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Marta Maria Azevedo: In defense of native peoples

Brazilian demographer and anthropologist Marta Azevedo was a pioneer in identifying the phenomenon of population recovery among Brazil's Indigenous peoples

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

In the 1990s, when it was still widely believed that Brazil’s Indigenous peoples were headed towards extinction, demographer and anthropologist Marta Maria do Amaral Azevedo discovered that the indigenes of the Rio Negro region of the Amazon were actually experiencing a dynamic population recovery. Her findings coincided with similar discoveries in other areas of Brazil and became a turning point in the formulation of public health and education policies for Indigenous peoples.

Chosen in 2012 to be the first woman to preside over the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), Azevedo’s career trajectory has been marked by a constant—and not always harmonious—transit between indigenism, anthropology, and demography. Within all of these areas, her primary focus has been the fight for the rights of Indigenous peoples, especially the Guarani-Kaiowá, with whom she has studied and developed research and indigenist activism since the 1980s.

Age 67
Field of expertise
Anthropology and demography
University of Campinas (UNICAMP)
Educational background
Undergraduate studies (1978) at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) and PhD (2003) from UNICAMP
Author of numerous books and articles on Indigenous women’s health, demographics, and food security, and an advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in Brazil’s Demographic Census

Now at the Elza Berquó Center for Population Study at the University of Campinas (NEPO-UNICAMP), Azevedo views the future of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples with some concern, but also with hope, despite having received death threats several times over the course of her long career. Amidst a resurgence of violence against Indigenous peoples, Azevedo has been working on the front lines to develop new data-collection methodologies for the Brazilian Demographic Census, which she hopes will bring fresh understanding to mapping populations of traditional peoples in Brazilian territory, especially those located in more isolated areas. She has also been active on projects to safeguard the history of native peoples, seeking to return accumulated cultural knowledge to the communities with which she has worked in recent decades.

Azevedo has three children and a granddaughter, and granted this interview in the apartment where she lives alone.

How do you see the current relations between Indigenous and white people in Brazil?
The country has an enormous amount of racism against nonwhites, including Blacks and Indigenous people. Racism against Indians takes two forms. One of them is inherited from colonial times and sees natives as being part of nature: they are naive, they don’t need to enter universities, and if they use cell phones, they’ll cease being Indians. In Brazil, for a long time it was believed that Indigenous people didn’t have the capacity to reason, that they lived in simple societies, and they were equated with children. Therefore, they needed to be looked after by the government. The other type of prejudice is the opposite: the Indian is wild and is equated with other animals. This is all rooted in the ignorance of the populace. Article 26-A of Federal Law No. 9,394 from 1996 makes learning about Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous histories and cultures mandatory. However, this practice is not widespread. We have more textbooks on Afro-Brazilians than on Indigenous peoples.

What are the consequences of this practice?
Since 2016 violence against Indigenous leaders has increased exponentially, as has the invasion of their territories. The Indigenous lands of the Kaiapó, who have always been able to oversee their territory, have been invaded. The Rio Negro, in the Amazon region, is being invaded. In the Yanomami lands, at the start of 2019, mining was legally authorized, followed by reports of rapes, murders, and massacres. In the Munduruku lands, prospectors entered with mining rafts that I never imagined even existed. They’re the size of a football stadium and throw scary amounts of mercury into the environment at frightening speeds. The contamination in the Tapajós River region of influence is enormous. The “arc of deforestation” is expanding more every day and has now reached the states of Acre and southern Amazonas. Racial prejudice has become mixed up with economic interests and—during the month of September of this year alone—we recorded the murder of at least 17 Indigenous leaders. Not to mention the rapes of women. The 2022 Census, which is being conducted now, should give us an idea of how many people were executed as a result of mining operations. The deaths of indigenist Bruno Araújo Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips in the Javari valley, in June of this year, took place within this context of intensifying violence.

You used “Indian” and “Indigenous” to talk about the current situation of these populations. What is the correct nomenclature?
Why “Indian?” Because Cabral arrived here in 1500 and thought he had arrived in India. Afterwards, the term Indian ceased to be politically correct and it was established that it was better to use Indigenous. The word Indigenous means that you are originally from that place. Using the word “Indian” today is a gaffe, but it’s not weighted with prejudice, despite its colonial origin. Nowadays the term considered most correct is “povos originários” [original peoples], but I don’t usually use it.

