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“The Territory”: New Film Documents Indigenous Fight Against Illegal Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon

StoryAugust 18, 2022
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As Brazil approaches presidential elections, “The Territory” documents the struggle of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people in the Brazilian Amazon against the deforestation and destruction of their land by farmers and others illegally extracting resources, which has expanded under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. We speak with director Alex Pritz and two people featured in the film, ahead of its release on Friday: Bitaté Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, an Uru-eu-wau-wau leader, and activist Neidinha Bandeira. “The Indigenous populations [in Brazil] are being massacred,” says Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, who helped film how his people are fighting to preserve nearly 7,000 square miles of their territory. “We will never stop fighting for our territory and for our rights.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

As former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro formally launched their presidential campaigns this week, a new film coming out Friday documents the struggle of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people in the Brazilian Amazon against the deforestation and destruction of their land by farmers and others illegally extracting resources. It is called The Territory. This is the trailer.

NEIDINHA BANDEIRA: [translated] This forest and its rivers are our home. They give us life. The Uru-eu-wau-wau territory is like a barrier against deforestation. Everything’s gone. I believe the Amazon is the heart not just of Brazil, but the whole world.

SÉRGIO: [translated] For those who live here, the Brazilian dream is to own some land and make your living from it. We’ll plant some crops to move our Brazil forwards. I’ve never seen Indians there. People say they’re there, but I’ve never seen them. It’s just talk.

SETTLER: [translated] It makes me sick knowing we’re considered criminals, like we’re the ones hurting the country.

LAND DEFENDER: [translated] Shhh! I think there’s somebody up ahead. Go, go!

TITLES: For some, the land is their heritage. For others, it is a new frontier. They all call it home.

BITATÉ URU-EU-WAU-WAU: [translated] The Association of Rio Bonito says they want our land, but I think they want more than that. They want us to disappear. We’re not going to let that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: The Territory was filmed over three years, including during the pandemic, and much of it was filmed by the Indigenous activists themselves. This week I sat down with two of the people it features and its director, Alex Pritz. This is his first film. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, winning both an audience award and special jury award for documentary craft. I asked Alex Pritz to begin by talking about what inspired him to make The Territory and why he called it that.

ALEX PRITZ: For me, the journey behind The Territory really started when I read about the work of Neidinha Bandeira, the activist at the center of the film. I had read about her work protecting the Amazon rainforest, working to defend Indigenous lives, and just felt so inspired by this woman, who, against all odds, in a part of the world where everybody was against her, an extremely hostile environment, was proudly standing up in defense of this beautiful planet that we all have.

And so I reached out to her during the campaign, the 2018 presidential elections in Brazil, when we saw this really divisive, inflammatory rhetoric coming from the Bolsonaro campaign, and said, you know, “Look, it looks like your work is about to become much more difficult really quickly. Could I come and meet you in Brazil?” And that was sort of where it began.

AMY GOODMAN: And take us on that journey. Tell us the story.

ALEX PRITZ: Yeah. For me, I mean, Neidinha has got this gravitational energy and just pulls you right in. So, arriving in Brazil, you know, I had a lot of ideas about what types of films I wanted to make. Neidinha sat me down really quickly and said, “Whatever you think the film is about, it’s not about that,” introduced me to the Uru-eu-wau-wau community, an Indigenous group that is defending an area about 7,000 square miles of rainforest, two-and-a-half times the size the state of Delaware, huge area of pristine rainforest, crucially important for climate change and keeping the guardrails on the worst effects of our changing climate. And it’s being defended by a group of 183 people. And so, you know, between Neidinha and her relationship with the Uru-eu-wau-wau forged a story about the defense of the rainforest, trying to bring in the perspective of some of the farmers and settlers that are also invading, burning and attacking this forest, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was what is so unusual also about The Territory, your film, is that you talk to the people that the Indigenous people call the invaders. Talk about the settlers and the farmers and their response to you in this film, as they understood that you were doing a film about the people they consider their enemy — or do they?

