CACOAL, Brazil – Land disputes in the Brazilian Amazon show no signs of abating and are leaving remote indigenous communities such as the Surui tribe’s Nabecob Abalakiba village vulnerable to threats and violence.
That reality was driven home just two weeks ago, when gunmen targeted award-winning teacher Elisangela Dell-Armelina Surui and her husband, indigenous leader Naraimi Surui, in an armed attack.
On Nov. 30, gunmen apparently working for illegal loggers in the region fired at the couple while they were riding by motorcycle to Nabecob Abalakiba. They were unharmed in the attack.
Surui chief Anine Surui said that land disputes had triggered violence in the region for decades.
The current situation is particularly tense, he said, because loggers, miners and large landowners are upset over a nascent indigenous farming cooperative in the village, which is part of the Cacoal municipality and 480 kilometers (300 miles) from Porto Velho, capital of the far-western state of Rondonia.
“That’s my life. In the past, I lost my brother the same way and I feel terrible that this is happening now, because I was going to lose my son and my daughter-in-law the same way, over this struggle,” the chief said.
“White people see Indians as if they were nothing, as if they were animals, and they want to trample the Indians’ culture, life and family,” Anine added.
Elisangela, who received her country’s educator of the year prize in August in Sao Paulo, said the attack may have been in retaliation for the Indians’ recent expulsion of a group of loggers who were illegally cutting down chestnut trees.
“I feel invaded and I saw death very close-up,” the teacher, recognized for literacy work in the Paiter-Surui language that preserved her native community’s culture and traditions, told EFE.
The 38-year-old teacher lamented that her community was suffering the same types of threats that have hounded other indigenous communities in different parts of the Brazilian Amazon, which is coveted by those looking to exploit its vast land and timber and mineral resources.
The educator said some families in the village were harvesting chestnuts in November when they came across loggers removing felled trees in trucks, leading to a confrontation between the Indians and the land invaders.
After the creation in October of the Paiter Indian Production and Development Cooperative (Coopaiter), which enables the community to sell food directly, without the need for intermediaries, the teacher and her family began receiving threats.
She and her husband reported the incident to Federal Police in the nearby city of Ji-Parana, while prosecutors said they were conducting an investigation to track down those behind the attack and similar threats targeting other indigenous communities in the region.
The Attorney General’s Office and the Catholic Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) recently warned that Indians in Rondonia were at “risk of genocide” after the Karipuna indigenous area – located between Porto Velho and the town of Nova Mamore – was invaded by loggers and ranchers.
Like the Surui leaders, chief Adriano Karipuna denounced the threats to the National Indian Foundation and requested that that government body provide more resources for supervising lands currently under threat.