A conversation with Chief Ninawá Huni Kui about the Amazon Forest, Indigenous peoples in Brazil, and sacred beings
Written by Dino Siwek and Maria Clara Parente
Photos by Benício Pitaguary
This article was written with the support of the Guerrilla Foundation
“Many of these Indigenous people are not individuals, but ‘collective people’, a conglomeration of particles transmitting their worldview over time… I feed myself with the resistance of these people, who are gatekeepers of Earth’s deep memory.” It is impossible not to think of this sentence from the Brazilian writer, activist and Indigenous leader Ailton Krenak when one meets Ninawá Huni Kui. The Huni Kui people are the most numerous Indigenous group in the State of Acre, on the western border of Brazil where the Amazon Forest overflows to Bolivia and Peru, and Ninawá is one of its most outstanding leaders. He is also the current president of the Federation of Huni Kui Peoples of the State of Acre (FEPHAC), which represents the approximately 16,000 Huni Kui (two thousand of whom live in Peru) distributed throughout 116 villages and 5 different municipalities.
It is from this perspective of collective being that Ninawá acts tirelessly, defending the land who his ancestors have known for time immemorial, the Amazon rainforest, the culture, and the spirituality of the Huni Kui people. “I am 41 years old, and for the last 20 or 25 years I have been fighting to protect the environment and the forest, mainly in the Amazon region,” he tells us on a video call made via the newly installed internet connection in his village in the Hênê Bariá Namakiá region, located in the middle Envira River, in the municipality of Feijó.
Community leadership and forest protection are ancestral duties that Ninawá carries with him: “My family has a tradition of chiefs and leaders, and my name was given by my grandfather, who honored his grandfather, also named Ninawá. Not just a given name, it also carries family responsibility. In our language, the Haxtã Kui, Ni means ‘the forest’, and Nawá means ‘all beings’. In English it would mean something like the protector of the forest or the guardian of the forest.”
In fact, the relationship with the land and the forest for the Huni Kui has a very different meaning than the one we are used to from a modern/western perspective. As he explains: “The land encompasses not only a space to grow food or for a tree to stand still, but a space of a wide range of knowledges, lives and relationships with nature in general, the forest being one of them. The forest is a sacred space for our people.”
This kind of relationship between the Huni Kui people and more-than-human beings can be felt especially in the encounter with the sacred medicines present in the forest, acknowledged as entities in a wide web of entanglements. “The medicine is connected with the woods, with the leaves, with the roots, with its own aroma, with the sounds. This connection (with the forest) is not an indirect connection for our people; our traditional knowledge-keepers, our medicine men, our healers, relate to all these very directly, and through them the medicines connect with the rest of the people…. It is a spiritual connection, a relationship in which we treat medicine like a mother or an aunt, and many people are named after medicines.”
It is not surprising then that the Earth’s suffering is deeply felt by Ninawá even when tragedies occur in distant ecosystems far from where the Huni Kui people live, such as the fires currently happening in the Pantanal, a biome that is part of the mid-western region of Brazil and considered by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage Site. This year’s fires—caused by a combination of extreme drought and possible criminal actions (which are under investigation by the Federal Police)—are already considered a historical record.
“Today we see with great sadness what is happening in Pantanal, this big crime…. This is not just an accident or an environmental impact, it’s a crime. It saddens us all. It’s in Mato Grosso (State) but it affects both our spiritual and emotional relationship with those thousands of animals that have not had the opportunity to defend themselves. Many people can’t feel that because they only see nature as a beautiful setting and not as something sacred, like it is for our people,” Ninawá reports.
The perception of the forest as an entity, as part of a living relational web, conflicts with the modern/western view of society according to which the environment is objectified and treated as property and a resource, and not as a living being with its own subjectivity, consciousness, and agency. The Sumaúma, or Shunum (as the Huni Kui people say in Hatxã Kui), for example, the largest tree in the Amazon, which can reach up to 70 meters in height and 10 meters wide, and live five hundred years, is seen as “a great university.” “There is not a single person who encounters the tree and doesn’t learn something. It is the place where studies of spirituality and shamanism are carried out, the space where the elders pass on knowledge to the youngest. We consider it to be the space where all the yuxibus, the spirits, dwell.”
It is with great indignation that Ninawá explains to us that “in Acre, at five o’clock in the afternoon you can see on the road many trucks carrying huge logs of Sumaúma—cutting down that story that had been there for at least 400, 500 years of existence. This forest is important not only for Indigenous peoples. When you protect a tree, you are protecting humanity, because a tree has the capacity to reach dimensions that we have no idea about.”
The exploitation of wood as a raw material is one of the reasons for the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, but it is not the only one. The main causes of deforestation are connected with the cultivation of monocultures, mainly soybeans and clearing up space to pasture cattle, most of it destined for export. According to the scientist Carlos Nobre, a researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo and the president of the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change, the actual pace of deforestation is reaching a point of no return, in which “the forest would lose its capacity to regenerate in the face of human-caused degradation and there would be drastic and permanent changes to the ecosystem.”
