The Shavante Indians used to live between the Tocantins and Araguaia rivers of central Brazil, close to the huge inland island of Bananal. They fought the gold miners who entered their territory in the eighteenth century and then moved away southwestward over a hundred years ago to their present habitat west of the Araguaia. The frontier caught up with them again in the 1930s and they quickly achieved a reputation for bellicosity in the Brazilian press, again defending themselves against the intruders. The first trickle of intruders became a deluge, however, in the 1950s and early 1960s as a result of the building of Brasilia and as the interior opened up. The Shavante eventually took refuge in villages which were protected by the tutelage of missionaries or the Brazilian Indian service. Meanwhile the settlers established themselves on land denied to the Shavante and began to legalize their right to it.
The Brazilian authorities cooperated in granting de jure rights to settlers who had established a de facto occupation of Indian lands. In 1950 the federal government decreed that 2,400,000 hectares of land were to be reserved for the Shavante but soon after (in the same year) cut that allocation to 800,000 hectares. In 1968 the government tried again, decreeing that two Shavante communities should be allocated a total of 900,000 hectares but reversed its decision 21 days later and reduced the allocation. In 1972 a ruling by the Ministry of the Interior further reduced the reserve to 224,000 hectares and set off legal arguments about whether the decree or the ruling should be put into effect. Meanwhile nothing was done to demarcate or guarantee Shavante lands. The State of Mato Grosso started granting legal title to settlers established on the disputed territory. This could only be done if FUNAI issued negative certificates, attesting that the land was not Indian territory, and there were officials of FUNAI who could be induced to issue such certificates, even in respect to land allocated to the Shavante by the federal government.
By the late 1970s the situation in the Shavante area had grown very tense. The Indians were weary of the promises and inaction of the federal government and totally disillusioned with FUNAI, the agency which ought to have been protecting their interests. At the same time the growth of the pro-Indian movement in Brazil and the greater freedom of the Brazilian press gave the Indians allies who could help them to get a hearing for their grievances. Matters came to a head when it became known that employees of FUNAI who had been instructed to demarcate the lands of the community at Pimentel Barbosa had switched the names of two rivers on the maps drawn up for the purpose, thus depriving the community of one-third of the territory allocated to it. The same employees had then speculated in the land.
By the end of 1978 the Shavante were demanding that a proper allocation of land be demarcated for them and were being supported in their demands by the local FUNAI officials in. Barro do Garças. The head of the Barro do Garças office of the FUNAI at that time was Odeni Pinto de Oliveira, a man who had been raised on an Indian post among the Shavante, who spoke their language and sympathized with their plight. FUNAI tried to react in its usual way by promising action but the Shavante were no longer to be put off with promises. They started to pressure settlers living on the lands which had been decreed for Indians. They erected notices saying that this was Indian land and that the settlers would soon have to leave and in some cases forced them to evacuate their ranches.
In March 1979 a significant meeting took place in Brasilia. A delegation of Shavante leaders called on the new Minister of the Interior to demand justice in the matter of their lands. Afterward they called a press conference to denounce corruption in FUNAI and demand the dismissal of those responsible. They also spoke to the press about the problems of other Indian peoples in Brazil. Clearly the Shavante were rapidly gaining political skill in the presentation of their case. Moreover they had now moved beyond their own parochial concerns. They saw how these were related to policies and practices throughout Brazil and made sure that the press was aware of the connection.
In 1980 the situation was still unresolved. The Shavante had forced some settlers off their lands and the Indians of Pimentel Barbosa had started the demarcation of their own territory in the absence of government surveyors. Meanwhile state officials in Mato Grosso were claiming that the federal government was turning the entire state into an Indian territory. One hundred ranchers appealed to the President of the Republic to intervene on their behalf. Others wrote to Brasilia pointing out that the federal government had encouraged people to invest in agriculture in this part of Mato Grosso; that these investors were Brazil's main hope of solving its balance of payments problem and that they could not allow themselves "as the civilized and duly incorporated human beings who were the mainstay of the nation to be massacred by savages because of the irresponsibility of some officers of the Indian service".
In April the Shavante resolved to act. Their leaders gathered at Pimentel Barbosa for discussions and then slipped onto buses bound for Brasilia before the government could do anything to stop their coming. On 5 May, 31 Shavante leaders appeared in Brasilia and demanded an interview with Col. Nobre de Veiga, who was at that time the President of FUNAI. He said he would only receive a deputation of five. But the Shavante marched up the stairs of the building and crowded into his office, accompanied by journalists and seven opposition members of Congress. In an angry altercation with Nobre de Veiga they insisted that he treat them with proper courtesy, since they were, after all, Indians come to speak to their own agency of the government, that he do something about guaranteeing their lands and that he root out corruption in FUNAI itself. They pointed out that FUNAI officials who worked to benefit the Indians were frequently harassed or dismissed and yet nothing was done about those who were dishonest and worked against the Indian interest.
The Shavante "take-over" of FUNAI's offices made headlines in Brazil, but its sequel was depressingly familiar. Odenir was dismissed from his post in Barra do Garças and the transfers and dismissals of other local FUNAI officers who were perceived as being overzealous defenders of the Indians continued. This prompted mass resignations from the Indian agency and calls from various pro-Indian commissions in Brazil and foreign organizations for the government to defend Indians' rights.
Eventually the government did act. The president of FUNAI was replaced and the Shavante got their lands guaranteed. Their problems are by no means all solved but at least the fundamental one of land rights, upon which all other solutions depend, has been dealt with. The dramatic action of the Shavante leadership showed what can be done by Indians who are united and resolute and who know how to mobilize support for their cause. The lesson has not been lost on Brazil's Indians who are now trying to set up the Union of Indian Nations as a formal organization. It is a lesson which is also worth remembering among those of us who work on behalf of minority peoples. They must take the initiative, but they still need our help.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.