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Environment Green Criminology

Commissions of Injustice in Rio de Janeiro: Indigenous preservation and resistance

In other words, the government wanted to set the stage for a global audience: a problem-free and glamorous Rio de Janeiro, but with a high price to pay for those not invited to the match.

Janine Ewen


“Everyone assumes that the favelas are all unliveable, but they are bound together by close community ties. [Favela residents] had no choice but to make life as liveable as possible since the State turned a blind eye… Some of these evictions are corrupt, [looking] to gain the best areas in Rio de Janeiro.” (James Freeman, Professor of the University of Concordia on the strategic mega-event thinning of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas)

In February 2014, I was carrying out fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro less than two months before the FIFA World Cup commenced. I had been invited to an International Mega Events and Cities Conference to join discussions on human rights, urbanisation, public policy, law, violence and security, accompanied by a tour of the primary site of discussion, the Maracanã Stadium, which was due to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. I still remember the words from the keynote speaker, Carlos Vainer, Professor at the Urban and Regional Planning and Research Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFR): “There are winners and there are losers in life; this is also in the same context as any soccer match. We are yet to determine who will win or lose between the government and the Brazilian people.”

The Brazilian government was involved in greed, corruption and, as you might expect, a lack of consideration for the people of Rio through rapid urban transformations (which the image below vividly depicts). From exploring Rio, I could feel the intensity of the mega-event developments from the explosion of street protests, FIFA-themed resistant art and the noise resulting from helicopters hovering over Rio’s favelas and the stadium construction. The increased occupancy of the UPP stations (“Unidades de Policia Pacificadora”) maximised and militarised security by restoring state control in the favelas and integrating the favelas to address urban violence and disarm drug traffickers. In other words, the government wanted to set the stage for a global audience: a problem-free and glamorous Rio de Janeiro, but with a high price to pay for those not invited to the match.


One of many street visuals that popped up across Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup 2014 developments, representing overbearing greed, corruption and a gold stadium in darkness.

Manguinhos, a favela In Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone.

The Aldeia Maracanã is a sacred, multi-ethnic village and resistance space in Rio de Janeiro that sits next to the Maracanã Stadium. The area has been occupied by indigenous urban people since 2006 and is the site of Brazil’s first indigenous museum, a building abandoned since the 1970s. Between 2006 and 2013, the Maracanã village bloomed into a community that became home to over thirty indigenous people from 17 different ethnic backgrounds. The indigenous people now had a vibrant space for rituals, fairs, cultural classes and bioconstruction to disseminate ancestral knowledge and demystify prejudices that indigenous people “do not belong” in the city. There have been numerous eviction attempts, with many of the community living in constant – and ongoing – threat of violent removals. The village faced brutality in the preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. In 2013, a military operation stormed the indigenous village using tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades and physical violence. Brazil’s colonial past has created a socio-political disintegrated landscape in which both race and ethnicity remain problematic. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, and the ILO Convention 169, ratified by the government in 2002, offers protection to indigenous and quilombola groups. However, the reality suggests otherwise. An example of this is the non-existent land rights and a lack of building ownership for the indigenous Indians in Rio de Janeiro. The defence of tribal land rights are under enormous pressure from the current right-wing President Jair Bolsonara as Indigenous leaders have been fighting against Bolsonara’s man-led genocidal policies of environmental destruction of rainforests, including the Amazon.

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An exhibition of violence at the Aldeia Maracanã in 2013

The building stands vacant in the aftermath of the Aldeia Maracanã

Participants in the International Mega Events and Cities Conference, including myself, visited the Maracanã site with a local guide who lived close to the stadium. We were also taken to the Aldeia Maracanã.

