes it's an embarrassment that the capital of the state with the largest indigenous population in the country doesn't have a single public policy that protects indigenous languages in the city. There is currently no public space offered by the municipal government dedicated to teaching the history, culture or language of the country's original inhabitants and local indigenous language teachers go practically unrecognized.

“After all the wrongs the state has committed against indigenous people over the last 520 years this is the bare minimum they can afford us.”

Xytara Apurinã (R) discovered her indigenous heritage as an adult. Her father was "ashamed" to teach her their traditional language story and culture, a product of the Brazil's church-administered education system in the Amazon that sought to assimilation. Now the cacique (chief) of her own small community in the working-class east end of Manaus, she runs an indigenous language and culture school behind her house, along with her daughter, Kisipa, (L), who teaches the language her mother never learned to speak. "People ask 'how did you become indian?', and I say that I always was, I just didn't know."
A school boat in the Três Unidos indigenous community of Manaus waits for schools to reopen after being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Amazon river fish being prepared for an evening meal, Rio Negro, near Manaus.

Then there is healthcare, one of the principal motivators for many indigenous people to move or continue living in the city. Manaus is where the vast majority of the state's resources and personnel are concentrated and where patients from the interior are transferred for advanced care like cancer treatment or dialysis. COPIME is fighting to have this system recognize the pajés – traditional healers – along with indigenous midwives and their methods as being beneficial and necessary for the indigenous population under the state's care.

“Just as you have doctors in western medicine, we have doctors in our traditional medicine. Just as you have medicines to cure certain ailments, so do we,” she says, adding that the work of the pajé is complex and based on centuries of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. “Without any policies to protect this knowledge and these techniques, we will lose it all.”

Marcivana isn’t advocating for a system where western medicine is be replaced by traditional medicine, rather one in which the two can complement each other.

“Our treatments have two avenues: physical and spiritual, and you can’t have one without the other.”

An impromptu map drawn to show where many members of the Kokama tribe have come from before settling in the Amazonas state capital of Manaus. The lines are the "estrada", the Amazon river and its major tributaries, the ancient highway network long used by indigenous people for millennia.
(L) Volunteers and members of COPIME wait on their chartered riverboat for permission before delivering supplies to needy indigenous communities in the greater Manaus area. (R) Chief and 'pajé' (medicine man) Elisario Kokama, in front of his home in central Manaus. After bringing his young family to the city in search of a better life, he continued to practice as an indigenous healer, like his father before him. Through COPIME, he hopes to one day see traditional medicine recognized as a right by city health authorities.
COPIME Coordinator Marcivana Sateré-Mawé (left) confirms with Três Unidos chief Valdimir Kambeba that every family has received its care package, donated by COPIME via donations from Greenpeace Brasil and COIAB, the pan-Amazon Brazilian indigenous NGO.

Beyond practical medical uses like relieving fevers, treating pneumonia and high blood pressure, many traditional practices hold significant cultural value and are linked to ceremonies that can be translated into a vehicle for tourism and therefore a means for impoverished indigenous communities living on the periphery to sustain themselves economically while at the same time preserving their heritage.

There are already plenty of communities who have self-organized in this regard, with some specializing in a particular cultural practice like craftwork, rite-of-passage ceremonies like the 'tukandeira' or even the ceremonies involving the plant-based tea known as ayahuasca, nowadays popular among foreigners seeking a spiritual cleanse, wisdom, guidance or simply an intense psychedelic experience. But, Marcivana laments, the city is often the last place outsiders look for indigenous culture, preferring instead to use Manaus simply as a base from which to travel to the more exotic interior.

“We have around 100 indigenous organizations here in the city. You go to any one of these and you’re likely to find some sort of cultural activity on display; people singing, dancing, playing music, body painting. The culture here in the city is vibrant, but when the tourist comes they have no idea it even exists. They want to see us nude or half naked,” she says, unable to contain her laughter.

Marcivana believes that in order to change this way of thinking it’s important to bring visibility of their current situation to the outside world; to raise awareness about the reality of being an 'indigenous person in an urban context'.

“As an indigenous leader, I feel it’s important we talk about the reality we face. It’s necessary people outside learn about how things are here, because it’s pretty much unknown to the outside world.”

A sign in front of the small village of the Tuyuka reads: "Attention, mandatory use of a mask and sanitizer". The city has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, effectively shutting down tourism particularly to remote communities on the periphery of Manaus, which contains dozens of small villages accessible only by boat.
Young indigenous girls play a video game on a mother's cellphone. Life in the city means easier access to high-speed internet and social media and the effect on indigenous society and culture remains to be seen.

