A cacique, a journalist and a way to save the Amazon [Extra Episode] | Translation

A cacique, a journalist and a way to save the Amazon [Extra Episode] | Translation


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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: Hello, ambulantes. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

This week we’re going to the Amazon with another podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios, El hilo, to visit a historical figure of indigenous resistance in the region. We’ll have a conversation that was left pending and that helps us understand the ongoing struggle in one of the most important areas of the planet.

This story was produced with the support of the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

You can listen to more episodes of El hilo every Friday on your favorite podcast app. Now, Eliezer Budasoff and Silvia Viñas.

[Archival soundbite, Yawanawá chants]

[Eliezer Budasoff]: It’s a Friday afternoon in late July, around 2 p.m. In the Sacred Village of the Yawanawá, a native people of the Brazilian Amazon, about 20 women have gathered to rehearse chants for a ceremony that will take place in a few days. They are sitting in a circle under a huge, wall-less hut that bounces their voices off the roof, multiplying and projecting them…

[Archival soundbite, Yawanawá chants]

[Eliezer]: I am in this village because of a double homicide, because of the story that British journalist Dom Phillips never got to tell. He was killed in the Amazon in 2022 alongside indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira. But to understand why we traveled here, why Dom Phillips wanted to write about this community and its cacique, it’s important to know this: the Yawanawá adore music. It is an essential part of their collective life. Like other peoples in this region, in the indigenous land of the Gregorio River, in the Brazilian state of Acre, the music they make is melodic. The main focus is on chants, which serve a spiritual purpose. But in this case, they are also a symbol of a political struggle…

[Archival soundbite, Yawanawá chants]

[Silvia Viñas]: For about a decade, the Yawanawá were forbidden to sing. The people had been subjected to evangelical missionaries who prevented them from practicing their rituals, holding festivals, or speaking their language, while allowing rubber tappers to exploit them as semi-slave labor. Their traditions and knowledge were disappearing.

But 40 years ago, an 18-year-old who had left the community returned to drive out the missionaries.

[Bira]: Eles convenceram muitos de nossos povos indígenas da Amazônia e das América, foi um sistema muito cruel, o sistema mais ridículo. Em nome da paz, em nome de Deus, em nome da justiça divina… 

[Eliezer]: The man you are listening to is that young man, the one who organized the expulsion of the evangelicals from his community. His name is Biraci Brasil Nixiwaka, and people call him Bira. Cacique Bira is a historical figure in the Brazilian indigenous movement. He says that missionaries convinced many peoples in the Amazon and in America, but it was a very cruel system, the most ridiculous… in the name of peace, of God, of divine justice.

[Bira]: Como é que uma pessoa está falando de paz e de amor, de cura, de salvação, critica uma cultura, explora um povo tradicional, oprime as nossas tradições.

[Silvia]: How is it that someone who talks about peace and love, about healing, about salvation, criticizes a culture, exploits a traditional people, and oppresses their traditions…

Since he was a teenager, Bira led the fight for his people’s rights, for the recognition of their territories, and for their autonomy. He was initially a political leader, but he understood that he also had to be a spiritual leader. They had to rebuild their culture and traditions, recover the knowledge and pride of being who they were. So he began a long process that took decades of work but has turned the yawanawá into an example of cultural resistance and political strategy at a global level. That’s why journalist Dom Phillips wanted to interview him. He asked for his contact from his Brazilian colleague Felipe Milanez. This is Felipe:

[Felipe Milanez]: Dom was working on a book about how to save the Amazon during one of the most violent periods in Brazil’s history, which was the Bolsonaro government. So much tragedy, so much destruction, an increase in deforestation rates, illegal mining, murders, death threats, and coming to Acre for Dom was also a moment of hope.