ALEX PRITZ: Yeah. I mean, the motivation and the impetus to reach out to these invading farmers and settlers came from conversations with Bitaté and Neidinha, who said, “Look, if you want understand the source of this violence and the root of this conflict, don’t just talk to us. You know, we’re on the receiving end of this conflict. But go talk to the people that are lighting fire to the rainforest, who are out there chopping away at it. And they’ll speak to you, because you’re American and they have this cultural, ideological admiration for America,” because of its ideas of manifest destiny and the westward expansion and dispossession of Native lands that occurred here. These settlers and frontiersmen in Brazil really do hold America in very high esteem for that reason. And, you know, through a lot of conversations and moving past their kind of initial skepticism, we were able to forge some relationships with these farmers that allowed us to get some insight into what it is that’s really driving this conflict in Brazil.

AMY GOODMAN: And do they understand the danger that Indigenous people feel, and the whole issue of the climate catastrophe and the Amazon being the lungs of the planet?

ALEX PRITZ: Yeah, I mean, I think small subsistence farmers, as well as anybody, are feeling the effects of climate change. The people that we spoke to said, you know, “Of course we understand the climate is changing. That’s a given.” They viewed land almost as a disposable commodity. They said, “We need to go get fresh land, because the land here has all been too degraded and requires too many fertilizer inputs.” So they do have some ecological awareness. But I think the historical context of their actions, the scope of destruction in the Amazon is something they’re not really aware of.

At the same time, they have this really dangerous view that the land is just unoccupied. You know, it’s the same national mythology that America was founded on, this idea of terra nullius, that there’s an empty area on the map, and it’s just up to them to go out and colonize it, turn that wilderness into private property. And that’s really how these settlers view the Indigenous people there, as kind of an inconvenient obstacle in their inevitable road to the acquisition of this land.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you’re doing this in a larger political context, and you’re an American doing this film during President Trump. Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, has so often been called the “Trump of the tropics.” Can you talk about that relationship and what drove you to understand something you were seeing in the United States, as well?

ALEX PRITZ: Yeah. I mean, I think you see it in the physical iconography, the paraphernalia these farmers have — the big belt buckles, the Texas cowboy hats. They really believe in this American colonial project. And Bolsonaro had a quote from the 1990s, when he was a senator in Brazil, where he said, “It’s a shame the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans. Now they don’t have these Indigenous problems in their country.” And I think that that idea, that really dangerous, violent, toxic idea, is at the core of the way that a lot of these farmers and settlers view their relationship to America.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the making of The Territory? In the film, we see Indigenous people, the people you are filming, also filming. Explain.

ALEX PRITZ: Yeah. During COVID, Bitaté, the young leader of Uru-eu-wau-wau, said, “No more cameras. No more journalists. No more documentary filmmakers. No more Alex. Nobody is coming into or out of our territory.” And that was in part because of the collective memory of what happened to his community when they were forcibly assimilated and contacted by the Brazilian government in 1981. More than half of their population died within two years, largely from communicable diseases. So, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: This was an uncontacted population — explain what that means — until then.

ALEX PRITZ: Yeah. So, as Brazil was building roads up into the Amazon, they had a policy that they would go out and forcibly contact and assimilate a lot of these isolated Indigenous groups that were living autonomously in the region, and, you know, in a way, to protect the people that were building these roads and invading that Indigenous territory. And so, in 1981, that happened to the Uru-eu-wau-wau community. They were forcibly assimilated into the Brazilian state. A portion of the Uru-eu-wau-wau remained isolated and said, you know, “We are not going to acquiesce to this forced contact by this new white group that’s shown up and surrounded us.” And so, Bitaté and the Uru-eu-wau-wau, as they’re protecting the forest and the plants and the animals, they’re also protecting their own relatives that remain in voluntary isolation, without knowledge of Bolsonaro or the Brazilian state, you know, really living their lives in a more traditional way.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, continue on the issue of the cameras. So, Bitaté —

ALEX PRITZ: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — during COVID, says, “No more Alex. No more people from the outside.” Take it from there.

