Feature - Issue #12
On a visit to the Xingu, Brazilian journalist Yula Rocha encounters Indigenous communities under threat, and meets Indigenous artists and activists using their ancient culture to fight back against agribusiness, logging and a rapacious right-wing government - while sounding the alarm on the destructive impacts of climate change.
Aerial photo of Piyulaga village - the largest Wauja village in the Xingu Indigenous Territory, on the Amazon basin, and the first Indigenous territory officially demarcated in Brazil. The villages are formed by a traditional communal oval-shaped area, around the central plaza, where the men’s-house is located. There are around 700 Wauja people living in eight villages in Upper Xingu.
Driving to the Xingu Indigenous Territory, in the Amazon basin, you are surrounded by miles and miles of soy, corn and cotton plantations. It’s very dry in July and August and there is little sign of wildlife. The billboards announce new drought-resistant pesticides for sale. You see heavy machinery going up and down the countless identical rows of huge farms and passing lorries carrying grain on the dirt roads that cut through this area in the heart of Brazil. The state of Mato Grosso, south of the Amazon forest, is a global agricultural power and the main soybean producer in the world. Brazil is also the second largest beef producer in the world, with the state of Mato Grosso being the largest producer of beef in Brazil. After six hours in the car, mesmerised by the endlessly repetitive landscape, you finally see some trees on the horizon. You are entering Indigenous territory.
On the road that we took, there was just one small sign by the roadside, nailed to a cracked wooden pole, saying “federal government - protected land”. If our driver hadn’t pointed it out, we could easily have missed it.
Suddenly we were in a green oasis enclosed by deforestation. The first ever demarcated Indigenous land and the most well-known Indigenous territory in Brazil to be recognised by the federal government 61 years ago. As the largest remaining island of Amazon tropical forest in the ‘arc of deforestation’, the Xingu Indigenous Territory is a climate war zone. We could feel the difference instantly: the temperature is two to three degrees celsius cooler.
Piratá Waurá, teacher, photographer and documentarist was our host. Waiting at the riverbank to take us to his village, Piyulaga, where his wife, children, parents, aunt and cousins were waiting to warmly greet us. Piratá and filmmaker Takumā Kuikuro from the Upper Xingu are our associates at People’s Palace Projects, an independent arts research centre for social justice based at Queen Mary University of London. The non-profit organisation has been working closely with Indigenous artists and activists for eight years producing cultural exchange between the UK and Brazil and developing audiovisual projects to support them in protecting cultural heritage and their territory. On this visit, we brought an English artist, Simon Butler from Migrate Art, to work on a project in collaboration with the Wauja and Kuikuro and contemporary western artists about the climate crisis and the consequences to the biomes and native people.
The Matipu Huka-huka champion is wrestling with the Yawalapiti winner. At the end of the Kuarup (a traditional funeral ritual) the hosts choose the best fighters to challenge the guests.
Once in the village, you quickly learn that culture and territory are indivisible for Indigenous people. “They walk side by side,” Piratá told us, “we are rivers, trees, animals and rituals”. The traditions are enshrined in the land the Wauja and Kuikuro people inhabit. Committed to the preservation of the culture and territory, they stand their ground against the threats of loggers, miners, a destructive agribusiness lobby enabled by a compliant government - and the catastrophic global climate crisis.
We set up hammocks in Piratá’s family house and went to introduce ourselves to the new cacique - the village chief - who organised a series of meetings with the whole community of 370 residents living in 30 houses. We were fed fresh and delicious pirarucu fish and biju, a thick pancake made of manioc, a staple in the traditional Xinguan diet. We listened to the stories of struggle told by these amiable people, who above all, live to protect what’s left of their territory and culture.
“The animals of time have vanished,” said the cacique, referring to the cicada insects that used to announce a sunny day or the little frogs with the croaky noise associated with the rainy season.
The Wauja told us how the smoke from the relentless fires that are burning the Amazon in record numbers is making them choke - especially the children and elders. They use fire themselves to prepare the soil for planting, but the air and the forest are so dry that it has become harder to control. The fish they catch are smaller than those caught by their parents because the fruits of the trees that drop into the water and feed the fish are too dry and lacking in juice, interrupting the natural cycle of life in the wild. One man, Tirawá Waurá, told me that clay from the riverbed, which is used to make beautiful ceramic art pieces by the Wauja people, is in short supply because the rivers are too shallow, adding that even their traditional herbal medicines have been affected by the droughts and relentless fires.
