State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Case study: Preserving indigenous heritage in Rio de Janeiro

by Umamah Basit

Rio de Janeiro has a significant indigenous population, many of whom have been driven out of their ancestral lands in the Amazon due to poverty, deforestation and persecution. Due to unaffordable housing and lack of state support, these groups have settled in the poorest of urban slums, commonly known as 'favelas', where they face rampant violence, among other threats and challenges. Despite increasing marginalization, however, indigenous communities continue to resist urban influences and display a strong reluctance to assimilate completely into mainstream society.

The Aldeia Maracanã movement, which came to public prominence in 2013, is a perfect illustration of the ongoing indigenous struggle to preserve their culture and way of life in the urban jungle. Aldeia Maracanã itself is a multi-ethnic indigenous village that stands right next to the iconic Maracanã football stadium, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro. This village was created in 2006 when people from 17 indigenous communities reoccupied a long-abandoned building that had housed the Museu do Índio ('Museum of the Indian') in the latter half of the twentieth century. Since reoccupation, the historical landmark has been associated with the celebration of indigenous culture and ideas, serving as a meeting point for people from various ethnic groups and walks of life. The compound has also provided accommodation to indigenous people visiting the city for medical care, education and business activities.

Ahead of the football World Cup in 2014, the city government announced plans to demolish the building in order to make way for a US$350 million renovation programme of the stadium. It is pertinent to note that the federal, state and city governments had evaluated the site beforehand and acknowledged that it holds historical, architectural and cultural value. Members of the Maracanã community had even hoped that the event would give them the opportunity to showcase their culture and experiences to sports fans visiting from around the world. However, despite numerous protests staged in the early months of 2013, all the families who had been squatting on the site since 2006 were forcibly evicted by Brazilian police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Though occupants of the Maracanã were subsequently granted homes under the city's social housing scheme, none have been able to return to the 'sacred ground'.

The protests did, however, force the government to halt demolition plans and in January 2014, Rio's governor, Sérgio Cabral Filho, declared that the building may be transformed into an indigenous cultural centre in partnership with the State Secretariat of Culture.

Although the building remains barricaded today, members of the Maracanã community are hoping to convert the complex into Brazil's first indigenous university, which would teach indigenous languages and traditions to people from all parts of the country. More recently, community members formed the Aldeia Maracanã Indigenous Association and an Indigenous Regional Council: both bodies are aimed at developing and promoting policies for the social and economic empowerment of indigenous peoples living in Rio de Janeiro.

In light of ongoing urban renewal projects in preparation for the Olympic Games 2016, it is difficult to determine the fate of the Maracanã community. Few would deny, however, that at present the historical building stands as a symbol of hope and the continued resilience of indigenous peoples. In other parts of the city too, there are visible signs of indigenous peoples seeking to preserve their traditions and sense of community. In one urban favela, Mare, indigenous groups organize get-togethers on a frequent basis, participating in traditional rituals and storytelling events. While many indigenous people in Brazil's cities feel they need to hide their identity, especially to obtain employment, an increasing number can be spotted on the streets of Rio wearing traditional attire. For some, this is a way of showing solidarity with the indigenous movement; for others, it is a means of connecting them back to their ancestral homes.

Of course, state public policies hugely impact the extent to which indigenous and minority groups are able to maintain their visibility in society. Furthermore, as noted by the Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics, Rio de Janeiro, it is fundamental to give marginalized groups the opportunity to participate in discussions and decisions that directly affect them. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see that members of these indigenous communities are affirming their roots. While it is important to help indigenous migrants adapt to modern urban life, it is equally important to support their efforts to protect their traditions and cultures in their new surroundings. Moreover, it is the strength and scale of the indigenous movement that will ultimately determine the fate of urban indigenous people. Had the indigenous community not shown solidarity during the Maracanã incident, perhaps the building would have been demolished already.

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