[Archival soundbite, Yawanawá chants]

[Silvia]: Felipe is a professor and journalist who has been researching the culture and struggles of indigenous peoples in Brazil for years. That’s how he met cacique Bira and the story of the yawanawá. Felipe is an old friend of Bira’s and was also a friend of Dom Phillips, so he connected the two because for his book, Philips wanted to show that there were other ways to inhabit the Amazon that was being devastated. But he never got to interview the cacique.

[Felipe]: His last trip was going to be here, where we are, in the sacred village of the yawanawá. And Bira was waiting for him when he heard about the tragedy.

[Eliezer]: That’s why we are here, a year after the death of Dom Philips and Bruno Pereira alongside cacique Bira, listening to a group of women rehearsing chants for a ceremony, while some inhabitants approach as if hypnotized. The rituals and music for which the yawanawá are known today are part of the story that Dom Phillips wanted to tell, and that we will try to tell with Felipe in this episode. Because the community’s resistance strategy also has to do with this: having managed to recover, along with their culture, the daily possibility of beauty.

[Soundbite from archive, yawanawá chants]

[Eliezer]: Welcome to El hilo, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Estudios. I’m Eliezer Budasoff.

[Silvia]: And I’m Silvia Viñas.

Today, a way to save the Amazon: the struggle of the yawanawá people and the perspective of cacique Biraci Nixiwaka, the interview Dom Phillips couldn’t do.

It’s December 15, 2023.

[Silvia]: Journalist Dom Phillips and indigenist Bruno Araujo Pereira were murdered in June 2022, during the final months of Jair Bolsonaro’s government. It happened in the Yavarí Valley, one of the largest indigenous territories in Brazil, near the border with Peru.

[Archive soundbite, media]

[Reporter]: The Brazilian federal police confirm that the remains found in the Brazilian Amazon belonged to British journalist Dom Phillips.

[Reporter]: They were violently murdered by criminal connections that the Brazilian state, under the Bolsonaro government, did not combat.

[Reporter]: A poacher detained by the police confessed to the crime and indicated where the bodies were.

[Activista]: Justiça seria a continuidade do trabalho de Bruno…

[Reporter]: Justice would be the continuation of Bruno’s work, of Bruno’s life, of Dom Phillips’ life that were in the forest alongside our territories for the defense and protection of our lives.

[Eliezer]: As we mentioned before, Phillips was working on a book about the future of the Amazon, threatened by violence and greed that were not new but were fueled and unleashed by the Bolsonaro government.

[Felipe]: Bolsonaro was inspired by his government, the military dictatorship government, which began the invasion and destruction of the Amazon in 1970. Bolsonaro has promoted the total and illegal exploitation of the economic frontiers of the Amazon: he supported the crime of deforestation, the crime of mining…

[Silvia]: Felipe had met Dom Phillips precisely because of the concern they both shared about what was happening with the world’s largest rainforest and its inhabitants.

[Felipe]: I met Dom through his work in the Amazon. I started reading Dom’s work, and we approached each other through social networks, exchanged information, and then started chatting. Initially, I was a source for Dom.

[Eliezer]: Phillips arrived in Brazil in 2007 as a cultural journalist dedicated to music, but over time the Amazon became his main interest. He published about it in media outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times. A few years before his murder, he had moved to live with his wife in Salvador de Bahía, in the north of the country, where Felipe lives. That closeness ended up cementing their friendship, which strengthened during the pandemic.

[Felipe]: We went to the beach and did sports on the beach in these beautiful beaches of Salvador from the magnificent Bahía, and while we paddled through the bay, we talked about the Amazon, exchanged ideas. Dom asked me questions from my experience in the Amazon, and I learned a lot from Dom about listening more to people, about speaking less too, you know?

[Silvia]: Felipe says he also learned to see his country through Phillips’ eyes, someone who came from a working-class background on the outskirts of Liverpool, who knew the colonial history of his country and the horrors of the monarchy, and envisioned a more egalitarian world. Both were interested in the resistance experiences of indigenous peoples. Felipe had known that world for almost 15 years, since he started working as a journalist for Funai, the National Indian Foundation of Brazil.

