For Sister Michael Mary (Nolan), CSC, the spirituality of traditional peoples rests on a more humane and respectful relationship with Mother Earth. Yet their way of life, even their very existence, is under extreme threat in Brazil.
“For traditional peoples, indigenous peoples, the relationship with the land is spiritual, not commercial,” says Sister Michael Mary, an attorney who works to protect the rights of the indigenous throughout Brazil. “The land is sacred and has no economic value. Mother Earth is as essential as life for the indigenous and they are the ones who know and really care for the environment. Where a traditional population lives, there is a preserved forest.”
In fact, indigenous peoples are owed historical credit for managing their natural resources in a balanced way, she adds. Research reveals their fundamental role in shaping South America’s biodiversity. Many plant species emerged as a product of their forestry management techniques, such as chestnut, cocoa, peach palm, babassu palm, cassava and the araucaria evergreen.
“The land is sacred and has no economic value. Mother Earth is as essential as life for the indigenous and they are the ones who know and really care for the environment. Where a traditional population lives, there is a preserved forest.”
Sister Michael Mary (Nolan), CSC
Violence on the rise in Brazil
But big landowners and illegal miners are desecrating land occupied by indigenous peoples. They seize the land, often violently and fraudulently. Illegal land possessions, or possessory invasions—when an individual or group illegally occupies indigenous lands with the intention of stealing them—more than doubled in 2019. In 2020, more than 81,000 families had their land invaded, with nearly three-fourths of them indigenous. It was also the most violent year in Brazil’s rural areas since the restoration of democracy in 1985.
The violence goes far beyond just land grabbing, however. In the first year after the presidential election of 2018, the number of violent incidents—murders, attempted murder, sexual violence and bodily harm—toward indigenous peoples increased 50 percent over the previous year. In 2020, Brazil ranked fourth in a list of countries with the most murders of land and environmental defenders, reports the nonprofit Global Witness. The number of suicides and infant deaths among the indigenous also are on the rise.
Such violence seems to be condoned from the very top. The current president, Jair Bolsonaro, systematically attacks the rights of indigenous peoples enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution. Offenses range from racist statements to the dismantling of FUNAI—the only government department in the world dedicated to the protection of indigenous peoples who have little or no contact with national society and other tribes. Under Bolsonaro’s watch, deforestation has hit a level not seen since 2012, according to the nonprofit Institute of Man and Environment of the Amazon.
What You Can Do
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Reliance on rainforests
The issues of violence and deforestation have ramifications beyond just Brazil. The world relies on rainforests to regulate the planet’s climate. As rainforests go, so goes the Earth.
Sister Michael Mary knows these statistics only too well. As an attorney, she serves on the Indigenous Missionary Council of the National Bishops Conference in Brazil. She represents indigenous people who have been accused of crimes related to the struggle for land as well as the indigenous victims of land-related crimes. She also works with other groups of traditional populations on land and human rights questions.
“It is important to emphasize the contribution of native peoples to the preservation of the forest and all its biodiversity,” Sister Michael Mary notes. “Defending the indigenous peoples of Brazil is defending a near future where there is still the opportunity to breathe clean air and drink clean water.”
In Brazil, Sisters of the Holy Cross follow the Laudato Si’ concept of integral ecology—the understanding that solutions to the cry of the Earth must be interwoven with the cry of the poor.
Forest or Favela: Racism is everywhere
Indigenous people who live in the city do not fare much better than those who reside in forests. Racism is prevalent and opportunities are few.
Clarice is a 33-year-old woman of the Pankararu tribe. In the 1940s, with their land diminishing from invaders, the Pankararus migrated to São Paulo, where they settled as minorities in favelas, or slums.
In the favela where Clarice lives, the Pankararu Association strives to help their people. Sometimes donations of food and other items come in, and Clarice is responsible for receipt and distribution. Others in the neighborhood do not like that the Pankararu receive this assistance and see them as “privileged.”
Clarice hasn’t experienced physical violence, “but verbal, for sure,” she says. “It’s not easy to deal with the prejudice because you are indigenous, a black woman, living in the favela. I can feel it in my skin.”
Not long ago, a disagreement arose in the neighborhood about a particular donation. The non-indigenous residents thought the donation should have gone to them. But this time, “They said they were going to invade the association. A very big disrespect,” Clarice says. “It seems the understanding is that we do nothing, that we sit passively and do not run after this government to enforce our rights according to the Brazilian Constitution. But they don’t know our struggles.”
Yet, Clarice has hope. “Before me, there were people who fought for me. So I will never give up fighting for my people. I sometimes want to, but I look up and remember that there was someone who fought for me, so I’m not going to give up.”