For Ninawá, in addition to these harmful practices, the Amazon also faces the challenges of irreversible biodiversity loss, floods, atypical droughts, and impoverished soil due to pesticides and other toxic substances in the water and air. It is important to remember that this is not just a Brazilian issue, because not only is the environment exploited by international capital (directly or indirectly), but also because the exploited materials are transformed into goods for consumption in international markets. Over more than five centuries of colonial violence, a logic for the dispossession of land from Indigenous peoples and other-than-human beings took root. Land that previously had brazilwood, sugar cane, gold, coffee, and rubber as resources of interest to the global market, through successive cycles of devastation now produces commodities such as soybeans, oil, gas, and cellulose, and yields raw materials such as copper, iron ore, and gold. These become inputs for the production of food and consumer goods, such as cars or cell phones, in the so-called “developed world,” especially China, the United States, Canada, and the European Union.
Even efforts to protect biodiversity, when based on a vision of the forest as a resource that can be monetized, can end up causing great damage to the ways of life and the territories of Indigenous people. At global discussions concerning the climate crisis, especially at the Climate Conferences (COP), the carbon credit market is gaining more and more relevance, especially the mechanism known as REED+, which puts a price on companies’ CO2 emissions, and compensates those that ‘capture CO2’, often through the preservation of forests.. These mechanisms are voluntary, and since large preserved areas of forest are in Indigenous territories (with the decision-making process taking place many miles away), most of these efforts have undermined Indigenous autonomy. The rights to manage their own territory are taken away, preventing their forest management for gathering and producing food (sometimes including ancient agricultural practices). Social cohesion can degrade as a result.
“The global mechanism discussed today to prevent global warming has directly compromised some communities, taking away autonomy and threatening leaders who oppose the deals. Some advocate for preservation models that prevent Indigenous people from being with the land, even though this has thousands of years of history without hazarding the forest. At times the sustainable subsistence practices of Indigenous peoples are wrongly compared to producers of great impact, such as agribusiness and large property developers. They are not. In the end, that becomes a way to criminalize the ‘small producer’—in the language of the exploiters—especially Indigenous and riverside communities.”
That is why, at COP 25, in 2019, a group of Indigenous leaders from around the world, with the participation of Ninawá, presented a letter demanding more participation at the negotiation table for autonomy over their lands: “We requested of the COP presidency a specific space for Indigenous peoples to discuss nature as a sacred being, not only as a producer of carbon in the form of oil and minerals. We demanded that these discussions involve those who are directly impacted, without the intermediation of NGOs, foundations, and representatives. This has to be respected not only as a request, but in accordance with international conventions, such as Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which clearly says that it is necessary to consult the community at the base, speaking in their mother tongue, explaining institutional rights, for the community to decide for themselves whether or not they agree with what is been proposed. In Brazil, we are only heard after a lot of pressure, usually when the damage is already done, and when the community has already been impacted. And when they do something, it is usually a public consultation, which is different from what the 169 convention says. Article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) clearly says that all Indigenous peoples have the unqualified right to free, prior, and informed consent in matters relating to the lands on which they live.”
The threat of extermination is nothing new for the Huni Kui people or for the more than 900,000 Indigenous people of approximately 300 ethnic groups living in Brazil. In 1500, when the territory we now call Brazil was invaded by Portugal, it had 11 million people, who lived in about 2,000 groups. A combination of diseases brought by Portuguese settlers, such as smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and even influenza, coupled with the forced dispossession of land, exploitation of Indigenous labor and successive violent conflicts, has led to an Indigenous population decrease of 92%—a decrease that is similar to the decimation of Indigenous peoples in North America over the last 500 years of colonization.
In the case of the Huni Kui people, while there aren’t many details around their first contacts with white people, the violent “age of the masters” stands out in the memory of the ancestors of Ninawá, a process of extermination and enslavement of the Indigenous peoples of the southwestern Amazon region caused by the expansion of the rubber-extraction border, which introduced the rainforest into the world trade and exploration system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was precisely during this period, in 1903, that the Brazilian government, in negotiations with the Bolivian government, after occupying the State of Acre illegally, officially acquired control of it in a movement that became known as the Acrean Revolution. The government spent 2 million pounds on this “revolution,” traded some other territories in exchange for Acre, and constructed a railroad to transport products from the Amazon. But throughout these battles and negotiations between governments, the Huni Kui suffered deeply from the systematic processes of attempted historical erasure by local governments and elites. The governments saw the cost as an investment. For the Huni Kui, it was one cycle of many attempted genocides through colonization.
The territory of Acre only became a unit of the Federation of Brazil in 1962. (It was considered a federal territory before that). After the end of the military dictatorship (from 1964 to 1985) and with the 1988 constitution, the rights of Indigenous peoples were finally recognized in the Brazilian Constitution. Many peoples who for generations were not permitted to speak their original languages due to colonial violence entered a process of linguistic and cultural revitalization, connected to the beginning of the demarcation of their territories. This process, however, remained surrounded by difficulties and setbacks.