[Felipe]: I learned as a servant of the Brazilian state doing work in defense of indigenous peoples. And there, when I worked at Funai, I met the great indigenous leaders in Brazil. I discovered a much more diverse, much more charming country than the country that existed for me before working at Funai.

[Eliezer]: At Funai, Felipe learned from Brazil’s most veteran indigenists, the sertanistas, who protected the rights of indigenous peoples. One of them, who had worked with isolated tribes and communities in the state of Acre, introduced him to cacique Bira, who at that time was fighting to expand the boundaries of yawanawá territory.

[Felipe]: It was a very quick friendship due to my admiration, due to Bira’s sympathy, who is a very open person and always knows how to recognize potential allies, and on my part, admiration, an enchantment that I have with this generation that made the revolution in Brazil in the indigenous movements in the 80s.

[Silvia]: In the 80s, Bira had achieved the first recognition of indigenous lands in the state of Acre, when the country was still under dictatorship. That was the starting point for them to expel rubber tappers and missionaries from their territories.

[Eliezer]: Felipe told me a phrase that the indigenist who first introduced him to cacique Bira, the one who talked to him about the struggles of the yawanawá and other peoples in the state of Acre, always used to say:

[Felipe]: The worst types are the miners, the loggers, and the missionaries, but of all, the worst are the missionaries, because until the end they will try to invade indigenous territories and destroy the indigenous territory from within.

[Eliezer]: Felipe explained to me that the missionaries had arrived with the excuse of doing humanitarian work, supposedly to ensure the health and education of the communities, but in reality, they were only interested in translating the Bible and converting the indigenous people to exploit them. They manipulated them in exchange for giving them medicine, and there were missionaries allied with a company called Paranacre, which enslaved the yawanawá. The company had bought a rubber plantation area to extract wood and exploit the land for livestock. And Bira led the fight to expel them from the territory and reclaim their lands.

[Silvia]: Bira was a companion in the struggles of Chico Mendes, the environmental activist murdered by ranchers who became a worldwide symbol, and Marina Silva, the current Minister of Environment of Brazil, who were also from the state of Acre. The cacique was part of the group that in the eighties created the Alliance of the Forest Peoples, which brought together indigenous and riverside communities of the Amazon with rubber tappers. He even ran for congressman. But when Felipe met him, Bira was in the midst of a process of rebuilding his culture and traditions.

[Felipe]: The yawanawá were already… they were recognized for their great creativity, for doing new things, receiving well-known people from around the world, actors, environmentalists.

[Eliezer]: Actor Joaquín Phoenix, for example, visited them in the early 2000s to film a documentary. This month, Leonardo DiCaprio was with Bira at an event. The actor is supporting a digital art project in which the yawanawá are participating, weaving networks worldwide. Among other things, years ago they made an agreement with the cosmetics company Aveda, from the United States, to provide annatto or urucum, a pigment they use to paint their bodies.

[Felipe]: A very creative people, with many ideas, a lot of autonomy. And they were handling the defense of the territory, the defense of culture with arts, music, festivals, and with a lot of spiritual strength.

[Silvia]: In 2000, they created the annual Mariri yawanawá festival, which seeks to preserve the culture and traditions of the people. It gathers 17 villages and lasts about a week. There are chants, dances, ceremonies, games… and it is one of the few indigenous festivals that is open to a limited number of tourists.

[Eliezer]: Felipe first visited the yawanawá lands in 2007, invited by Bira and captivated by his leadership strategy, which understood that the spiritual dimension of his people was a powerful political tool.

[Felipe]: It was a moment of learning the stories for the first time, from their own words, about the violence of the military dictatorship in Brazil and in Acre. And it was also when I heard from Bira his testimony about the cultural violence of the missionaries, about ethnocide, about racism, and about how a leader became aware of this form of oppression, tried to mobilize his people, and from that, his insurgency sought freedom and autonomy.