The above picture shows the front of the indigenous home. On approaching the sacred building, I was met with an eerie sense permeating the space, and of what had been left of the Aldeia Maracanã from state-sanctioned violence, even though this visit occurred a year after the attack. The eeriness increased as I stood in the largely empty space in the aftermath of the tragedy. I began to picture a lively image and spirit of the indigenous community nurturing a home and school of sanctuary; creating art through painting, music and laughter. I also saw a garden in bloom with colourful vegetables and fruit, having the power of spoken words to educate the people of Rio on their traditions, and perhaps, creating common ground in a shared world where violations of residents’ rights led to thousands of Rio’s poorest being evicted for the games.

This was a life lived on guard against the threat of outsider raids – the violence nearing, not waiting or knocking, but forcing through their home. The air was stale and silent, despite being beside the stadium construction, and the windows represented dark, empty eyes on the inside, as if presenting a witness to the disappearance of indigenous life. Once we drew closer to the building, the display of the murals covering the Aldeia created a sense that theindigenous movement would return and that we are to view the murals as a visual message of presence, pain and resistance – “Commissions of Injustice”.


The local guide explained that the police were suspicious of visitors around the Aldeia Maracanã

The building, standing like a skeleton, provides the framework for an indigenous man’s head; a gaunt portrait of what has been left in the ruins. The man’s eyes hold no fear as he looks directly at the viewers, who have no choice but to stare back into the windows of a now shattered shell. The portrait, painted on a crumbling plaster façade, is like a Giotto fresco. The image was not, however, paid for by a rich family like the Medicis. Instead, it came at a higher price, the cost of displaced indigenous families. Ruby war paint, a red cross in battle, covers the indigenous man’s nose, mouth and forehead like markings of blood and violence enveloping his sense of smell, vision and future insight. The arch of his eyebrows and nose opens into wings like the tail of a bird. Unlike a dove of peace, it leads to a pathway cut out by the disfigurement of his ebony raven locks—a shaved centre parting carved across his skull with a phoenix descending into a yellow flame.

On the corner of the Aldeia, the face of an indigenous child is crying heavy tears of blood as if they will drown in them, creating a pool of redness around the edge of the chin that does not leave the child’s face. The red eyes represent what the child may be seeing and experiencing; the battle against their family and community members, suffering, perhaps anger, but most certainly danger, as shown by their small mouth gaping in horror at the display of violence. The child’s hair is missing from the middle, deep enough to have been pulled out by the roots. With more harm inflicted from the missing part of their head, they will not forget this, even if it represents the onset of becoming invisible after the battle. The vulnerability remains beside the boarded fence which prevents the viewer from seeing beneath; a stick of sorts is either diagonally going into the child or being held up in defence. It is difficult to look away from the indigenous child’s trauma.

The perimeter of the Aldeia has the appearance of a prison with high steel fencing, wire and the reflection of the security camera indicating state control and monitoring of the sacred building. The chain padlock on the fencing adds another element to the atmospheric mix of distrust and control. The government is determined to prevent indigenous freedom and does so by keeping away and shutting out culture, diversity and Mother Earth. This is a village and university in survival mode floundering in a sea of tension due to war and encroachment on sacred space by the government. Indigenous people are not “urban rubbish” that can be discarded, and they are not losers in the games played by FIFA. A reinstatement of ancestral territory ownership will be reborn. The collective fight will return.

Alongside studying criminology and finishing my copy of Sensory Penalties, I have attempted to breathe life into my field notes that sat untouched in a drawer; scribbles on how I felt, what I saw and what I imagined by sharing the whole experience when I visited the Aldeia Maracanã. I believe I received a learning gift from indigenous communities in standing up to and epitomising injustice as fully as possible. I have opened the sensory aspects to a space and building where indigenous life had forcefully disappeared – and I was moved by the absence of the community and the after-effects of the military police ‘storm’ tactics of grenade bangs, weapon whacks and shots of pepper spray that left stale air and stone-cold silence. The initial unease of ghostly eeriness on approaching and standing in front of the Aldeia Maracanã acted as a trace to the brutality of 2013 and the outside remains, the murals, allowed me to resist a simplistic interpretation of the Aldeia as a vacant ‘haunted like’ building, but one in which Indigenous preservation and resistance are still present.