But the most pressing issue, according to the longtime activist, is the principal banner carried by indigenous peoples’ movements throughout history, and not just in Brazil: that of their rights to the land itself.

“Without land you don’t have education, you lose your health and your identity because we are tied to the land. It’s not just in the city, but in all of Brazil, that the original inhabitants of this country have to fight tooth and nail for land of our own.”

This is the central issue facing many of the so-called “invasions”: housing occupations and squatter’s communities set up all over the city by both indigenous and non-indigenous people on unused or abandoned plots of land. These communities are sometimes compared to the favelas common in major cities all over the country, as being havens for drug trafficking and criminal gangs. Supporters of land reform see them as the inevitable product of decades of poor city planning and a lack of affordable housing with new developments mostly catering to wealthy residents in the form of high-rise, walled off condominiums strategically placed next to monolithic shopping malls in the North American style.

(L) Chief Domingues of the Dessano people represents the residents of the indigenous community of Sol Nascente in the troubled east zone of Manaus. The occupation was recently taken over by drug traffickers and Domingues was forced out of the house he built over seven years. Leaders who oppose the gang's demands are often executed, with seven murdered in 2019 alone. Before the pandemic, cacique Domingues taught his language and culture to children. "Some kids would come here for a snack, and in exchange I would teach them, now they are without this food, families here are very poor, it hits you hard when a small child asks if you have any extra rice because his mother says her cupboards are empty." (R) A canoe in the Rio Negro, near Manaus.
A patch of rainforest behind the community Ipixuna, in Manaus' industrial district.
A Warao child tries to get his father's attention at a shelter housing Venezuelan indigenous refugees in Manaus.

Residents of informal communities face discrimination and a lack of services that come with being 'off the grid'. Homemade solutions to electricity, running water, and waste disposal are installed clandestinely until they can be integrated with the municipal network. However, residents are often evicted en masse by authorities, sometimes violently, under the pretence of protecting the surrounding environment or in service to the war on drugs. The most recent removal in 2020 of the 'Monte Horoebe' community saw hundreds of families evicted by riot police as their homes were bulldozed, many forced to places even farther away from the city centre and often in even worse conditions than they were before.

The issue is compounded as the city falls farther and farther behind on the housing shortage while existing occupations continue to grow and new ones are founded every year; eleven in 2019 alone. Meanwhile the older indigenous communities that were forerunners to the occupations are becoming smaller and absorbed by the city as it continues to grow and property speculation becomes impossible to resist.

“The children grow up, get married, and move out to start a life of their own, so where do they go? An occupation,” says Marcivana.

According to the community leader, the government's dispersal of communities occupying abandoned or unused land only aggravates the problem, “we have kin who start this entire process of organization, bringing their families together and then all of a sudden they are removed,” starting the process all over again.

The Cemetério dos Índios (Indian Cemetery) "occupation" in the north of Manaus. Essentially squatter's communities, they are deemed illegal until a process of "regularization" is carried out authorities, which can take years if they community isn't cleared out before then. Roads, waste disposal, electricity and water are all clandestinely connected and administered by residents themselves. The community has recently been taken over by the drug traffickers, further complicating the legalization process.

A recent study by the Brazilian statistics agency, the IBGE, shows that nearly 350,000 families live in informal communities, more than half the city. A dignified home is a universal human right and for the indigenous people of Manaus the clear archeological evidence of pre-Columbian society at their feet makes it even harder to ignore. One can visit the community known as Indian Cemetery and see with their own eyes, in the red dirt roads crisscrossing the community of some two thousand people, the exposed rims of clay funeral urns buried decades if not centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese.

“It’s not like we just started occupying the land today. You can dig a hole in some of these communities and find burial urns. We’ve always been here, this has always been our territory.”

(L) Marcivana Sateré-Mawé, coordinator of COPIME, celebration of life one year after her late colleague and indigenous leader, Humberto Peixoto, 37, was murdered by traffickers who were disputing control over territory in the Cemetério dos Índios community in northern Manaus. (R) A Christmas tree in the 'oca', communal center of the Ipixuna occupation in the industrial district of the capital.
Residents inspect the remains of burial urns buried by pre-colonial indigenous peoples in what is now known as the Cemetério dos Indíos (Indian Cemetery). The community of mostly indigenous peoples are squatting on the archaeological site in order to gain ownership of the area and rights to housing but the neighbourhood has since been taken over by the drug traffickers, making legalization even more difficult.
The community Ipixuna, an indigenous housing occupation in the middle of Manaus' industrial district.