[Silvia]: In the following years, Felipe returned to Bira’s lands, learned from his history and from the oldest shamans of the tribe. And he worked with the cacique to capture part of his experience in writing.

It’s not strange, then, that Felipe talked about cacique Bira and the yawanawá with his friend Dom Phillips, who was documenting stories of resistance and hope in the Amazon against the policies of Bolsonaro… a government inspired by the dictatorship, which encouraged the indiscriminate exploitation of the jungle and shared the racist view of evangelical missionaries towards indigenous culture.

[Eliezer]: By then, when they talked about their experiences and did sports together on the beaches of Bahía, Felipe was almost entirely dedicated to academic and teaching work. In late 2021, while on a postdoctoral stay in New York, he received a message from Phillips, asking if he could pass on Bira’s phone number.

[Felipe]: At this point, I was no longer just a source for Dom, but a partner in exchanging ideas. And I made contact with Bira. I spoke with Bira and passed Bira’s contacts to Dom. And Dom started calling, checking, exchanging messages with him too to organize his mission in Acre, to visit the Asháninka and the yawanawá as two peoples that today are an example of defending territory and culture. They are global examples of how a community can develop well, live well, and protect nature for future generations.

[Silvia]: In early 2022, while exchanging messages, Phillips told Felipe that he already had dates for his trip.

[Felipe]: Dom had organized a trip between May and June last year between the Javari Valley and Acre.

[Eliezer]: He first went to visit the Asháninka, an indigenous people majority in Peru, with a small population in the state of Acre, where the lands of the yawanawá are also located.

[Felipe]: After the Asháninka, he was going to come to visit Bira, but Bira had to go on a spiritual retreat and postponed Dom’s trip for another month.

[Silvia]: So Dom went to the Yavarí Valley, to interview the indigenous people working with the indigenist Bruno Pereira. The plan was that after that, he would return to the state of Acre to interview Bira. But he never made it. On June 5, 2022, while traveling through the Yavarí Valley to document the work Bruno was doing with riverside and indigenous people to protect the territory from mafia invasion and drug trafficking, both disappeared. Two days later, Felipe wrote to Dom Phillips’ phone for the last time.

[Felipe]: Unfortunately, the last message I send, something like a hope I was trying to keep in my heart. June 7, 2022: “Torcendo para estar tudo bem consigo, Dom. Muito.”

[Eliezer]: That is, hoping everything is well with you. The message was never received.

While they were still missing, President Jair Bolsonaro said that the British journalist was frowned upon in the region because he did a lot of reports against illegal miners and environmental issues.

[Archive, Jair Bolsonaro, former president of Brazil]: Esse inglês, ele era malvisto na região porque ele fazia muita matéria contra garimpeiro e questão ambiental…

[Silvia]: He also said they had gone alone into an inhospitable area, without security. In reality, Bruno Pereira knew the area very well. He had been the coordinator for indigenous people in voluntary isolation at Funai, from where he worked to expel illegal miners, and the Bolsonaro government removed him from his position. Ironically, they appointed a pastor who had worked as an evangelical missionary in the Amazon in his place.

[Eliezer]: Ten days after the men’s disappearance, a fisherman arrested by the police confessed to participating in the murder and led investigators to where the remains were buried.

[Silvia]: After the break, the interview that Dom Phillips could not do. We’ll be right back.

[Archive soundbite, sound of Brasilia airport]

[Eliezer]: I’m at Brasilia airport, where we agreed to meet Felipe to catch the only daily flight to the city of Cruzeiro do Sul, in the state of Acre. There’s no easy way to get to the yawanawá lands, whether you come from another country or from another state in Brazil. From the capital of the country, we fly for five hours until we reach Cruzeiro. We land at midnight, rest a bit, and get into a car.

[Felipe]: It’s 5:30 in the morning now, waking up, there’s still no light outside, we’re driving to the port called San Vicente, where the road crosses the Gregorio River.

[Eliezer]: After almost three hours on the road, we arrive at a small port on the Gregorio River. We board a boat and sail for seven more hours until we finally arrive.