Ninawá told us a bit of this story: “This territory is a traditional territory of my people. My grandparents lived here for a long time. They worked during ‘the age of the masters’ (the time of slavery). For 60 years we have been struggling to demarcate this territory. In 1999, the first working group was created and the process of recognizing our territory as Indigenous began. There were conflicts, an ambush to assassinate the anthropologist (responsible for the study) and the working group team…. Our first leader for this process of demarcation was tortured and beaten… During this whole period we have been fighting for this land demarcation, and after a short period of peace, this territory has become an area of conflict again for the past 10, 12 years.”
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic added an extra layer to all of these challenges. As of mid-October, more than 150,000 people have died in Brazil. According to the APIB (Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), at least 158 Indigenous groups have been affected by COVID, with more than 35,000 cases and 841 deaths, especially afflicting the elders, who are guardians of ancestral wisdom, and considered a true “living library.” Ninawá, himself having already been infected by Covid-19 (and recovered), estimates that 90% of the residents of his village (an estimated number due to the lack of tests made available by the government) have been contaminated. The difficulties in accessing tests, the health system itself, and the collective way of life of many Indigenous populations make them especially susceptible to pandemics such as that of the new coronavirus.
This whole new cycle of adversity has reinforced the Huni Kui people’s will for autonomy to manage and care for their territory and culture. In addition to fighting for the demarcation of Indigenous lands, which the Brazilian government has a constitutional obligation to support, “we are demanding respect for the Brazilian Constitution, not just the rights of Indigenous peoples,“ Ninawá says.
The Huni Kui have sought national and international partners to acquire land that guarantees both legal security and an ecosystem conducive to the flourishing of various forms of life and the security of the people. “With the current government, we have no hope of demarcating land, of benefits for the people, of having food security. This is a territory that no longer offers guarantees. The river is lacking fish. We don’t have big lakes here, we do not have streams, we do not have enough forest to be fed by the food that grows in the forest…. There is no wood, no straw, everything is devastated, everything full of grass. We have great difficulty even to build a dignified house to be able to live with our family.“
The implementation of Huni Kui governance (an ongoing endeavor described by Ninawá) involves a return to the traditional forms of political organization, farming, and reinforcing the spirituality that guides their people. Frequently highlighting in our conversation the joyful character of the Huni Kui people, despite facing various adversities, Ninawá is very excited about future projects, such as the creation of a “university” focusing on the ancestral knowledge of Huni Kui people, to ensure that their culture and spirituality remain strong and pulsating.
“It is a university with the Huni Kui education program, focused on traditional knowledge taught in our mother tongue and with our own methods. This is the cooperation that we have been doing (together with the Huni Kui people who are located in Peru).(…) Education for us is not about going to school to complete eight hours of classes per day. Our education is one in which the child wakes up with the father speaking in his language about planting in the fields, about taking care of the trees and the environment.”
Ninawá concludes our conversation by reinforcing the commitment to resist. He calls on non-Indigenous people to take responsibility for these struggles as well. “We are making ourselves available to contribute to this land. We have been resisting for 520 years and we will continue to resist… We are not afraid, we will fight until the last Indigenous person is standing, defending what we believe, what we want for future generations. Protecting the forest is a responsibility that is not only of the Indigenous peoples, not only of the Huni Kui people. Protecting the forest, protecting biodiversity, is a responsibility of all of humanity.”
Click here to learn about the international solidarity journey in support of the Indigenous peoples in Brazil who are affected by the upcoming landmark case against the Xokleng people. To donate to the community’s crowdfunding efforts, visit their GoFundMe page.
Dino Siwek is a researcher, educator, facilitator, writer and activist working on the interactions between ecological crises and systemic violences and on experimental and counter intuitive ways of learning that involves embodied practices as a way of finding deeper possibilities of being in and with the world. Dino is also a member of the collective Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures, of the network Teia das 5 Curas; and cofounder of Terra Adentro Institute.
Maria Clara Parente is a Rio de Janeiro based artist, journalist and documentarist that researches imagination for other ways of inhabiting this planet and decolonial narratives. She is the co-founder of This is not the Truth, a platform that creates films for systemic changes. She also writes for Projeto Colabora (Brazil) and Emerge (Germany).
 The process of land demarcation, which administratively guarantees the original right for their territories for the Indigenous people in Brazil, is a long process (it may take an average of up to 20 years, and some cases are even longer) that involves 8 stages, from studies carried out by a technical group (GT), as mentioned by Ninawá, up to rights to contest, homologation, physical demarcation, removal of non-Indigenous occupants with payment of compensation when applicable, and finally land registration.
 It is important to acknowledge that we chose to include the data from APIB (Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, an association of entities representing the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) and not from FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), a government agency linked to the Ministry of Justice. FUNAI’s institutional mission is to protect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, including the identification and demarcation of Indigenous lands, in addition to inspecting and guaranteeing the protection of demarcated territories, among other attributes. FUNAI only considers people to be Indigenous who live in territories already officially demarcated, which neglects both the Indigenous peoples who live in the cities and the long process of official demarcation of land, which the current president has promised (and has been doing) to freeze even during the election campaign.