The question of housing has been put under further stress due to the effects of the pandemic. Poorer households often contain multiple families and generations under one tiny roof, sometimes barely larger than the average suburban North American garage. Few people in these communities have the funds to devote to hand sanitizer and fewer still have the option to work from home.

“Covid-19 doesn’t choose a social class, but it’s clear that the effects on the poor are the most grave,” says Marcivana, “Many of us don’t have basic sanitation or access to potable water. Water quality in Manaus is very poor. We’re a city on the edge of the greatest river in the world and we don’t have proper access to fresh water.”

People’s diets also change upon moving to the city. Instead of hunting, fishing and gathering fresh fruit and vegetables, migrants are often forced to shift to cheap processed food, as Marcivana explains, “you trade these things for the supermarket, for the butcher. What kind of food are you going to eat? Sausage, eggs. This hurts our health.”

She cites the high index of diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis and cancer among the city's residents. However, the precise impact on the indigenous population is largely unknown due to a poor standard of record keeping: “When we enter and exit the health system we are registered as ‘pardos’ [mixed race] not as indigenous. If you don’t know what the principle illnesses affecting indigenous people are, how are you going to have preventable measures in place?”

It’s a two-part issue, Marcivana believes, where the need for efforts to “sensitize” the health system into recognizing and attending to the indigenous population as an identifiable demographic, while also encouraging those with indigenous heritage to comfortably declare their identities without a fear of receiving second-class treatment. In Marcivana's words, "to make visible the invisible".

(L) Harvested manioc root from the community garden in the village Ipixuna in the industrial district of Manaus. The lack of forested area within city makes it difficult for indigenous communities to continue their tradition of forest agriculture and living in close proximity to nature. (R) Fortunato Kokama, 52, struggles to sit his son, Klison da Silva, 25, so he can be fed. Da Silva has was born with a severe neurological condition which makes him unable to care for himself.
(L) Fortunato Sampaio da Silva, 53, of the Kokama people. He lives in the Cemetério dos Índios community and has many jobs previous to living there. But he is currently unemployed, having to take care of his son who has a neurological condition, and his wife who suffers from Rheumatoid arthritis. He can't afford their medicine, because they live illegally in the occupation and therefore don't qualify for public medical insurance. (R) A portrait of Fortunato Sampaio da Silva, from his army days. He is a member of the Kokama tribe, a warrior people, and like many of his relatives entered the armed services in his small Amazonian municipality on the borders with Peru and Colombia, for employment and a better life.
Cacique (chief) João Marcos of the Aldeia (village) Ipixuna, an indigenous land occupation in the Industrial District on the eastern edge of Manaus. Chief Marcos' primary responsibility is to make sure residents have running water and electricity, both of which are hooked up to an illegal clandestine network.

The pandemic has also disrupted an education system that's already inadequate in the public form accessible to the working class. Marcivana cites the high level of illiteracy and lack of access to quality education among indigenous people in the city as one of the more visible forms of their oppression. Although progress has been made in recent years, indigenous people remain woefully underrepresented in post secondary education and academia in the city, state and Brazil as a whole.

The country's public education system makes it difficult for many students to prepare for higher learning. Resources are scarce, class sizes are large and teachers are overwhelmed and underpaid. School lasts half the day and only those families with money to send their kids to a private school have a decent chance of getting into university and obtaining a degree. The rest have to study extra hard to pass the highly competitive state entrance exams in order to gain access to scholarship at a public university.

The PT (Workers’ Party) government under Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva introduced quotas for poor, black and indigenous students in federal schools and while largely seen as a success there have been many instances of “racial fraud” where applicants took advantage of Brazil’s vague profiling system in order to occupy spots that might have gone to others more deserving financially. Lack of public access to quality education creates a feedback loop where poor families get trapped in a never ending cycle of poverty. According to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), Brazil is one of the top five worst countries for education inequality.

Ludimar Kokama, 40, vice-coordinator of COPIME, is also one of the founders of the indigenous students' association at the federal university in Manaus where they offer support and advocate for an end to discrimination in the education system. "Many militants fought in the past so I could go to university and I'm paying homage to them to bring more indigenous representation in higher education." Before the pandemic he was studying financial management in order to ensure COPIME lasts well into the future. "Lots of indigenous NGO's failed because they weren't run well, had bad planning and bad book keeping, they got lots of funding but then they misspent it. We won't make that mistake here."