[Felipe]: Woo-hoo! Great, my man. We just arrived at the Sacred Village of the yawanawá, three-thirty in the afternoon. How beautiful, how beautiful…

[Eliezer]: The yawanawá are not a large tribe. They have a population of around 1,200 inhabitants, almost all distributed in communities along the banks of the Gregorio River. The Sacred Village, where we are, is small, but it’s the place where they usually receive visitors. “A true global village,” says cacique Bira, who lives here with part of his family, after welcoming us and embracing Felipe.

[Felipe]: Que emoção

[Bira]: Tudo bom, querido? Bem-vindo

[Felipe]: Saudades… 

[Bira]: Quanto tempo

[Felipe]: Aqui de volta na aldeia sagrada

[Eliezer]: When we arrived, the village was preparing to receive about 30 women from around the world who were coming for a spiritual retreat with Putany, Bira’s wife and the first female shaman of the village. They were also expecting a small group of technicians from an NGO that is helping communities geolocate resources and dynamics of their territories. Bira showed us where we would sleep, a cabin with a thatched roof and wooden posts for hanging hammocks. He took us around the village and told us to look for him the next day to do the interview.

The next morning, before going to find the cacique, I asked Felipe to describe where we were and what could be seen from there.

[Felipe]: We’re in the hammock talking while listening to Bira since 4:00 in the morning gathered, cacique Nixiwaká has been gathering with the community since 4:00, organizing tasks, distributing work, telling stories. Here where we are is a high part of the village facing the Gregorio River, where you can see the forest, so beautiful, the trees 30, 40 meters tall, right in front of us. That’s part of the life of the yawanawá, the everyday possibility of beauty, of aesthetics, right? The aesthetics of the village, the aesthetics of the clothing, the paintings, of life. And the admiration they have for the forest, for the Amazon rainforest.

By mid-morning, we went to find Bira at his house. We left there accompanied by one of the cacique’s sons and a nephew, and we started walking towards the forest. As we moved away from the center of the village, solar panels appeared, along with other isolated houses, places for spiritual retreats, a sacred cemetery, medicinal herb gardens, an ayahuasca plantation.

[Bira]: Aldeia Sagrada, daqui do yawanawá, tem o maior plantio de folha do caiuá rainha para fazer ayahuasca. Maior da Amazônia está aqui.

[Eliezer]: Bira assured us that they had the largest cultivation of plants to make ayahuasca, one of the main traditional medicines of indigenous peoples. The yawanawá are known for their ancestral expertise in using ayahuasca, and the cacique has participated in global gatherings on the use of psychedelics. Later on, we’ll talk more about this, but at that moment, we continued until we reached a clearing in the forest, sat on some logs, and Felipe began to speak.

First, he told Bira about his conversations with Dom Phillips and the book project he was writing, what he was seeking…

[Felipe]: Naquele momento, sobre tudo tão violento no Brasil. Ele via como um lugar de esperança onde as coisas estavam dando certo…

[Eliezer]: And he told him that one of the reasons we were there was because we wanted to know what he would answer Phillips, who would ask him how to save the Amazon. Bira then began a long reflection, in which he talked about his ideas, the events that had shaped his perspective, and what had led them to be what they were today.

[Bira]: Eu vi que uma das coisas que a sociedade branca tem enfraquecido é quando eles dividem a gente e quando ele enfraquece a organização social, cultural e espiritual dos nossos povos. 

[Eliezer]: Bira said that he had seen how the white society had weakened them when they divided them, when they undermined the organization of their peoples. And that’s why he always cared about strengthening their home, about them being united internally so they could collectively face challenges. He said that the system the whites had created to invade and exploit their lands, arguing that indigenous peoples were holding back development, was a failed system.

[Bira]: A economia não trouxe um bem social para a humanidade, pelo contrário, também tem criado mais violência, muitas guerras, aquecimento global, mais pobreza para a humanidade. Cada vez mais nós temos gente passando fome no mundo inteiro. Então, como é que vocês estão falando que nós estamos? Somos um atraso se vocês têm se deteriorado cada vez mais a sociedade de vocês.

