Indigenous Land-Grabbing In Brazil Amid COVID-19 (Roger Green)

A recent article in The New York Times by anthropologist Bruce Alpert relays the story of a fifteen-year-old Yanomami boy, Alvaney Xirixana, who died from Covid-19 earlier this month. He notes that part of the disaster that the Yanomami and other Indigenous Peoples comes from “the absurd negligence of local health services,” and that multiple misdiagnoses before testing him for coronavirus meant he likely spread the virus to many of his people before being isolated and dying.

Alpert also writes, “Today, we are all frightened about Covid-19. What we’re feeling is perhaps not unlike what the Yanomami have historically experienced when faced with the mysterious and lethal epidemics that our world has inflicted on them.” He is not the only one to make such comparisons.

Anthropologist, Glenn Shepard, who translated Alpert’s article from French, has recently written of the longstanding Indigenous of voluntary isolation. He translates the words of a Tuyuka priest, Justino Sarmento Resende, from the upper Rio Negro in Brazil.

Whenever my father heard that a dangerous disease was coming, he took us to an even more isolated place. There, we waited until the latest news finally reached us: “the disease has passed.” We had no doctors or nurses to take care of us. But we were watched over constantly by our sage grandparents who performed protective ceremonies using white pitch incense to fumigate the environment, the people, and their pets.

Shepard notes that Indigenous worldviews often see cyclical forms of world-ending and world-renewing, unlike the all-out apocalypse of eurochristian end times and calls for repentance in the face of divine judgment.

On top of poor healthcare, the conditions for rural Indigenous Peoples in Brazil today continue to be threatened by the Protestant evangelical path to “civilization” being paved by president Jair Bolsonaro, who recently fired Brazil’s health minister. Much of this parallels what Native Americans up north have faced and continue to face. After New York and New Jersey, NPR reports, the Navajo Nation has the highest rate of infection. BBC News reports, “President Bolsonaro had publicly criticised Mr [Luiz Henrique] Mandetta for urging people to observe social distancing and stay indoors.”

As I discussed in a post a few months ago, Bolsonaro’s administration has backed the “civilization” of Brazil’s Indigenous population while attempting to remove all of their land. While running for president, he said if elected he would see that indigenous people were not left with even “one millimeter” of land. And so evangelicals have been placed in charge of areas where the most remote and “uncontacted” Indigenous groups in Brazil. As Felipe Milanez has written,

 In the midst of the pandemic, indigenous people try to prevent fundamentalist missionaries from invading and contaminating their people. For this, the Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari (Unijava) filed a public civil action in the Federal Court of Tabatinga, in Amazonas, one of the states most affected by the coronavirus, asking that missionaries be prevented from entering the indigenous land and that Funai [National Indian Foundation] expelled other missionaries who are working within it, despite all restrictions in the face of the serious crisis.

Christian missionaries are supposed to be barred from evangelizing activities among Indigenous Peoples in Brazil following the 1988 constitution. But as R. Andrew Chesnut, among others, has admirably traced in Born Again in Brazil, throughout the twentieth-century there has been a veritable explosion of Protestant evangelical and pentecostalism throughout the southern continent. The missionary efforts have been aligned with U.S. foreign policy and “development” plans, seeing the region as the next “frontier.”

Last week, the New York Times reported that Bolsonaro is “keeping his promises made during has campaigning to commit what amounts to genocide.” According to Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado,

The Indigenous person can’t remain in his land as if he were some prehistoric creature,” Mr. Bolsonaro said in February.

Also in February, Mr. Bolsonaro presented a bill to Congress that could effectively legalize the illegal mining ventures that have polluted rivers and torn down large swaths of the Amazon.

One of the many things the coronavirus emergency evidences is the deep patterns of social oppression and attempts by the powerful to maintain control, and the rather transparent nature in which deeply cognitive-framed backing emerges during states of emergency. The quasi-“libertarian” demands for a return to “normal” social interactions and economic activities (in multiple countries) is not only nostalgic for a system that is crumbling but for an idea of “freedom” that is archaic, privileged and premised on the expropriation of seemingly unlimited resources.

