Power Relations in Brazil


On the first session Pirjo Virtanen took us to a virtual trip to the Amazon.  The lecture was divided in to three parts. On the first one Virtanen provided us with some general background of who are the indigenous people of Brazil. She explained that nowadays in the Amazon lives 220 ethnic groups with 180 different languages. The population is 817 000 which represents 0,42% of the total population of Brazil. A grand share of the indigenous people live in cities.  Virtanen herself  has specialized in studying the region of Acre in western part of Amazon, where the Arurinã and Machiner groups live. She explained how Acre is a very isolated area and controlled by the Indians themselves.

The first part also comprised of remarks on the colonial history and politics, meaning notes of the decreases in the population and trends in the indigenous politics. These included the rubber boom, assimilation and paternalistic politics, founding of FUNAI in 1967 and finally the new Constitution in 1988 which meant an official recognition of the indigenous groups. Virtanen also shared with us some video material which she had gathered during her fieldwork. In these we had the opportunity to witness the everyday life of the Manchineri such as the preparation of body painting clay and eating watermelons. As an interesting example of the indigenous (handicraft) enterprises Virtanen referred to Veja leather shoes.

The second part was dedicated in understanding the cosmology of the indigenous groups. With the time restrictions only some characteristics were discussed of which the most important was a note on the western nature-culture –division: for the Amazonian groups this does not exist.  For them, nature is culture and humanity is common for animals, plants and spirits.

The final part was focused on discussing the current power relations between the Indians and the non-Indians. Virtanen stressed how many drastic changes have occurred recently and the indigenous people have entered to the local politics. The main disputes concern e.g. the right to use the land. According to the constitution the Indians have a right to the land but not to the sub-soil. ILO recommends that the indigenous people should be consulted before — but this is rarely done. – There exists a bunch of documentaries telling the story of these movements. Belo Monte Anúncio de uma Guerra, directed by André D’Elia, offers an interesting in-depth view for the complexities and inequalities in these.

Finally Virtanen emphasized not to cast a too pessimistic view considering the situation of the indigenous people. It is true that their position is extremely marginalized and this needs to be improved but that they do have a strong identity and a lot of joy in their culture.

For further interest two other fictional movies were suggested:

Villas Boas Brothers  and

Serra Pelada (running for gold)





The second part of the class was presented by Markus Kröger. Who has written a study called The Politics of Corporate Resource Exploitation: Social Movement Influence on Paper- and Metal Industry Investments in Brazil and India.

 Kröger explained to us about Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) also known as the Brazilian Landless Movement. The Brazilian constitution of 1988 ordained that land has to fulfil its social purpose. If this is not happening – if the land is neglected – it can be appropriated for the use of social reform. In other words, the constitution has made land occupations legal in certain cases.

This has spurred a debate on who owns the land. Brazil is a vast area of land and some of it has been occupied by indigenous groups for a long time. The constitution has also created illegal activities. Illegal occupiers – better known as grasshoppers – sometimes acquire fake documents of ownership and then sell the land. Making profit and creating overlapping ideas of ownership in the process.

Horto community residents were fighting against eviction in October 2013.

Horto community residents were fighting against eviction in October 2013. Photo by Elina Reponen.

Favela dwellers are often recommended to join the Landless Movement on the grounds of getting subsidies from the government, as well as land from roadsides. These roadside communities are called the Landless Camps. From the camps, the dwellers are moved to settlements, which are owned by the government, but where the people have a right to live and use the land infinitely.

Landless Camps are alternative social and territorial spaces, as well as alternative symbolic spaces. Kröger says that they create a different culture, or alternative cultural spaces. As an example, he tells that relatively many transsexuals live in these camps, and they are accepted in a different way, compared to other communities in Brazil.

Land occupiers are not always welcomed by other landowners in the area. The lecture ended in a discussion related more specifically to the topic of Kröger’s study: the disputes between these movements and the wealthy landowners. More specifically the protests between local movements and outside investors. Kröger thinks that the odds are against the success of these movements but still they have success. Investors see the outcomes of these protests much bigger than do the protesters themselves.

Land can be commoditized, but it is also what makes living possible.

For further information on MST, please see an article that was published in Helsingin Sanomat on 21.6.2012.

Omalla vallatulla maalla

You may also be interested in reading an article by Angus Wright and Wendy Wolford: To Inherit the Earth.

See a blog post with powerful pictures on the matter on “Poverty Matters” blog: There’s more to development than ending absolute poverty.

More pictures can be found here.