[Eliezer]: For Bira, and this is something he’s going to convey in various ways, it’s clear that Western society is the one that needs help. Bira said that the task they do of keeping the jungle standing is fundamental for humanity, but it cannot be an isolated task. Global alliances must be made. Create a system parallel to the current one, which only conceives the Amazon as a land to plunder and exploit.

[Bira]: A gente tem que, a gente tem que construir algo paralelo a esse sistema, mas sem excluir o outro, né? É possível a gente usar hoje a tecnologia também participar da economia ao mesmo tempo preservando a floresta, mantendo a nossa cultura, mantendo nossas famílias, vivendo na aldeia em paz.

[Eliezer]: Keeping the jungle, says Bira, doesn’t mean rejecting technological advancements, but it implies understanding how transcendent the culture and knowledge of indigenous peoples are, as they are the only ones who know the language of nature.

[Bira]: Nós povos indígenas, nós povos originários, somos o único povo do planeta que sabemos falar essa linguagem da natureza, falar a língua, a linguagem dos pássaros, a linguagem das árvores, a linguagem dos animais, a linguagem dos peixes. Todo movimento do astro, do vento, do sol, da lua, das estrelas. 

[Eliezer]: He says that they know the medicinal plants, the sacred plants, their names… that they have communication with their spiritual world.

[Bira]: A gente pode traduzir isso para a humanidade. Mas como nós vamos fazer isso? Nós somos excluídos do sistema.

[Eliezer]: It’s not possible to translate the knowledge they have about nature, explains Bira, if they are excluded from the system.

Felipe asked Bira about Bolsonaro, about the connection that could be drawn between what had happened in the Amazon during his government and the yawanawá’s struggle to free themselves from missionaries and land exploitation.

[Bira]: Em toda a minha vida o que eu recentemente ouvi a invasão da terra Yanomami pelos garimpeiro. Mais de 70.000 garimpeiros, helicóptero, avião entrando, explorando, abusando das crianças, assassinando crianças, homens e mulheres no nosso território.  

[Eliezer]: Bira said he had never seen an invasion like the one the Yanomami land suffered from garimpeiros, illegal miners, during Bolsonaro’s government. The Yanomami are a large indigenous people living in the northern Amazon region, on the border between Brazil and Venezuela. Bira said that the invasion they faced had been fueled by the government. He said that the same violence the jungle peoples faced was what killed Dom and Bruno, but their work wouldn’t die with them. That they had strengthened the people more.

[Bira]: Eu lamento muito a história do Bruno e do Dom, mas eles fortaleceram mais a gente. O Bruno vai continuar vivo na alma de muitas lideranças espirituais. A missão do Dom no mundo, em especial na Amazônia, ela se fortaleceu. Eles se tornaram inspiração.

[Eliezer]: That’s why he was creating a new generation of indigenous leadership inspired by that struggle, said Bira, and seeking alliances around the world, so it wouldn’t be an isolated, lonely battle.

[Bira]: Eu estou preparando uma nova geração de novas lideranças indígenas que se inspiram nessa luta e buscando a aliança em volta do mundo para que nós não seja mais isolado, sozinho. Para que outros jornalistas, outros indigenistas do Brasil e do mundo não seja tragicamente assassinado, como aconteceu com Bruno e com Dom Phillips.

[Eliezer]: So that other journalists and indigenous activists are not tragically murdered, says Bira. On the contrary: so they are respected and recognized by governments worldwide.

[Bira]: Pelo contrário, que todos os indigenistas, todos líderes ambiental, ativistas ambientais sejam respeitado, reconhecidos pelos governos de todo o mundo, porque essas pessoas estão lutando pelo bem comum da humanidade. Não é só da floresta, não é só dos índios.

