Fighting a Low-Intensity War, Indigenous Tupinamba Recover Their Land in Brazil

The extreme south of the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil is a region of intense conflict over indigenous lands. A judge asked Rosivaldo Ferreira da Silva, a leader from the indigenous Babau tribe, about the actions the Tupinamba are taking in order to recover their ancestral lands from the hands of rich landowners.

The extreme south of the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil is a region of intense conflict over indigenous lands. A judge asked Rosivaldo Ferreira da Silva, a leader from the indigenous Babau tribe, about the actions the Tupinamba are taking in order to recover their ancestral lands from the hands of rich landowners.

“You said that your Enchanted One – the spirit of the ancestors of the Tupinamba – ordered you to take back your lands and that you will not return them, even if that means you have to die in a confrontation with the police,” the judge said. Da Silva responded: “Exactly.”

The judge, trying to change the idea that he had proposed, said, “But we can propose something that can mediate this situation. We can offer a basket of basic goods to families, something that they can live off of.”

Da Silva, indignant, responded, “We the Tupinamba, this is how we are, judge. If food is lacking in our homes, we will eat wild plants; we will eat what the land gives us; we are not going to ask for anything from anyone. Because then we would be allowing others to govern our lives.”

The Tupinamba were the first indigenous people to form a front against the Portuguese invasion in 1500 in Brazil. They are a great warrior people whose organizational structure uses tactics and strategies of war based on their worldview. In 2004, they started a process to recover their lands.

“Our goal was to stop deforestation. All the rivers would return to their natural pathways; nature would be laughing with happiness.”

The government body, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), recognized in its studies that the Tupinamba possess over 47,000 hectares of land, but the government still hasn’t authorized the demarcation of this territory. This is in violation of Article 169 of the International Labor Organization, which establishes their right to “the consultation and participation of indigenous peoples and tribes to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control over their economic, social and cultural development, including the right to land and the use of natural resources found in their traditional lands.”

Even after having received only silence as a response from the government, the indigenous Tupinamba have recovered a good part of their land. They are one of the few indigenous groups in Brazil that has dared to self-demarcate their borders and occupy them at the same time. They reclaimed huge properties that were in the hands of landowners; they took over fresh water springs; they took over abandoned houses. In the community of Serra do Padeiro alone, close to 70 properties were taken over.

“We drove out the landowners who were deforesting and who did not need the land to live on because they have houses elsewhere. And the people that need a place to live, the small producers, will stay with us,” da Silva told Truthout. “Our goal was to stop deforestation; our motto is zero deforestation. All the rivers would return to their natural pathways; nature would be laughing with happiness; the animals would come back,” he added.

The reaction to all of this quickly became systematic and relentless. In 2008, police made their first large-scale attack in Serra do Padeiro. They invaded the Tupinamba territory with two helicopters, 130 agents and heavy vehicles. They said that they wanted to stop da Silva, but they didn’t have an arrest warrant. “It was a day of war. For an entire day, they had fun with us and we with them,” joked da Silva. “The fight for the Tupinamba is not an affront; we are children of war. The thing is that they want a war, but with a group that doesn’t know how to fight; they want us to sit back and cross our arms.”

Brazil’s Defense Ministry published a manual that encourages the use of military force to guarantee “public security.”

“They believed that we were going to flee, but this didn’t happen. When they came in and began to attack, our answer was to use slingshots and stones and we used the strategy of isolating them. The Enchanted Ones prohibited us from using bows and arrows; they said that these people aren’t ready for war with the Tupinamba, and in addition it isn’t in our best interest to cause a single casualty. They came onto our land without asking permission and afterward they couldn’t leave. And when the final day came, they were desperate and called for reinforcements, and only then were they able to remove the barricades that we put up in the roads.”

There’s interest in Tupinamba land from large-scale landowners and producers, such as the owners of the luxury tourist complexes that have been built in this territory, like the Hotel Fazenda da Lagao, with investors such as Arthur Bahia and Arminio Fraga. Fraga is a naturalized US citizen and former president of the Brazilian Central Bank. He is also an ex-member of the World Bank, and affirms that there are no indigenous people in the region, and that there are only opportunists who want to steal the land from the rightful owners.

Meanwhile, in President Dilma Rousseff’s new term, she has chosen to fill top positions with figures like businesswoman, rancher and senator, Katia Abreu, who is currently the head of the Ministry of Agriculture. Abreu is one of the main defenders of the coalition in Brazil’s Congress that is defending national and multinational agribusinesses in Brazil, which maintain a strong offensive against indigenous towns.