The echoes resonate with church leaders’ arguments that their constitutional rights are infringed upon by social-distancing. As the usual persecution rhetoric goes, churches are unjustly closed while “other businesses” get to stay open. In Rome, for his Easter homily Pope Francis said, “May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.” But “reaching out” in the ways eurochristians interpret their calls to benevolence is precisely a big part of the problem, especially where disease is concerned.

Protestant missionary efforts by American Christians for conversion of people around the world began in the early 1800s. Aligning particularly with Anglo roots, Protestant missionary organizations in the United States began their “civilizing” empire building with The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions who sent more than eighty missionaries to Hawaii between 1820 and 1848.  Emily Conroy-Krutz’s history of nineteenth-century U.S. Protestant foreign missionary societies notes that a “hierarchy of civilization” was essential to christian imperialism. She writes,

It was precisely because this hierarchy existed and because it was possible to move up toward civilization and Christianity that the mission movement existed. (50)

Interestingly, in the early nineteenth century, U.S. Protestants saw South America — which had had more than a century of eurochristian contact before Protestants arrived in the so-called “new world” — as too barbaric and uncivilized to be worthy of their efforts.  Emily Conroy-Krutz notes that as the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions got its start during the early nineteenth-century, Samuel Worcester, whose meddling in Cherokee removal produced Worcester v. Georgia (1832) and expedited the Trail of Tears, wrote that South and Central America was in “so unpromising a state, that the opinion very generally prevalent is that for the pagans on this continent but little can be immediately done” (36).

As Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett’s Thy Will Be Done covers in depth, twentieth-century evangelicalism in South America took up the task in concert with New Jersey Standard Oil and the C.I.A.  Working with the Summer Institute of Linguistics who sought evangelize and civilize natives, intelligence networks were set up to establish multiple coups in fights against “godless communism” during the Cold War. Today, from Canada to Venezuela, oil persists in genocidal efforts against Indigenous Peoples for displacement as evangelicals continue to “civilize” and convert people.  

Well-intentioned believers will say, but this is just “greed” and has nothing to do with “true” principles of the faith, yet history shows us that the two go hand in hand, as the sins of greed and expropriation and genocide are “washed away” by conversions to new identities, denominational schisms, and reaffirmations of “goodness.” History and collusion in some of the most unjust of human activities has been underwritten by evangelical impulses, yet exceptionalist attitudes will say, “Oh, now we’re different” or, “well my congregation is different.”

It is true that crises such as the coronavirus bring existential concerns to the foreground of our thoughts. As we think about the proximity and possibility of death, we often turn toward religious thoughts. The well-intentioned among those wanting to serve peoples’ spiritual needs are correct in assessing that now is a time when people might be rethinking what really matters.

One problem is that people “of faith” give others of ostensibly the same “faith” a pass when it comes to genocide and expropriation. Sensitive to “religious tolerance,” they use this as an excuse not to be critical of the religion itself, of its underlying metaphysical tenets to make the world over in its own androcentric and anthropocentric image, to subdue nature and name animals and call it “stewardship.” And the deep framing of these metaphysics trump the outrageous injustices of history because it is seen as marching toward divine providence.

In Glenn Shepard’s article mentioned above, he points to a recent book, The Ends of the World, by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Déborah Danowski. Gravitation toward eurochristian discursive framing can happen even among some of the most celebrated critical theorists.  For example, the book addresses powerful assessments of “Gaia” which occur in Bruno Latour’s recent Gifford Lectures. Viveiros de Castro fuses Latour’s thoughts with his own articulations of “Amerindian Perspectivism.”  

On the one hand, Viveiros de Castro’s career-long descriptions of Amerindian perspectivism and his thoughts on equivocation in conceptual translations across languages and cultures contribute greatly to our understanding of Indigenous deep framing. They help us contextualize non-eurochristian ways of being, which are in danger of erasure from both continued evangelization and commodity culture. The authors distinguish a more local Indigenous impulses than “Gaia,” celebrating the fact that Pachamama does not “speak Greek.”

