RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian indigenous leaders left the Amazon rainforest for Rio de Janeiro to push for land rights on Friday, the opening day of the city’s famous Carnival, as critics accused campaigners of politicizing one of the world’s biggest parties.
Artists from the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school, one of Rio’s traditional dance academies, invited indigenous leaders to Rio because their theme for this year’s float parade is “Xingu: The Clamor that Comes from the Forest”.
Deep in the Amazon, indigenous activists say the Xingu region of lush foliage and flowing rivers is threatened by proposed dams, agricultural plantations and infrastructure projects. Those themes are showcased in the school’s floats, costumes and elaborate dance routines.
Indigenous leader Alessandra Munduruku said she would prefer to be at home with her people in the rainforest rather than attending press conferences on the opening day of the Carnival.
But she said outside investors have come into the jungle where her people live, so the Munduruku have no choice but to get organized and fight to protect their land.
“We will make Carnival a political event until the attacks on us and our way of life are stopped,” Munduruku told the reporters during an interview in Rio’s Samba City where floats are stored ahead of festivities.
“We would rather be in the forest, but they [outsiders] are destroying our land,” Munduruku said. “The number of projects in the Amazon is overwhelming,” she said, citing the proposed Tapajos dam hydroelectric project.
Brazil’s government suspended the dam project last year, citing indigenous rights concerns, but campaigners worry the project could be resurrected.
New dams would flood the land her people live on, while hurting the fish populations they depend on for food, Munduruku said.
Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of the population, but face higher rates of poverty, according to government data.
Supporters of new infrastructure projects like dams in the Amazon say Brazil needs investment, clean energy and construction jobs. And some critics take issue with samba schools creating dance routines around controversial topics.
Farmers’ groups, for example, say agriculture is being unfairly targeted by Carnival campaigners who are scapegoating growers during what should be an inclusive celebration of Brazilian culture.
“It is unacceptable that the most popular Brazilian festival, which has the admiration and respect of our sector, should stage a show of sensationalism and unfounded attacks,” Brazil’s Association of Cattle Breeders said in a statement.
Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef and chicken. Farmers say their sector is one of the few bright spots for job creation and economic growth in a country gripped by recession.
More than one million visitors are expected to attend the five-day carnival party, generating about $1 billion for the local economy.