Years before international media showed the world shocking images of Amazon Indians suffering and dying from contact with white invaders, Marcio Santilli, 35, has championed indigenous peoples' rights in Brazil. That is why as a federal deputy he was named to the congressional commission on Indian affairs.It was an important moment for indigenous peoples in Brazil, because the Congress was beginning to formulate a new, democratic national constitution. Santilli's activism and legislative contributions helped Brazil's remaining 220,000 Indians gain more constitutional rights to their culture, land and resources than they have had in 500 years of white domination.
The New Idea
Nucleus of Indigenous Rights, a national coalition of Indian rights group was founded by Santilli in 1988 and works as a political and legal consultant to organizations under its umbrella.Nearly two years after its ratification, the Constitution lacks regulatory and complementary legislation to turn its precepts to law. The Nucleus and related groups have managed Senate approval of pertinent regulatory laws, which now need approval by the Chamber of Deputies. Gold prospectors, homesteaders, ranchers and timberers continue to stream onto Indian lands, an army project marches forward to "settle" Brazil's northern Amazon borders with Colombia and Venezuela, and Indians remain at odds with the federal agency charged with protecting their interests."We have no reason to feel cheerful before a situation so grave," Santilli says. "But, also, the situation has been grave for a long time, and we feel our work has favored creating a consciousness that permits the situation to get better."Democratization and ecological movements to save the Amazon have advanced Indian's cause in Brazil. At the same time, indigenous peoples worldwide are gaining allies in their struggle for cultural survival.Pressure from in and out of Brazil has forced official attention to bear especially on the Yanomani, the largest tribe in Latin America.Santilli considers them the pivotal point in Brazilian Indian's fight to survive. He says the new government needs to move faster to stop invasions of Yanomani land and consequent contamination with diseases and exploitation of their resources."Our biggest problem today is the push by business and exploration projects for Indians to sell their resources, especially wood and minerals," Santilli says. "In the face of economic crisis and the failure of the (the government Indian agency) to act on their behalf, Indians sometimes have no alternative but to sell wood and minerals in their territory without consciousness of the medium- and long-range consequences."We need to have alternative economic projects for the main groups, supported by the Indians themselves, the government and institutions."Santilli considers the Union of Indigenous Nations the most important voice for Indian rights in Brazil. He carries its messages into the predominantly non-Indian realms of law and politics."I don't think Indians want isolation in relation to the rest of society. I think they want to assure by the law the right to their territories and to relate to the rest of society, including other indigenous societies, preserving their own cultural identity," Santilli says. "I think that could happen, maybe not among groups whose numbers have been so dramatically reduced, but among other, stronger groups better able to resist. We hope at least the larger groups can keep their land and relate in society keeping their cultural identity."
Brazil's indigenous populations originally numbered at 5 million. Since the Conquest, indigenous peoples have faced either extermination or assimilation. Today, the Brazilian indigenous population is at 250,000; there are 180 different ethnic groups. FUNAI, the federal agency that oversees indigenous affairs, has often been weak in its support of indigenous peoples.With the rise of indigenous self-organization and activism in the last two decades, resistance from FUNAI, mining interests and large landowners has intensified as well. Assassinations of indigenous leaders and massacres of indigenous groups have increased dramatically. In the last decades incentives have been created to stimulate migration to the Amazon region, inevitably putting pressure on indigenous lands and creating conflicts of interests between the two groups. Burning and flooding of the rainforest (the former to clear for farm land, the latter to build dams) has left two alternatives to indigenous peoples: to move away from their lands or organize themselves to stop the destruction of their lands and culture.
The Brazilian-based Nucleus for Indigenous Rights accompanies issues concerning Indians in Brazil's three branches of government, executive, legislative and judicial, acting as a bridge between Indian rights organizations, national NGOs who work with indigenous issues and government entities and representatives. The Nucleus also works to strengthen activism and expand public awareness of the issues facing indigenous peoples.To achieve these two main objectives, the Nucleus offers legal and political counsel, maintains contacts within the government and advises on campaigns and activities of Indian rights groups.
Santilli earned college degrees in philosophy, political science and sociology and participated in the youth wing of the main opposition party during military rule. He was elected deputy to the national congress during important years of political opening and appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee and the new Indigenous Rights Committee.Santilli says the consciousness of Indian's rights has grown in the six years since he first worked as a congressman for that cause. He now finds working as an independent activist less frustrating than working within the legislature.