Another visible consequence of climate change in villages in the Upper Xingu is the gigantic plastic sheets that cover houses. The traditional sapé, used for the roof of the houses, is growing scarce. Urucum, a little red seed used for traditional body painting during rituals and a natural sunscreen that protects against mosquito bites, is also disappearing.
Kamo Waurá is painting a ceramic pot with urucum, a red seed found in the forest, while telling his granddaughter, Yakuwipu Waurá, the history around this traditional art-craft. Ceramics and body paintings connect the people of Xingu to the spirit world which are considered an important part of their identity.
The Xingu territory
The history of occupation of this land goes back to the years between 800 and 1400, when a population settled in circular villages of big communal houses, covered with sapé thatch, which is still their traditional way of living. From an estimated Indigenous population of over 5 million in 1500, less than 10% have survived the five centuries since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. The Xingu peoples have resisted.
It’s been a long and bloody fight for many of them, including the Wauja people, who live across eight villages in the Upper Xingu Indigenous Territory. They coexist peacefully with the other 15 ethnic groups in the same Territory: Kuikuro, Kalapalo, Yawalapiti, Kamaiurá and Matipu, among others who speak seven different Indigenous languages. Portuguese is learned in school and spoken between them, particularly by the younger generation.
With an estimated Indigenous population of almost 900,000 in 2010 (Instituto Socioambiental, 2019), the surviving 256 Indigenous peoples in Brazil have experienced systematic ethnic annihilation, cultural assimilation, land appropriation, ravaging epidemics, socioeconomic marginalisation and endemic discrimination.
The land was only formally recognised as an Indigenous territory 60 years ago, demarcated with the help of Brazil’s most famous ‘sertanista’ Orlando Villas Boas and his brothers, who fought alongside Indigenous people to create the Xingu Indigenous territory in 1961. The demarcated land, an area equivalent to the size of Belgium, was initially named Xingu National Park.
I had the privilege of growing up listening to fascinating stories told by Orlando himself, a good friend of my grandfather and parents. I learned about his trips to the Xingu, the myths, the cosmology and culture through long sessions of slides projected on the wall of his home in Sao Paulo. At that time, I had no idea that I would one day work and visit the people of Xingu. His legacy is still very much alive amongst Xingu people, who are still fighting an endless fight.
“Orlando taught us the importance of fighting for our territory and keeping the white men [non-Indigenous people] away from us,” Yoponuma Waurá told me. He lives in Ulupuwene, a village by the banks of the Botovi river that was only recognised as part of the Xingu territory in 1998 and is at risk of being taken away if a controversial and unfair lawsuit brought by the agribusiness lobby is approved by Brazil’s Supreme Court.
O Akari Waurá teaches his son, Ahula Waurá, how to play a flute, a sharing of traditional knowledge that goes through the generations. This flute is usually only played once a year, during a ritual when the pequi fruit starts to ripen around November. For the Wauja the song of the flute is a way of communicating with the spirits of the pequi tree to bring more fruit in the following year.
The girl is preparing the manioc that will then be grated and cooked as biju, a thick pancake eaten with barbecued fish. In the Wauja villages manioc is more valuable than money.
Demarcation in Brazil
Around 14% of Brazil is demarcated as territory where Indigenous people have a constitutional right to the land they live on. There are currently 725 Indigenous territories, but only 487 are demarcated according to Instituto Social Ambiental (ISA). The remaining areas are engaged in a dispute for recognition, and vulnerable to loggers, miners, predatory fishermen, drug dealers and agribusiness, who continue to invade, destroy and relentlessly kill climate defenders. At least 58 Indigenous people were murdered in the Amazon between 2016 and 2021. Not long ago, we mourned the loss of environmentalist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Don Phillips. Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has also allied himself with these corporate interests and tacitly encouraged further attacks. He said he would not give a centimetre of land to Indigenous people while in power. He has fulfilled his promise.