The FUNAI recognized the presence of no less than 4,700 Tupinamba people, concentrated in at least 23 communities, between the mountains and the coast of the state of Bahia – an area that extends from the Serra do Padeiro to the coast of Olivença and is immersed in the tropical jungle of the Mata Atlântica. The communities are distributed across two regions: the forest Tupinamba and those of the coast, and each town has its own leader.

Militarization of the Tupinamba Territory

In mid-February 2014, at the request of Jaques Wagner, then-governor of the state of Bahia and currently Brazil’s defense minister, the president signed an authorization from the federal government so that the army could enter into the territory of the Tupinamba in southern Bahia. Federal authorities were given permission to finish their incursion in one month, but it still continues today.

A month before, in January 2014, agents from the National Public Security Forces and the Federal Police built a base in the town of Serra do Padeiro. From that moment, the indigenous people have been constantly monitored and some of the land has been violently reintegrated into the territory belonging to big landholders.

“It is a strategy, because the landowners in the region want to kill me, along with the military”

These measures were taken after the Brazilian Ministry of Defense published a manual titled “How to guarantee law and order,” on December 20, 2013. It is a manual that encourages the use of military force in order to guarantee “public security.” It also enumerates the ways in which enemies are categorized, beginning with individuals and groups to organizations and social movements that are considered “oppositional forces,” emphasizing those that act in violation of “public order or security.”

Haroldo Heleno, from the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), in the state of Bahia, tells Truthout that the indigenous Tupinamba, in the process of self-demarcating and taking back their land, have suffered a constant campaign of criminalization. They have been written off as criminals, as invaders and as homeless. CIMI reported that the 2008 attack by the Federal Police in the town of Serra do Padeiro included more than 130 agents, two helicopters and 30 patrol cars. Twenty-two indigenous people were wounded by rubber bullets and gas bombs, and houses, community vehicles, food and school equipment were destroyed.

War Fire

A low fire burns inside a tree trunk until it turns to ash; it’s a fire that should be burning at all times, even on rainy days. It is the light of the Tupinamba ancestors; it is the center of the town; it is there where the ancestors made the most important decisions in the community, like when to go to war. Fernanda Barbosa Silva, who teaches the Tupinamba language to both indigenous and non-indigenous children in the community of Serra do Padeiro, told Truthout, “Here is where we have our planting ceremonies. Here we ask our Enchanted Ones to illuminate our paths. It is the fire of the Tupinamba people, our spiritual sustenance.”

The concept of war in the West is different than that of indigenous people. In Western war, the objective is to repress or destroy the enemy, and, in doing so, stop everything that stands in the way of private property. “Collective land ownership is the womb of crime and of the insurgency and because of that we must destroy it. There is no peace without private property,” says Geoffrey B. Demarest. Demarest is a researcher, former military member and graduate of the School of the Americas, which is administered by the US military, and was founded in 1946 in Panama with the objective of training Latin American soldiers in war and counterinsurgency techniques.

Serra do Padeiro is completely self-sufficient. It produces its own food in a system similar to agroecology.

Currently, Demarest is an ideologue and intellectual who is part of the so-called Bowman Expeditions, which are advancing across Central and South America and other countries where collective property ownership exists. The principal military objectives are to reach indigenous towns, in order to incorporate their territories into the model of private property, either through force or agreements.

For “us,” da Silva told Truthout, “this war is for life, in order to take care of our Enchanted Ones, which is to say, our ancestors that inhabit the forest and the mountains, who also take care of us and protect us. We, the Tupinamba, are not allowed to kill anyone; we are not interested in that.”

Low-intensity warfare, or irregular warfare, according to US military doctrine, says, “instead of formal military conflict, we are witnessing a series of ‘irregular’ wars: terrorism, guerrilla insurgencies, resistance movements, asymmetrical insurgencies and conflicts in general, which must be attacked with all means necessary.”

The indigenous Zapatista movement in Mexico calls it a war of “comprehensive fatigue,” a war strategy that uses paramilitary units, paid mercenaries and public political programs in order to contain or reduce the support of the social bases for resistance movements that have been labeled as terrorists or insurgents.


After an arrest warrant was issued by a judge in February 2014 in southern Bahia, the indigenous Babau leader decided to turn himself in. After doing so, da Silva argued that the Tupinamba do not run away. According to the arrest warrant, he was accused of having ordered the murder of a farmer in the region. “It is a strategy, because the landowners in the region want to kill me, along with the military,” he said. Five days after turning himself in, after a preliminary decision by Brazil’s Supreme Court, he was freed.