The coronavirus has made matters worse. Many indigenous men and women work informally, as brick-layers, general labourers, cashiers or by selling crafts to tourists. The pandemic's economic fallout and a weak government response has essentially robbed poor families of what little income they had. Many are now struggling just to put food on the table.

“The pandemic didn’t just bring sickness it brought starvation as well,” says Marcivana.

Many indigenous communities in Manaus are situated in the city's rural areas that belong to the municipality which encompasses a total of over 11,400 square kilometres, an area larger than Jamaica. In villages along the rivers Negro, Cuieiras and Tarumã, one of the principal economic drivers is tourism, which the pandemic has essentially put in a coma. These indigenous communities are part of the city of Manaus and so don’t benefit from being in a protected federal jurisdiction like those in the interior. They may be surrounded by forest, but it all belongs to the white man.

“[Communities] might be able to fish but they still need rice, beans, other kinds of protein, fuel, all which needs to be bought in the city.”

In March of 2020, around the time when Manaus made headlines for digging mass graves during the pandemic's deadly first wave, COPIME was one of the first organizations to start distributing basic necessities to communities throughout the municipality including basic food and hygiene products. Logistics have proven difficult as some of the rural areas are only accessible by boat and depending on the water levels while the city itself is enormous and the cost of gas is rising. At times COPIME struggles just to obtain a vehicle to make deliveries.

However, Marcivana attributes their success in supporting their communities thus far to a strong network of allies in the local catholic diocese as well as in academia. The majority of funding for donations currently comes from people outside of the city and national NGOs like Greenpeace Brasil.

“There’s lots of solidarity coming from outside. Here in Manaus we have a lot of people who help physically, but a lot of the funds and donations come from abroad. We get no help from the government here.”

Pedro Marinho, 88, dances with wife Ofelia Araújo, 75, at the celebration of the Divine Holy Spirit in the aldeia Karouara, an indigenous "occupation" in the far northeastern edge of the city of Manaus. Marinho, a Kokama, founded the community after working for years as a cook for Petrobras exploration teams, the national oil company, in the interior of the Amazon.

That being said, it’s not COPIME’s intention to make communities dependent on charity to survive. One of its initiatives is to strengthen the economic and administrative capacity of local community associations enabling them to stand on their own feet; to strengthen rather than just sustain them. While the pandemic has made this difficult it has also reinforced the importance of self-sufficiency and solidarity in difficult times.

“Right now we need to act, we don’t have time to discuss the future at the moment. But going forward, it doesn’t matter how many campaigns we do and how many donations we receive, if we keep operating with the same old policies and politics we won’t get anywhere. We need to strengthen the movement and win real progress. Here in the capital of the most indigenous of all states in Brazil, this great village, there isn’t a single indigenous representative in public office. That needs to change.”

Old habits die hard, and while Marcivana argues for the state and city to adopt policies geared towards sustainability, the main economic driver in the city remains the industrial district and its chemical, plastics and electronics factories. The region is also a logistics and commercial hub for the Brazil's massive agro-industry addicted to cash crops like soy and beef: the two biggest drivers of the Amazon's destruction. Huge container ships can be seen moving in and out of the city's ports every day.

"When you plant the bad eye it gives a bad fruit. This is where all the inequality comes from,” says Marcivana, referring to the Sateré-Mawé creation story, “the water, trees and the rocks spoke to us, but we’ve since become separated. There isn’t just nature and man they are one together, you cannot separate them. The destruction of nature doesn’t just hurt indigenous people, it hurts everyone, but without nature indigenous people will cease to exist. Our model is sustainable and that's what the world needs right now.”

That’s why, according to Marcivana, there are indigenous people who still choose to live in voluntary isolation. It's because of what they experienced with the arrival of the outsiders – mass-murder, enslavement, disease, genocide – that they retreated deep into the forest. President Bolsonaro claims that indigenous Brazilians want to "be civilized" and "live like humans, not in some zoo". But, as Marcivana believes, people like him have a warped idea of what it means to be a civilized human being, one which depends on greed, endless consumption and the eventual destruction of the environment.

“Our identity is linked to the earth, not just the land but everything it produces. It’s been indigenous land for 15,000 years. Our ancestors, when they died, they went back to the earth. When you walk through the forest you can feel their presence. Even in the city, our ancestors are here. We’ve always been here.”

Created By
Andrew Johnson


All images Copyright 2021 Andrew Christian Johnson