[Eliezer]: Again, perhaps used to the most obvious things being opaque far from the jungle, Bira returns to this idea, which underlies his political strategy, his projects, his alliances: the world has to understand that the people fighting for the environment are not doing it for the forest or the indigenous people. What they are defending, he says, is a common good.

[Bira]: Eu sou feliz de ser filho da Amazônia. Aqui é tudo para nós. Amamos esse lugar. Aqui está meu Deus, o meu Criador está aqui. nesse vento que sopra, nessa floresta que está em pé, nesse rio limpo que corre. Nós temos que proteger que a futuras gerações da humanidade possa também ter o privilégio de ver isso aqui.

[Felipe]: Qual é a importância, Bira, de receber visitas de pessoas que não são… de outras culturas aqui da vizinha? 

[Eliezer]: Felipe asked him about the importance, for them, of receiving people from other cultures, of sharing the experience they had of the Amazon. In the end, that’s why we were there, and that’s why Dom Phillips also wanted to come. Bira said that had enriched them. That after the oppression of the missionaries, who tried to convince them that their culture was diabolical, they felt ashamed.

[Bira]: A gente tinha medo de botar a nossa cara para fora para não ser devorado. Mas agora nós saímos, botamos nossa cara pra fora. Tamo caminhando, tamo cantando, tamo feliz.

[Eliezer]: They were initially afraid to show themselves to the world, said Bira, to avoid being eaten. But now they had come out, and had shown their faces. He said that seeing people from outside sharing with them the ayahuasca, the chants, the ceremonies, the paintings, had strengthened their self-esteem and confidence.

[Bira]: É a nova geração Yawanawá. Agora esqueceram disso. A minha família não, não vive o que eu vivo. A geração do meu povo não tem esse sentimento que eu tenho. Os meus filhos estão vivendo com a liberdade plena.

[Eliezer]: Now they have turned their identity into a source of pride. The new generations no longer feel that shame about their culture, about being who they were. But now Bira told us they had another problem: young Yawanawá no longer wanted to study abroad. He explained they had many people educated in the university: Doctors, dental surgeons, forestry engineers, biologists, mathematicians…

[Bira]: Nós temos várias categoria, mas ninguém quer exercer essa função mais porque a nossa cultura é tão importante de ser um acadêmico.

[Eliezer]: Bira says that young people no longer want to pursue these careers because culture has become as important to them as academia. He says it with pride too because it’s a good problem. And because he knows he has worked most of his life for that.

When he left his community at 15, cacique Bira dreamed of becoming a lawyer to defend his people’s rights, but he found another way to do it. He became a political and spiritual leader, a reference for them.

[Bira]: Estou tão feliz. Imagine se eu tivesse me formado em advogado. Onde é que eu estaria?

[Eliezer]: Who knows where he would be if he had become a lawyer, says Bira now, before we get up to return to the village.

[Bira]: Será que eu ia contribuir tanto como estou contribuindo hoje com minha família? De trazer autoestima, confiança, fazer nossa cultura de um tesouro sagrado que não podemos abandonar, nunca, trocar por nada nesse mundo.

[Eliezer]: Maybe he wouldn’t have been able to contribute as much, he says, and wouldn’t have been able to bring self-esteem or confidence, or make their culture something sacred, more valuable than anything else in the world.

After the first interview, we stayed in the village and continued talking with Bira in the following days. We went to his house several times, which was always full of people, children, family; we ate crocodile and paca, a type of giant rodent, which the cacique himself had hunted the night before, on one of the outings they did to fish and get meat.

[Bira]: Tudo bem, queridas, você já almoçaram? já comeste?

[Niñas]: Sim, sim, sim

[Bira]: A gente deixaram um pouquito de yacare, um pouquito de paca.

[Eliezer]: In those conversations, Bira recalled their beginnings and the start of the indigenous movement in Acre in the 80s. He told us how missionaries had accused him of being a trafficker and a communist, and he talked about climate change and the latest summer in Europe.

