BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — More than 1,000 indigenous Brazilians gathered outside Congress on Wednesday for an annual three-day campout to protest what they see as rollbacks of indigenous rights under President Jair Bolsonaro.
Tents dotted the congressional building’s lawn, where indigenous leaders sang, danced and sold crafts while wearing traditional feathered headdresses with their faces painted red and black.
The event, known as the Free Land Encampment, began its 15th edition with a sense of animosity toward Bolsonaro, a far-right politician whose policies are called by indigenous leaders the biggest setbacks to their peoples’ rights in recent history.
“This government came in immediately attacking us and our rights in a way we haven’t seen before,” said Paulo Tupiniquim, executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil, which organized the event.
“We resisted during the dictatorship,” Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous leader and former vice presidential candidate, told reporters, referring to Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
“And today we are here to say that we will also resist fascism,” she said of the new administration. “The Bolsonaro government represents a tragedy for our agenda.”
The government has called in National Guard troops for security at the encampment as a “preventative measure.”
At the same event in 2017, police shot tear gas at the indigenous protesters who fired back with bows and arrows.
“We are not violent. Violent are those who attack the sacred right to free demonstration with armed troops,” the organizers wrote in a statement protesting the National Guard presence.
“They’re trying to take the right to come and go from Brazilians who have walked these lands since long before 1500,” the statement read, referring to when European colonizers first came to Brazil.
Before becoming president, Bolsonaro promised that if he was elected, “not one more centimeter” of land would be given to indigenous groups and likened indigenous people living in reserves to caged animals in zoos.
“Why in Brazil do we keep them prisoner on reserves, as if they were animals in a zoo?” Bolsonaro questioned while speaking to reporters in November. “Indians are people just like us. They want what we want. We can’t use Indians, who still live in an inferior situation than we do, to dedicate such an enormous amount of land.”
Guajajara said Bolsonaro was borrowing a page from the dictatorship.
“Bolsonaro says he’s concerned with improving the lives of the indigenous, but what he says is we need to integrate with society. That’s the discourse of the dictatorship, where all the cultures had to be one thing,” Guajajara told reporters at the protest.
“We want to continue the way we are, with our own identity. We don’t want the society that Bolsonaro wants to introduce us to,” she said, adding that those present had to fight for the isolated tribes who remain with little to no contact with the outside world.
On his first day as president, Bolsonaro transferred the authority to designate indigenous land and to grant environmental licenses for businesses on indigenous reserves from the government’s indigenous affairs agency to the agriculture ministry. Activists say the move will practically paralyze land allocations and facilitate operations for agribusiness and mining.
Bolsonaro’s health minister sparked protests across the country last month when he proposed eliminating the federal indigenous health care program and putting indigenous health care needs in the hands of municipalities. Indigenous groups say the current program is designed to attend to their specific needs in indigenous languages.
“The government is completely anti-indigenous,” Joenia Wapichana, an indigenous congresswoman, told The Associated Press at the protest. “The government is not open to us. He is open to those who defend mining and land grabbing, which is his intention.”
During the encampment, participants plan to protest outside the Supreme Court over the power transfers at the indigenous affairs agency, speak at a congressional hearing and define a unified indigenous agenda. The protests will end with group march on Congress on Friday.
Associated Press video journalist Mia Alberti contributed to this report.