Special Coverage

“We don’t want to be exploited, nor marginalized”: indigenous Warao seek autonomy

Many families prefer to live outside the public shelter available, even if unemployed, and in precarious conditions

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | Belém (PA) |
Members of the Warao indigenous community seek more autonomy, and to be consulted about decisions affecting them - Catarina Barbosa/Brasil de Fato

Like all other indigenous nations, the Warao have guaranteed rights established through a series of legal norms. These documents affirm that they should be consulted about their own destinies, but this does not happen.

This is the reason why in the state of Pará, many of them choose to live outside the shelter offered by the municipality, even if it means being unemployed and living in a precarious situation.

Benícia Torrez Pérez lives in the Tapanã neighborhood, a poor area on the outskirts of Belém, the Pará state capital. The home has four wooden rooms and is raised on stilts. The community has no sanitation infrastructure and when it rains, the area floods and water with sewage and trash spills into the dwellings.

Her one year old daughter, Denise Pérez, has clear signs of malnutrition. The girl is one of many Brazilian Warao. Benícia says she has been in Pará for two years, one of these living in that house. The location has a high crime rate and they have been robbed four times since moving there.

In the Outeiro district of Belém, other Warao families live as renters. The indigenous community faces many difficulties where they live. Jobless, they barely have enough money to buy food to eat, however, they also say that life in the shelter is “very difficult”.

On the other side of town, in the Ananindeua industrial district, Jorge Zapata and another 17 people live in tiny houses, with no windows and electric bills as high as 150 dollars per month.

Nevertheless, he says that he wouldn’t like to leave since his son has mental problems and cannot get along well with others. “It is complicated”, he said, while admitting that he would like to receive more support from the government.

Fluvial environment

Besides Benícia and Jorge, our news team visited around 60 Warao families living in the Jardim Cidadania shanty town, also in the Belém metropolitan region, who are happy where they are and don’t intend on returning to the shelter.

One of the reasons for this, besides the enhanced autonomy, is that the area resembles their homes in Venezuela. “Our ancestors always lived in harmony with nature, and that’s why our history has always been profoundly intertwined with rivers, where we traditionally build homes on stilts in the lower Orinoco River delta”, said one Warao tribe member.

Though possessing some similarities with their homeland due to being on the banks of the Maguari river, there is no sanitation, the electricity grid is improvised and only two housing lots in the community actually belong to the Warao. The were donated by one of the area’s residents and initially housed only six families, but more kept coming.

“I hope they legalize all the lots here for everybody. The Warao don’t want to harm anyone, we just want the right to keep on living”, said Carlos Zapata, while proudly showing us the community he helped build.

Zapata says however, that he fears the land they are on will remain unregulated because he has no faith in the municipality, and knows he may not be able to remain there. That being said, he feels good where he is. “The mayor’s office keeps telling us they’re going to make a deal, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen. We like living like this, we don’t like living in the city. This is our Warao culture”.

Brasil de Fato contacted the local municipality to clarify exactly what sort of assistance the indigenous refugees are being offered. There was no response until the publishing of this piece.

Legal landmarks

“The government can’t consult only at the last minute, when it has already made a decision that will affect our people”. The quote is featured in the Warao Information, Awareness and Consultation Protocol, which was created by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), and released on July 13th.

The document was written by the indigenous community members themselves, and is a way of preventing Human Rights abuses: “We don’t want to be exploited, nor marginalized. We don’t want to be treated badly, we want our people and culture to be respected”, say the Warao in a passage.

The autonomous social and political decision making process of native populations, is enshrined in the Federal Constitution, in the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights, the American Declaration of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, by Brazilian migration and refugee laws and lastly, by emergency assistance measures established to assist those in vulnerable situations due to humanitarian crisis caused migration.

Edited by: Rodrigo Chagas e Rodrigo Durão Coelho