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Squatting for justice

Dom Philipps, Rio de JaneiroOctober 23, 2013

Indigenous squatters have occupied the Museum of the Indian in Rio de Janeiro to make their voices heard amid preparations for the soccer World Cup. Asurini Indian Ivandro says it's a reaction to centuries of oppression.

Native Indian lawyer Arao da Providencia is arrested in front of the Brazilian Indian Museum in Rio de Janeiro on March 22, 2013 (Photo: Sergio Moraes)
Image: Reuters

For Ivandro, 42, the occupation of the former Museum of the Indian in Rio de Janeiro is the latest chapter in a struggle that began 500 years ago when the Portuguese colonized Brazil and began oppressing its native population.

"Our people is a people that was decimated. It was decimated by big capital and the landlords, by the business side. We were 15,000! Today, we are 1,000," says Ivandro, an Asurini Indian and one of the occupiers.

The crumbling former Museum of the Indian is situated right in front of the Maracana stadium, where the 2014 World Cup final is to be held. Indigenous protesters had been occupying the museum since 2006 before riot police went in on March 22. Rio's government had long been threatening eviction because they wanted to build a car park for the stadium.

And there was outright condemnation of the force applied during the invasion as police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to clear the building - which had become known as the 'Aldeia Maracana,' or Maracana Village.

Ivandro has made Maracana Village his homeImage: DW/D. Phillips

"All the police of Rio were here. All the police. There were three armored cars. You know what an armored car is?" says Ivandro.

"There was a lot of cruelty, a lot of police, a lot of bombs, gas, pepper spray …," says Marcia, a woman from the Guajajara tribe, also a squatter. Her three-year-old daughter was attacked in the face with pepper spray, she says.

Marcia had moved with her daughter from Maranhao state in north-eastern Brazil in January to join the occupation.

"It was near the eviction and more indigenous [people] were needed here to give strength, and I was called to come here as well, to help in the cause," she explains.

Street protests

But then, in the months that followed the eviction, a groundswell of street protests swept Brazil, culminating on June 20, when more than a million Brazilians took to the streets all over the country. In Rio alone, hundreds of thousands demonstrated. When trouble broke out, police cleared the entire city center using tear gas, stun bombs and rubber bullets.

Demonstrators hoild a protest in Rio de Janeiro, one of many such protests in Brazil's major cities, June 20, 2013(Photo: Luciana Whitaker)
Image: Reuters

Protests are continuing, although on a smaller scale. Rio governor Sergio Cabral backed down on a number of key issues raised by protesters - including a bus-fare rise and threats to knock down the museum, which was then put under protection as a historic landmark.

On August 5, the indigenous squatters reoccupied the Museum of the Indian. Around 80 of them are still there, living in tents dotted around the mansion's lower floor.

"Why did we enter here? Because the streets, the clamor of the streets, organized civil society, the social movements demanded us here," says Ivandro, who is also known by his nickname of Para after his home state in the Brazilian Amazon where he grew up. He moved first to Belem, the capital of Para, and later to Rio.

He says he left his tribe because his nation was being repressed.

"My people were being tortured. A lot of repression. Repression by the police. Repression by the government," he explains. "The national government does not like the indigenous people because it thinks we are [like] a stone in the shoe. Because we defend nature, we defend the forest. We neither sell our culture nor our identity."

Community spirit

Now the squatters live on donations and share the food they get. Marcia, her husband and her daughter share a small tent. The community cooks rice, beans and manioc communally on an open fire in a yard at the back of the building, which faces directly onto the brand new Maracana stadium.

Ivandro says he has not been to any of the club or international soccer games at the stadium and has no plans to do so.

Maracana stadium
Maracana stadium will host the Football World Cup finalImage: Reuters

"I like football but I don't feel good going to the Maracana. Because this is not a stadium for the people. This is a stadium for the rich. It's very expensive," he says.

Ivandro points out where - in the months after the squatters were evicted from the building - builders uprooted trees, covered up indigenous paintings on the walls, and ripped out an ornate old iron fence. They also painted over the sign that read: "Museum of the Indian."

For Ivandro, the struggle that he and indigenous rights activists are involved in - which recently saw indigenous groups protesting at the Congress in Brasilia over plans to change the demarcation of indigenous land - is part and parcel of the wider protests that Brazil has seen since June. Squatters from the former Indian Museum joined some 10,000 in a demonstration last week in Rio as part of a teachers strike - the protest later ended in conflict with police.

"In Europe," he asks, "when citizens pay their taxes, I believe they have a return in quality, don't they? More or less. Here in Brazil, you pay a lot of taxes and don't have a return in quality, and it is diverted to the election campaigns."

Native Indians and their supporters protest at the Brazilian Indian Museum in Rio de Janeiro March 22, 2013 (Photo: Ricardo Moraes)
The Museum of the Indian is now a listed buildingImage: Reuters

The squatters live a precarious existence. A ramshackle communications center consists of two laptops and another portable model. "We have our communication, because in spite of being indigenous we can't be disconnected from the world outside," says Ivandro. He said police could re-enter at any moment. "We are waiting for them."

Indigenous culture

The museum has, he says, long been connected to indigenous culture. In 1875, it became an indigenous research center. In 1910, it was made the headquarters of the government's Indian Protection Service (SPI), a forerunner of today's National Indian Foundation, (Funai), the government department in charge of indigenous affairs.

The SPI was set up, Ivandro notes, by Brazilian politician and military leader Marshall Candido Rondon - himself descended from Bororo Indians. From 1953 to 1978 it was the Museum of the Indian, until that moved to nearby Botofogo.

But this occupation, he said, is not about free housing. Instead the indigenous squatters want to found an indigenous university and have already started classes in the Tupi-Guarani language at weekends.

"We want a university. We already have language courses in Tupi-Guarani, painting, we want to have our identity," Ivandro says. "It's not for me. It's for my grandchildren, my child."