“A united people will never be defeated!” shouted Maria Betânia Mota, as the indigenous assembly in a partially burned-out agricultural college began. Hundreds of voices roared back in approval.

Betânia Mota is the women’s secretary of its organisers, the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR), which represents the majority of those living in the 1.7m hectares of savannah and scrub that make up the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve in Brazil’s northernmost state.

It is home to 25,000 indigenous people who raise tens of thousands of cattle and crops on smallholdings and communal farms. Nearly half of Roraima is protected indigenous land.

Brazil’s 1988 constitution prohibits commercial farming and mining on indigenous reserves without specific congressional approval, but Brazil’s new hard-right president, Jair Bolsonaro – who has described indigenous people as “like animals in zoos” – wants to change that. He has singled out Raposa for its reserves of gold, copper, molybdenum, bauxite and diamonds.

“It’s the richest area in the world. You can explore it rationally beside the indigenous, giving royalties and integrating the indigenous to society,” he said in December. Brazil’s national mining agency has 97 requests, some dating back to 1980, to prospect in the reserve.

Bolsonaro has also said reserves such as this contain niobium, a versatile metal used to strengthen steel he believes could transform the Brazilian economy. The government’s geological service said it had no record of niobium in Raposa.

The indigenous people at the assembly already felt threatened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. Some communities remember the devastation caused by artisanal gold miners called garimpeiros, others the domination by powerful rice farmers. Then in January, a sudden, ill-explained visit by regional Bolsonaro allies raised suspicions that plans were already afoot.

“We are not fighting the farmer, a little garimpeiro. We are fighting the government,” Edinho de Souza, the CIR’s vice-coordinator from the Macuxi tribe, told the meeting. “We won’t let this land be destroyed.”

Raposa’s history is riddled with strife. In 2004, a Catholic mission was attacked and three padres kidnapped for two days. Paulo Quartiero, a rice farmer who led opposition to the reserve’s creation and later served as a politician and vice-governor, was accused of organising and leading the invasion, but the case has not yet concluded.

A year later, a mob torched a hospital, church and other buildings, most of which are still gutted today. No one was ever convicted. Ten indigenous people were hit by gunfire in 2008. The rice farmers were finally expelled from Raposa Serra do Sol by a supreme court decision in 2009, four years after the reserve was finally created.

Bolsonaro won 71% of the vote in Roraima, but he lost to the leftwing contender Fernando Haddad inside the reserve, where indigenous people are proud of running their own affairs. “Life in Raposa Serra do Sol is better today than before the non-indigenous were removed,” Father Jaime Patias, a Catholic missionary, wrote last May.

The CIR was formed in 1990 but its first meetings date back to the 1970s. Its former lawyer, Joênia de Carvalho, from the Wapishana tribe, has become the first indigenous woman voted into the Brazilian congress. After addressing the assembly, she said Bolsonaro’s threats, while legally difficult to impose, create “juridical insecurity”.

“People who covet indigenous lands and have a certain dispute with indigenous lands start to believe this and start to initiate conflicts,” she said.

The changes brought by Bolsonaro’s election win were the theme of the annual assembly. Local chiefs called tuxaua and other delegates were unimpressed by declarations from him and his conservative allies – who include landowners, military officers and fundamentalist evangelical Christians – about progress and promises to integrate them into Brazilian society. They heard similar arguments during Brazil’s military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985 as it forcibly developed the Amazon.

“We are here to fight to the last indigenous person, be it verbally or physically,” said Julio da Silva, 18, a Wapishana community security guard.

Representatives from five tribes and 200 communities had travelled far to be here, bouncing down dirt roads to sling their hammocks between trees, in dormitories and on verandas. They queued patiently for communal meals and debated their final resolution late into the night, voting phrase by phrase as it was projected on to a wall from a laptop.

“The land is our mother. You plant, you take from her, you use her but you respect her, taking care of her,” she said, adding that white people “don’t respect our nature”.

The school trains indigenous students in sustainable agriculture, said its coordinator Bleide de Souza, 36, a Macuxi, at the site of Quartiero’s former farm. Rice farming had compressed the earth and cleared bushes and trees. Pesticides decimated wildlife. “As we only do organic farming, we can’t farm here,” he said.

Raposa’s borders with Venezuela and Guyana and its mineral wealth give it strategic importance. Bolsonaro accused the “first world” in 2015 of using the UNto turn reserves such as Raposa into independent nations.

Orlando da Silva, 73, a Macuxi leader from the indigenous community of Uiramutã, rubbished such concerns. “We are original Brazilians, no one put us here,” he said.

When he was made chief at 19, his community just a few kilometres from the Guyana border was overrun with garimpeiros. He banned alcohol and parties where white farmers’ sons danced with indigenous girls but their daughters were not permitted to dance with men of the tribe.

He voiced his concerns over a hastily arranged visit his community received from a group of Bolsonaro supporters including a missionary with connections to Damares Alves, the evangelical pastor who heads the ministry which now houses Brazil’s indigenous agency, Funai.

Responses to "'We are fighting': Brazil's indigenous groups unite to protect their land "

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