ALEX PRITZ: Yeah. So, when Bitaté made that really brave decision to say, “Nobody else is allowed into or out of our territory,” we had to take stock as a film team and say, “OK. Do we have enough footage? Should we start editing? Where are we in the storytelling process?” And that was an open conversation that we had with Bitaté and the protagonists of our film. And Bitaté said really clearly, “No, we’re not done. We can keep doing this. Just send us some cameras. Send us better audio equipment. And we will produce, shoot, manage the production of the last chapter of this film.”

And so, it was a big gamble at the time. It felt really risky and scary to me as a director. But looking back, I think it opened up all of these creative possibilities for us to be able to gain access and allow the audience to gain firsthand perspective into this Indigenous experience and leave the story in their hands and through their eyes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alex Pritz, I want to thank you so much for being with us, director of The Territory.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, joined right now by one of the people featured in the new film The Territory. Bitaté Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau lives in the Jamari village on the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous land in Rondônia, Brazil. He is coordinator of the Jupaú Association since 2020, worked with the “Young Citizens of the Amazon” blog.

Bitaté, welcome to Democracy Now!, and welcome to the United States.

BITATÉ URU-EU-WAU-WAU: [translated] Yes. Thank you very much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have been chosen by the elders of your community to be the leader. You’re a young man. How old are you?

BITATÉ URU-EU-WAU-WAU: [translated] I was chosen by the elders of my people. I am now 22 years old. On 27 June, I turned 22. But I began from a young age taking on major responsibilities when I was 19 years old. And now I’m on the frontlines fighting for my people.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what that means, fighting for your people on the frontlines. Talk about what you’re fighting for.

BITATÉ URU-EU-WAU-WAU: [translated] Well I think that we’re fighting for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, because we have seen several setbacks as Indigenous peoples of Brazil, and this is leading us to be able to stand up for our rights as spelled out in the Constitution, significant rights. But of late, these rights are being taken apart. We’re losing our rights. And this is happening more and more in the territories occupied by Indigenous peoples in Brazil.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I’ve just watched The Territory, this new film about you and your community and the Amazon. In it, you’re fighting to preserve the Amazon, and we’re listening to Bolsonaro, the president. Can you talk about what his presidency has meant to Indigenous people? He said, “There won’t be one more inch of Indigenous reserve.”

BITATÉ URU-EU-WAU-WAU: [translated] So, the Bolsonaro administration did not demarcate Indigenous territories as he said he would when he was running for president of Brazil. And today he is wanting to reduce the scope of Indigenous territories more and more, particularly my territory and other Indigenous territories. There are many Indigenous lands in Brazil that are ready for demarcation, yet his administration did not demarcate a single inch. So he actually carried out what he said he would do, in that sense.

But for us Indigenous peoples, this is a setback, because we see a president who is not recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights. He wants to take away those rights so as to turn the lands over to farming, agribusiness. And we, the Indigenous peoples, don’t accept that. We don’t want what happened with our ancestors to happen again. They’re decimating our territories. We have suffered many threats because of this. We are subject to pressures by land invaders, by illegal prospecting and logging. And within our territories, there are also isolated Indigenous peoples who have had no contact whatsoever with society, with civilized society, so to speak. They haven’t even had contact with us. And I’m very concerned about this in the context of the Bolsonaro administration, because, with that, the Indigenous populations are being massacred. We’re being killed by the actions taken by the government. At this time we’re trying to fight that. And we will never stop fighting for our territory and for our rights.

AMY GOODMAN: You made a critical decision as a young leader of your community at the beginning of the pandemic, saying people from outside could not come in. That also meant the filmmaker, Alex Pritz, and his team. And you said, “Why don’t you give us the cameras?” Talk about what that has meant for you as you frame your own reality. Talk about what you did and what you filmed, the story you feel you want people to know.

