Brazil tribe faces down order to end environmental protest

  • A member of the Guarani Mbya indigenous tribe smokes a pipe while waiting for police to enter the property the group has been occupying for just over a month in an attempt to stop real estate developer Tenda from constructing apartment buildings next to their community’s land in Sao Paulo, Brazil, early Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Sao Paulo police are set to force the expulsion of members of this tiny indigenous tribe on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

SAO PAULO — A tiny indigenous tribe in Sao Paulo defiantly kept alive a month-old protest Tuesday as dozens of police urged them to obey a court order to end occupation of a tract of land assigned to a big construction company for apartment buildings.

After hours of facing off, the sides reached a deal late in the day, with members of the Guarani Mbya community agreeing to move the protest to the site’s entrance and authorities promising to prevent construction work from restarting until a federal court rules in the case.

About 200 Guarani Mbya massed on the land and nearby streets during the day to support the protest against the project by the Tenda construction company. The tribe began the occupation Feb. 4 after finding that about 500 trees had been cut down just a few meters from their own land, which is Brazil’s smallest demarcated indigenous reserve.

A Sao Paulo state judge had ordered that they leave the property by Tuesday, under threat that police would remove them forcefully if necessary.

Dozens of Guarani Mbya had occupied the site continuously since the demonstration began, and as police arrived around 5 a.m. more members of the community gathered, some climbing into trees and displaying bows and arrows while vowing to resist eviction.

Then, at the police’s 3 p.m. deadline for leaving, officials announced the deal to head off any confrontation.

The indigenous people moved their protest to the gates of the tract and were promised to be left alone by police. In addition, authorities said workers from Tenda would not be allowed on the site until a federal court rules on the case in May.

“This is a massive victory for the tribe,” said Gilberto Natalini, a member of the Sao Paulo city council. “They made a strategic retreat, but they also taught civility in avoiding conflict with the police. Until May comes we will do everything we can to prove this construction is illegal.”

Tenda insists its permits issued by city officials are all that is needed for building there.

The Guarani Mbya fear the new buildings will destroy a spring and other elements needed for survival on their adjoining reserve, which covers an area smaller than two soccer fields.

The dispute underlines amid heightened tensions in Brazil between development and preservation. Brazilian law says indigenous communities must be consulted before construction that can affect their survival.

“We are leaving the inside of the land, but we will stay by their door to remind them they should have heard us before they came to knock down the trees,” said indigenous leader Thiago Karai.

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