Brazil indigenous leader fights for tribe's visibility

Making his way to the bus station in the bustling centre of Rio de Janeiro, nothing much sets Carlos Tukano apart from other Brazilian commuters.

Making his way to the bus station in the bustling centre of Rio de Janeiro, nothing much sets Carlos Tukano apart from other Brazilian commuters.

Few would suspect that he was earmarked from birth to become a cacique, a tribal chief.

His father led the 5,000-strong Tukano tribe in a remote northern corner of Brazil and Mr Tukano was expected to follow in his footsteps.

As head of the community, the cacique is responsible for everything from ruling on family disputes to presiding over ceremonies.

Urban fight

Instead Mr Tukano, who is 55, now lives in a public housing block in the centre of Rio, where decisions are made by the president of a residents' association.

His bedroom faces a brick wall rather than the open sky.

But while he may not be leading a tribe in the Amazon region, Mr Tukano is at the forefront of another fight.

He is leading the battle to claim a piece of land right in the centre of Rio for a group of indigenous people.

The land, located next to the famous Maracana football stadium, was occupied by indigenous people in 2006.

But their claim on what is known as Maracana Village dates back further.

Indigenous groups say it was given to them by a son-in-law of Pedro II, the emperor who ruled Brazil for six decades until 1891.

The site also housed Brazil's first indigenous museum, built in 1862.


Ahead of the 2014 World Cup, the derelict building was earmarked for demolition, prompting stand-offs between the indigenous group and police.

The indigenous community, led by Mr Tukano, was eventually evicted in March 2013 by police using tear gas and rubber bullets.

"Being evicted from the Maracana Village was the saddest moment of my life," Mr Tukano recalls. "I went out like some kind of criminal."

Now, the government has given 50 members of Mr Tukano's tribe homes under a social housing scheme.

Many of them were previous occupants of the Maracana Village.

But despite having been given new homes, they have not given up the fight for the site, which has been earmarked as the location for an
Olympic museum ahead of the 2016 Games to be held in Rio.

The indigenous community under Mr Tukano's leadership wants to see a cultural centre built on the site instead.

Lifetime of activism

Reconciling ancient indigenous traditions with modern urban life has been key to Mr Tukano for as long as he can remember.

He grew up in the remote rural village of Sao Gabriel de Cachoeira, near Brazil's border with Colombia.

He says that because of its remote location, his tribe was almost invisible to the state and ignored by the rest of Brazilian society.

In 1980, he left to try to connect with indigenous people from other tribes.
"We had no access to state services, not even transport. It took 15 days to get to [the state capital of] Manaus by boat in those days," he recalls.

Indigenous people were seen as exotic, he said, and that was something he wanted to change.

"I saw it as a challenge. I knew that if I stayed where I was, I would probably get married and have lots of children, but we wouldn't advance in the world," he argues.

Mr Tukano began teaching classes about the indigenous way of life, as both a means of getting a regular income and a way to educate Brazilian society about them.

But his determination to embrace modernity in order to improve conditions for his people has sometimes led him into conflict with other indigenous leaders who are more concerned with the need to preserve traditions.

"I disagreed with them. They didn't want life to change, but we needed things like hospitals and health centres. Our people could no longer rely on herbal remedies," he explains.

Mr Tukano says times have changed. Where in the past they may not have needed flu vaccines because their remote communities did not come into contact with the virus, they now do.

Tired of these battles, Mr Tukano returned to his village in 1992.

For two years he went back to his traditional lifestyle, fishing for food and walking around barefoot.

Then, in 1994, a state official arrived from the capital Brasilia in a helicopter.

He was brandishing a note for 10 Brazilian reais. It had just become legal currency and the official was on a mission to introduce it to remote parts of the country.

"I had it for three years," Mr Tukano said, explaining that there was nowhere to spend it in his remote community.

Desire for change

But his desire for change eventually got the better of him.

He took the 10 reais note and migrated to a city of more than six million inhabitants: Rio de Janeiro.

He is not alone. Thousands of indigenous Brazilians have been forced by poverty, persecution or deforestation to leave their homes in the Amazon.

Mr Tukano says that it has not been easy for them.

"We need to negotiate directly with the government so they see us not just as indigenous people but as citizens, as human beings," he explains.

"I need to keep my customs and communicate with the world at the same time."

A cultural centre right in the middle of Rio on a site which holds historic significance for Brazil's indigenous people could be one step on the way towards achieving this balance, he hopes.

BBC News | By Beth McLoughlin

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