BITATÉ URU-EU-WAU-WAU: [translated] So, during the pandemic, we had a major problem, such that we didn’t let anyone in from outside, including Alex, who was the one who started all of this. And so we had a very good idea, and it created opportunity for us Indigenous peoples, as well, so that we ourselves could show what our reality is. The Indigenous peoples have a very different viewpoint than those who come from outside, and this was shown very clearly in the film, because we ourselves filmed our own stories. We filmed our own reality. We filmed far beyond where Alex and Gabriel could get to.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking about the new documentary The Territory. In this clip, we meet Neidinha Bandeira as she goes into the rainforest with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to investigate a report of invaders encroaching on their land and illegally cutting down trees.

LAND DEFENDER 1: [translated] There are traces of people and motorcycles.

NEIDINHA BANDEIRA: [translated] Someone must have warned them we were coming.

LAND DEFENDER 2: [translated] They won’t attack now. They’re waiting for the right moment to come back.

LAND DEFENDER 3: [translated] They have left for now, but this isn’t over.

LAND DEFENDER 4: [translated] We have to be ready when they come back.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from The Territory, featuring our next guest, Neidinha Bandeira, who spent over four decades working directly with Indigenous communities to defend their rights and protect their lands. She co-founded the nonprofit Kandidé Ethno-Environmental Defense Association to continue their work with Indigenous populations.

Neidinha, welcome to Democracy Now!

NEIDINHA BANDEIRA: [translated] Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. And it’s great to be on a program that talks about democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the greatest threats to the Indigenous community in Brazil and to the rainforest.

NEIDINHA BANDEIRA: [translated] I can’t talk about the Amazon forest in Brazil without speaking of the Indigenous peoples. And today the main rights that are being taken away are the right to the land, the right to health, the right to education, the right to live free. These are setbacks we are suffering in Brazil.

For many years, we struggled to have a constitution that would explicitly guarantee Indigenous peoples’ rights. And we achieved that with the 1988 Constitution. It’s just that with the current administration, the Bolsonaro administration, and with our Congress, which is filled with people who don’t represent the Indigenous peoples, who don’t represent the Black people in Brazil, who don’t represent the social movements in Brazil, we are seeing that our rights are being taken away. The right to life, the right to live well, the right to have a balanced climate for everyone, not just for us, those are being taken away — the right to have a democracy in Brazil. Democracy is in danger in Brazil, and this danger also includes not allowing Indigenous peoples to enjoy their right to land and to their territories.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva represents something different in Brazil from what Bolsonaro has been as president?

NEIDINHA BANDEIRA: [translated] Absolutely. Lula is the difference. Today people are fighting. We are fighting for Bolsonaro to not be reelected. Under the Lula administration, the poorest people got education. The poorest people were able to eat. The poorest people were able to get services from the health system, which provided those health services. But none of that is working today. Today the Bolsonaro administration has openly stated that he is not going to demarcate any more land. He has declared that the lands are already demarcated. Lands already guaranteed for the Indigenous peoples may indeed be diminished. And he has the support of the Congress.

What must be clear is that it is not enough to just change the president in Brazil. You need to change the president of Brazil but also change a large part of the Congress, because Bolsonaro was only able to do many of the absurd things that he has done because the Congress did not stop him from doing so. So, coming elections are extremely important for the Brazilian people. So are the assurances that our Constitution will remain in place and that our rights will be respected. That is our struggle. Now, I’m not going to say that Lula was the best thing that we’ve seen for the Indigenous peoples and the environment, because that’s not true. Now, one thing I can guarantee you is that he was better than Bolsonaro.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Neidinha Bandeira, the co-founder of the nonprofit Kandidé Ethno-Environmental Defense Association, one of the people featured in the new National Geographic documentary, The Territory, which is coming out Friday in theaters across the country. We also spoke to the film’s director, Alex Pritz, and Bitaté Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, who lives in the Jamari village in Rondônia, Brazil, coordinator of the Jupaú Association. The producers of the film include Darren Aronofsky and Gabriel Uchida. I had the chance to moderate the Q&A with them in Central Park when it premiered on Tuesday night.

That does it for our show. Special thanks to Renée Feltz, Mary Conlon, Robby Karran, Mike Burke, Charina Nadura, Deena Guzder. I’m Amy Goodman.

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