Indigenous people are haunted by a controversial legal interpretation slowly making its way to Brazil’s Supreme Court, known as the Temporal Milestone or Marco Temporal in Portuguese. If it is upheld by the Court, this would invalidate the land claims of Indigenous groups that did not physically occupy the territory on the day the new Brazilian constitution was signed in 1988, including parts of the Xingu territory where Piratá and Yoponuma Waurá live today.
For the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), if the Supreme Court adopts the anti-Indigenous thesis of the temporal milestone, “it will end up legalising the usurpations and violations that occurred in the past against the indigenous peoples. In this case, a flood of other decisions annulling demarcations can be foreseen, with the consequent rise of conflicts in pacified regions and the worsening of conflicts in areas already under attack.”
“The Marco Temporal represents for us, Indigenous peoples, a declaration of extermination,” said Eloy Terena, a lawyer and Indigenous rights activist, in an interview to The Intercept in 2021. He pointed out that many of Brazil’s 114 uncontacted tribes, which rely on government protection, live in territories that could be threatened if the Marco Temporal legal thesis is upheld.
This concern is echoed in every corner of the Xingu and indeed in over 300 Indigenous areas under threat. “We are respected because we have our territory, but if we lose it, the loggers will kill us. It will be a massacre,” said Yuponuma. Asked if they would accept and surrender, he replied “no, we will never leave this land. This is our land, our history, our culture where we buried our loved ones.”
The young Huka-huka hustlers can only play uruá, a long flute, during the Kuarup ritual. They visit all the houses around the village to make the souls of the dead happy.
The hosts of Kuarup send three messengers to other villages inviting them to the ritual. They spend the night in the nearest forest in hammocks, the traditional way of sleeping.
Kamukuwaká - a site of resistance
The most sacred site for the Xinguans is still located outside the demarcated area. A small but important cave named Kamukuwaká holds the ancient stories of Wauja ancestors engraved on the rockface; it is considered their ‘history book’ from which they learn about their culture, rituals and cosmology. In the past, the elders and historians would take the young to Kamukuwaká to tell the story. Today, since the cave has been vandalised, they are no longer able to do that. The somewhat arbitrary line drawn during demarcation meant it was unprotected.
“It was Kamukuwaká who taught us how to relate to the world around us, how to respect each other and to care for the environment,” Piratá Waurá said.
Wauja community leaders, digital artisans from Factum Foundation, independent archaeologists and anthropologists worked together to reproduce the original Kamukuwaká cave. The team employed high-resolution photogrammetry to record the cave, then using 3D printing technologies based on documentation and Wauja collective memory, a digital restoration of the rock and the original carvings was carried out in the studio in Madrid. This resulted in a 1:1 facsimile of the entrance to the cave, with all the petroglyphs, measuring 8x4x4 meters.
For the Wauja people, the Kamuwaká is a symbol of resistance, the ultimate representation of the fight for the territory. It was in the Kamukuwaká sacred cave that the ear piercing, painting, songs, rituals and even the rules of Xingu’s society originated. But with the demarcation of the Xingu Indigenous Territory in 1961, the Kamukuwaká cave and part of the Wauja sacred river were left out. At the time, the elders didn’t really understand what that demarcation meant. As the new generation grew up and learned about the territory and its borders, they realised the cave is now in private farmland. Even though the government acknowledged the cave as an important cultural heritage site, protected by IPHAN (the Brazilian government agency in charge of cultural heritage affairs), it was vulnerable.
The most famous ritual that takes place in the Xingu territory - the Kuarup - comes from Kamukuwaká and their ‘book of learning’. Once a year, during the dry season, the Xinguans gather in the villages across the territory to pay tribute to those who have passed. It marks the end of a long period of mourning for the communities. During days of festivities they sing, dance and fight huka-huka, a traditional wrestling competition. The girls who have had their first period come out of seclusion and join the rest of the village. It’s the most poignant festival I’ve ever seen, and what we were privileged to witness was only a rehearsal, in the small village of Ulupuwene - outside the demarcation line.