[Bira]: Agora fui, tive na Inglaterra, um verão tão forte na Europa que nunca   aconteceu isso… Realmente está a acontecer uma mudança climática muito grande em todo o mundo.. 

[Eliezer]: One afternoon, after eating, while one of his sons was rehearsing songs in the next room, he told us that he had recently been invited to Denver, in the United States, to the largest gathering of international experts on the use of psychedelic substances. He mentioned how he found a store selling ayahuasca capsules intriguing…

[Bira]: Eu encontrei numa tenda que estavam comercializando cápsula de ayahuasca. Microdose de ayahuasca…

[Eliezer]: In his presentation, Bira told us, he expressed admiration and respect for the advancements of Western science, acknowledging that white people had done some good things but did not understand what they were doing wrong. He mentioned that the United States was investing millions in finding remedies for their people’s discomfort but that it was not as simple as taking a capsule. He pointed out how they had invaded countries and destroyed nations, and now they wanted to party, which was not possible.

[Bira]: Agora os países que vocês invadiram, que vocês destruíram nações, mataram muita gente. Vocês querem estar em festa nos Estados Unidos? Vocês tem que pagar e vocês estão pagando por isso. E o problema não é psicológico. O problema é espiritual. E vocês esqueceram da espiritualidade. 

[Eliezer]: “The problem is spiritual,” Bira told them. “You know it, but you ignore yourselves. You know that the cure is spiritual, but you keep making a remedy. Because you are not capable of including indigenous peoples in science…”

[Bira]: Vocês sabem. Vocês ignoram vocês mesmo. Vocês gastam dinheiro com vocês. O próprio desafio de vocês. Vocês tem a consciência que essa cura espiritual e você continua fazendo um remédio. Porque vocês não são capazes de convidar gente. Porque vocês não são capazes de colocar dentro da ciência os povos originários… 

[Eliezer]: Every night we spent in the Sacred Village, a music group from a neighbouring community rehearsed for a collective healing ceremony in which the entire village was going to participate. The day after the ceremony, we had to return. Before leaving, I asked Felipe what feeling he had.

[Felipe]: What I feel here with the Yawanawá is a mixture of fear and hope. Where we are now, in the Sacred Village of the Yawanawa, is a moment of great hope, of reconnecting with the land, of learning and admiring the sacred chants, the knowledge, the beauty of Yawanawa life, the harmony they live with nature. Nature as a fundamental part of life, because we are nature. But surely tomorrow, as we start descending to Cruzeiro and see what the neighbours are doing, the new rancher neighbours of the Yawanawá, starting to cut down trees, and we’ll start seeing deforestation. That’s where the fear comes in.

[Eliezer]: The only way to resolve this dialectic between fear and hope, Felipe told me, was a concept he had learned from his 15 years of friendship with Bira: the constant struggle.

This episode was reported and produced by Felipe Milanez and me. Silvia edited it. Bruno Scelza fact-checked it. The sound mix and design were done by Elías González, with music composed by him and Rémy Lozano.

The rest of the El hilo team includes Daniela Cruzat, Mariana Zúñiga, Nausícaa Palomeque, Analía Llorente, Samantha Proaño, Paola Alean, Juan David Naranjo Navarro, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Natalia Ramírez, and Desirée Yépez. Daniel Alarcón is our editorial director. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios. Our theme music was composed by Pauchi Sasaki.

El hilo is a podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios. As we have told you throughout this episode, if you value independent and rigorous journalism about Latin America now more than ever, we ask you to join our memberships. We are in a critical financial situation, and your support will allow us to continue explaining in depth what is happening in the region. Visit elhilo.audio/donar and help us keep El hilo alive every week. Thank you very much.

You can also follow us on social media, recommend our episodes, and subscribe to the newsletter.

I am Eliezer Budasoff, thank you for listening.



Eliezer Budasoff and Felipe Milanez

Silvia Viñas

Bruno Scelza

Elías González

Felipe Milanez


Episode 25