In 2009, the arrest of one of da Silva’s brothers was registered, along with five other indigenous individuals who were also tortured by the Federal Police. And that was how in the successive years, until 2014, da Silva was arrested for a variety of crimes that his accusers have never been able to prove.

Attacks on Autonomy

“We and nature are one; we are one with our ancestry,” da Silva told Truthout. “Here you will not find a woman abused by her partner, children abused by their parents; you will not find people marrying one another for fun. If we want to have an animal close to us, we put food in the door of the house, and it will come to eat close to us.”

Serra do Padeiro is completely self-sufficient. It produces its own food in a system similar to agroecology, and the excesses are sold.

“The police started to make incursions into our towns in the planting season. The objective was to ruin our harvest.”

“In order to know when to plant, we observe the moon, the time of the rains, if the wind from the east is going to pass through our crops. Do you know how to recognize the wind from the east? Look there, you are looking at that tree, the one with the dry leaf tips. The wind from the east passes there. It is a sorrowful wind that brings sickness to plants and people; it is strong; it is powerful. So you must recognize the paths where this wind blows and stay away from it. You cannot stay in the path of that which does not want to be interrupted, so that is why we pay a lot of attention,” da Silva said.

The Tupinamba have celebrations all year long; their land is very productive. They grow cacao, coffee, bananas, manioc and a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Every time a party is held, there is food in abundance and everyone is invited to participate. It is striking how, despite the constant closeness of danger, they continue to smile.

“We export cacao, but we do not worry about producing in order to sell. First we eat, we are happy, and that is our concern. And what is left over we sell in order to buy the extra things that we need,” Maria da Gloria de Jesus told Truthout. She is 50 years old and planted 40,000 pineapple plants by herself. She also received the impact of a rubber bullet in the chest by the Federal Police in one of their offenses in the territory. “Agroecology is nothing more than indigenous knowledge, a circular understanding, that has a relationship with the animals of the forest, the birds, even the smallest of insects,” de Jesus said.

The food sovereignty of the Tupinamba was put at risk in 2007, after a series of attempts to try and undermine the sustainability the indigenous people had attained. “We perceived that the police started to make incursions into our towns in the planting season, between the months of May and August. We live off of what we plant, so the objective was to ruin our harvest,” da Silva said. “But they were not able to affect us.”

Historical Context of the Tupinamba

According to the document created in 2006 by the Ministry of Education and UNESCO, the ethnologist Curt Nimuendaju demonstrated in his ethnohistorical map the existence of more than 1,400 indigenous groups in “discovered” territories in Brazil since 1500. They were peoples with huge linguistic diversity: Tupi-Guarani, Ge, Carib, Arawak, Xiriana and Tucan, to name a few. They also had a great geographical diversity and diverse forms of social organization. Julian Steward, in the book Handbook of South American Indians, calculated that more than 1.5 million indigenous people lived in Brazil; and William Denevan projected the existence of almost 5 million indigenous people in the Amazon alone.

Following the data gathered by the Education Ministry’s document, the Tupinamba people were present across the state of Bahia, the lower Amazon in the northeast coast, almost to the state of Sao Paulo. The most significant loss of life suffered by indigenous people resulted from the war of suppression and destruction that drove out thousands of indigenous people, according to the document, but above all, was due to the introduction of illnesses such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis, which quickly decimated entire peoples. This was described in the writings of the Jesuit priest Jose de Anchieta, who was present for part of the historical context during the 1500s.

We Are All Tupinamba

According to the accounts of Maria da Gloria, mother of the chief indigenous Babau Tupinamba, during the Portuguese colonization, the indigenous people welcomed slaves who had fled from plantations or sugar factories. “That explains why some Tupinamba towns are mixed to this day; all of us are Tupinamba. We have our knowledge that is alive, our customs and our traditions. It is a different form of life than that of the white people. But the government uses this to say that the Tupinamba people are in extinction. We say that no! We are alive; these are the lands of our ancestors and they are priceless,” he said.


“Our Enchanted Ones tell us about what is going to happen in the world and what we have to do to protect ourselves. If we have to go to war, it will be to the end. We want to guarantee our lands as quickly as possible because the world is going to enter into a period of total chaos,” da Silva said. “In the future, the indigenous lands will be the only places where one can go to interact with nature. So we are not going to wait for the demarcation of the state: These are our ancestral lands and we are the only ones that know them, because we belong to the Tupinamba land.”



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