The Wauja have never stopped claiming the right to their ancestral territory, history, cave and river. Although it is outside the demarcated territory, they still visit the Kamukuwaká cave. And every year they see more garbage, polluted rivers contaminated by the poisons of monoculture, and fewer fish.
After hearing the ancient tales of the Kamukuwaká around a roaring bonfire at the centre of the village in 2018 People’s Palace Projects organised an expedition to the Kamukuwaká by artists from Factum Foundation to document the site using high-resolution 3D-imaging technologies, as precautionary measures to safeguard the cave’s sacred artwork. Upon arrival in October 2018, the ancient engravings were found vandalised with fragments still lying on the ground. The mythical stories carved into the stone had been deliberately hacked away with a chisel, in an apparent attempt to erase thousands of years of Indigenous collective memory, a violent act of vandalism at a time of heightened tension between Indigenous and farming communities in the borders of the Xingu.
After one year of extensive work in close collaboration with the Wauja, Factum Foundation, using cutting-edge 3D printing technology, recreated all the vandalised rock carvings of the Kamukuwaká cave. The life-size facsimile reproduction of the cave, was unveiled by Akari Waurá and his son Yanamakuakuma Waurá, alongside Takumã Kuikuro, a filmmaker from the Kuikuro people and Shirley Djukurnã Krenak, a leader of Krenak people, at an event in Madrid in 2019.
“These actions of restoration are not artificial; what is artificial is having to fight against deforestation, against weapons of war, against agrotoxins, against bad people,” said Shirley. For Akari, “the reconstruction of the Kamukuwaká cave and the engravings is a symbol of our endurance despite everything they do to undermine us.”
Unfortunately, due to logistical issues and the high cost of transportation, the Kamukuwaká replica has been sitting in a studio in Spain for the past three years. We hope that one day, by bringing the cave back to the community, younger generations who haven’t had a chance to visit the real cave can at least see what it used to be and learn from it.
Virtual Reality Experience
The next phase in this radical act of resistance began in 2021, when the Wauja led an international effort to digitally resurrect the cave in 3D.
With support from the British Council, People’s Palace Projects and the Factum Foundation in Spain, a team of engineers, designers, independent anthropologists and archeologists led by creative producer and sound recordist Nathaniel Mann have been working remotely with Wauja people from four different villages in the Xingu to retell the story of Kamukuwaká in the virtual realm. The digital virtual reality experience invites the ‘visitor’ to travel upriver towards the Sacred Cave, experience the stories and songs of the Apapaatai spirits who unite communities with the forests, witness the terrible destruction of the engravings and unravel the complex web behind this act of violence: mining, industrial agriculture, logging.
The four remote villages in the Xingu territory are now equipped with solar panels and a paid internet service to enable training on how to use the goggles and navigate the VR experience. The technology, so unlike anything most of the Wauja had ever experienced, was overwhelming for some elderly people and extremely exciting for the children and young Waujá we gathered in the school village at Ulupuwene.
The project was selected to take part in the Copenhagen Documentary Festival laboratory and it was presented to the non-Indigenous audience for the first time in April 2022 by Pirata Waurá.
“The world is under attack,” he told the festival audience. “When our rivers and our forests are threatened by people and by governments, so are our spirits. Working with our non-Indigenous partners we are not just doing a project. Here we are letting our force, our energy, our spirit come out: to make art, to fight and to save our territory. So, we need to make sure our spirit emerges strong to talk to the world as we make this art work together.”
We left Piratá’s house at the Xingu Indigenous territory on a cold morning in July, just before the sunrise when the villagers were starting to wake up for the daily routine of bathing in the beautiful tributaries of the Xingu river. Soon we would cross the borders of their territory to face the heavy dust of tractors and lorries working on soybean and cattle farms.
The realisation that the very existence of Indigenous peoples depends upon this close connection with nature and therefore their territory is both deeply concerning and a source of inspiration and courage. Because the chain of resistance, essential to protect this land, extends to all of us. As Yoponuma Waurá told me: “We are alive only because we have our rivers and forests and we can see the sunrise and the sundown every day and night and observe our children and grandchildren running around freely in our own land.”
While the parents are out fishing, children play freely in the river Tamitatoala that runs through the Xingu Indigenous territory.