September 6, 2013

Social Media: Brazil’s Indigenous Tribes Go Online in their Struggle To Be Heard

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Equity
screenshot of stop the belo monte dam facebook page

Brazil has several marginalized groups that often don’t have a voice in government decision-making and are invisible to the majority of the country’s population. One such group, the country’s indigenous tribes, must constantly fight for their land against farmers and developers. Conflicts arise regularly but very few of them reach into the mainstream because they happen in isolated areas (for example, in the Amazon rainforest or in the Mato Grosso do Sul‘s savannah and swamp areas where several tribes are fighting to retain their lands).

Confronted with the need to raise visibility and awareness of their struggles, Brazil’s indigenous populations have turned to social media as a valuable tool, especially in the hands of their younger leaders. With greater access to education and new technologies, the tribes’ next generation leaders are using these tools to protest how they are being treated and engage with the public about their issues.

One example unfolded earlier this summer when a conflict arose in Sidrolandia (Mato Grosso do Sul), between Brazil’s Federal Police and the Terena Indians over an occupied farm. One Indian, Gabriel Oziel, was shot and killed. The videos and photos of the event quickly spread through social media and traditional media, and created an uproar. The crisis prompted Brazil’s Justice Minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, to go to the conflict area to oversee negotiations and mediate a peaceful resolution.

Indigenous tribes also find themselves in conflict regularly with the government. The case of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam was one of the more recent examples. The dam, which is now under construction, was severely criticized by several indigenous organizations because of its impact on the region’s people and environment. The Xingu River is a region inhabited by several indigenous groups that will have to be relocated or will suffer environmental impacts from the dam. Despite the dam’s encroachment on their way of life and support from human rights organizations across the globe, their cause was mostly ignored by authorities.

Luiz Henrique Eloy, one of the Terena tribe’s young leaders, is a lawyer who works for an organization that defends indigenous rights, the Conselho Indigenista Missionario. He said the use of social media by indigenous tribes is a growing phenomenon that is being championed by younger, more educated Indian leaders.

“We are using Facebook a lot, especially in the last two years. In the villages, especially among the Terena people, the youngsters are very much into Facebook.

“At the same time, here in Mato Grosso do Sul, we have the largest number of [indigenous] academics, which also has helped spread the use of social networks through the tribes.”

He regards the tools as an excellent means of articulating not only the group’s message to the public but also of communicating tribe to tribe. “The first time we used Facebook for our cause was when the indigenous community, the Guarani Kaiowá Guayviri, was attacked, and the leader, Nisio Gomes, was killed,” he explained. Threatened with eviction, the Guarani Kaiowá cause became a major movement on Facebook among many tribes. The campaign “We are all Guarani Kaiowá” generated considerable media coverage and eventually helped set the government agenda for the cause in 2012.

Eloy said the Terena tribe also uses social media to help police investigate crimes committed against the tribes.

Here are other examples of how Facebook is being used by indigenous groups:

Resistance of the Terena People
Committee to Keep the Xingu Alive

“Facebook is our network of choice,” Eloy said. “With it, we reach out on behalf of several tribes and communities in Brazil. It is now part of our daily lives.”