On the other hand, even Viveiros de Castro is capable of making claims that the environmental crises earthlings face today ought to be met with “lines of flight” by which we “become Indigenous.”  He and Danowski write,

But it is perfectly possible – more than that, this is actually taking place – to experience a becoming-indigenous, local and global, particular as well general; a ceaseless rebecoming-indigenous that has taken hold of sizeable sectors of the Brazilian population in an entirely unexpected way. (122)

I see this as a eurochristian thought move iterated in different ways along with conceptions of a “globalized world.” Yes, it is true that pandemics such as the coronavirus bring to light our organic, material connections to all life on the planet. Yes, we might see this as some “payback” from animals whose habitats we have encroached upon relentlessly as a species. But as one “expert” put it in the Netflix Coronavirus, Explained feature last weekend, “Nature” is a “bioterrorist.” What an absurd anthropomorphizing amid the signals that life on this planet does not only belong to humans.

From one angle, “high theory” among powerful academic thinkers, particularly those following the influence of Deleuze and Guattari, is capable of claiming that we are “becoming nomad” or “becoming Indigenous”… from another that “Gaia” / nature is an actor with agency, even that plants have way more influence on humans than they like to believe. The general public has simultaneously been awoken to the integration of life and death for all inhabitants of the planet. Those involved in plant medicine, psychedelic, and cognitive liberty have welcomed such a consciousness shift.

From another angle, what happens to the most precarious populations of humans when everyone else “becomes” Indigenous? When those people indeed are able to think of plant and animal life as relations in deeply-framed cognitive patterns developed over centuries and sometimes premised on “social distancing” rather than a “consciousness shift” or a moral recognition that we had better change our behavior as a species if we expect to survive, are we really “becoming” Indigenous? Ongoing genocide underwritten by eurochristian evangelical “civilizing” initiatives is not an episode of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or any other recent inquiry into politics in a “state of nature.”

Last week in Brazil, under the administrative power of those who proudly claim their evangelical Christian identity, a measure was passed to allow the allotment and sale of Indigenous Territories (IT). As Juliana de Paula Batista writes, “more than 237 indigenous lands pending approval, may be sold, subdivided, dismembered and invaded. The invaders will be able to obtain the certificate issued by Funai which will state that the invaded area is not IT.”

Once given land titles, “So-called occupants may also license any type of work or activity, such as, for example, deforestation and timber sales. All of this, by default and without the participation of the Indians, since these lands will not be in Sigef and the interested party will have a document issued by Funai guaranteeing that the limits of his “property” are not in approved IT.”

What is important to note is not only the current tragedy but the longer pattern of expropriation tied to eurochristian worldviews. As Tink Tinker (Wazhazhe, Osage) explains, the term ‘eurochristian’ speaks to a social movement, not a religion. It is not about one’s avowed “belief” or whether or not one identifies as a “christian,” but rather the deeper, intergenerational cognitive framing at work in how we understand the world. The wedding of “development” and eurochristian “civilization” efforts evidence the persistence of the pattern, even in a world that many consider to be “secular.”

If we merely throw up our arms and say, “well that’s just the unwieldy nature of advanced global capitalism touching every corner of the globe,” we miss the persistent rationale. If the underlying metaphysics of those in power are androcentric, fueled by temporal notions of divine providence and “development” for goals that are “other-worldly,” then we are all doomed.

As Tinker writes in American Indian Liberation, “White Amer-europeans [eurochristians] must courageously own their own past – without guilt but with great intentionality – to change the present and the future” (160). Platitudes and wishful thinking that we could simply get rid of “religion” or become more secular is entirely unhelpful, as are ideas that we have entered a “post-racist” era. Instead, we must look to what does the binding work connecting destructive action.

In a profound article written in 1967 by Lynn White titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, White connects the development of western science and technology to medieval Christianity. He argues,

Their growth cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of values has been accepted to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man. (1207)

These profound words unfortunately continue to ring true today, even amid much more awareness about the environment. We ought not so much strive to “become” Indigenous as to reflect and deconstruct our attachments to eurochristendomination.

Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.

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