Can we step back in time and talk about your childhood?
We lived in the middle of São Paulo State, in São Carlos. Then we moved to the capital. My father was a public prosecutor, and my mother had a degree in Letters. She spoke several languages, but she was a housewife. One very important influence on me was my maternal grandfather, Afrânio Amaral, who was an outstanding person. He was a doctor, then became director of the Butantan Institute. He taught me Greek and Latin when I spent time at his house. On one of those trips, I found a kind of magazine, which I still have today, with drawings of North American Indians. I was about 14 years old then, and I became interested in the subject. Years later, when I went to live with the Guarani, within a year my grandfather learned to speak their language so he could speak it with me. I also studied at Escola Livre Superior de Música, in Higienópolis: I played recorder and clarinet, and sang. My father didn’t approve, so I started working when I was 15 and my grandfather paid the tuition. I recently got back into playing and singing.

What was university like?
I studied Social Sciences at the University of São Paulo [USP] from 1974 to 1978. In our very first class, I remember that one of the professors, who’s now famous, said: “If anyone came here to work in anthropology, forget it, because the Indians are dying out.”

Did that discourage you?
No, I don’t get discouraged easily.

And then what happened?
During my undergraduate years, I always said I wanted to work with Indians, but there had been a big breakup
between academia and indigenists. The phrase “work with Indians” made no sense. What was accepted was to study the Indians. In 1976, while I was in college, I watched a documentary about the Guarani in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The film had been made by the anthropologist Rubem Ferreira Thomaz de Almeida [1950–2018]. At the end of the screening, he invited interested students to learn more about an ongoing initiative with the Guarani. It was a project done in connection with Paraguayan anthropologists and funded by the German institution Brot für die Welt [Bread for the World], which to this day supports activities with Indigenous peoples around the world. I was finishing my third year of college when I joined the project, then went to the village in January during the following vacation break. I attended the last year of my undergraduate program while going back and forth between Mato Grosso do Sul and São Paulo. As part of this initiative, Almeida and a friend of mine from college, Celso Aoki, were designing a community garden project and traveling from village to village. But I wanted to stay in one place, learn the language, and work with the local women. When I got to the village, there was a whole day of meetings, which is how the Guarani work things out. Speaking only in Guarani, they pointed at me and laughed. Only later did I understand that they were discussing who would adopt the white girl, because the family that adopted me would have to feed, house, and educate me. I was a total ignoramus; I didn’t speak their language. A couple accepted me and that same night I slept at their house. I began to realize our immense ignorance. The only book that existed about them in Brazil, in anthropology, was Aspectos fundamentais da cultura guarani [Fundamental aspects of Guarani culture], written by Egon Schaden [1913–1991].

Did you make a lot of gaffes?It was one gaffe after another. There was one lady, who was my grandmother, so to speak, who avoided me when I went to the fields or to the little river to take a bath. She said my eyes were full of fire
they burned a lot. For a whole year, she hid in the bush when she saw me on the trails so we wouldn’t make eye contact. Little by little, the Guarani educated me. They put a child—7 years old at the time, now a grandmother—in charge of teaching me the basics of behavior. As the months went by, I learned the language and read all the ethnological material available in Paraguay about them.

Did you get married and have kids?
In 1978 I got married and had Laura and Francisco. I already lived with the Guarani and took them, as babies, and later as children, with me to the village. Their father thought it was absurd; he thought that after becoming a mother I would stop working. My second marriage was to someone I met in a course I taught at the Indigenous Missionary Council [CIMI]. Then I had my third son, João Pedro, who didn’t go with me to Guarani territory, but did come with me to the Amazon a lot. My only granddaughter, Luzia, is Francisco’s daughter.

When you started taking your children to the Guarani village, did your acceptance within the community change?
It did. When I took little Laura to Antonina, who was my Indigenous mother-sister, she said: “Leave her here; I’ll educate her much better than you.” Laura was on all fours when she went to the village for the second time, and she went places she wasn’t supposed to. Towards the fire, for example. So, they dug a hole in the courtyard so she could stay in it and learn how to get out of it and then how to walk. In this context of children, a world of conversation opened up to me that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. By taking my children with me I learned a lot about how they educate their own.

In the Munduruku lands, prospectors entered with mining rafts the size of a football stadium

You did pioneering work on school education with the Guarani.
After six months in the village, I already spoke a little Guarani. One day, I met with some women who showed me a notebook—one of those that children practice writing in when learning to read and write—which was used in the school they had there at the FUNAI post. Only they showed me the notebook held upside down! It had figures of grapes, an airplane… The women told me, “Our children are learning this, but we don’t know what it means in Guarani.” I realized that even the drawings had no meaning. The mothers and their children didn’t understand the content. They asked me to teach them to read and write, just like their children. First in Guarani, then in Portuguese.

So it was because of their demands that education became a theme of your work?
Yes. I worked on school education for the rest of my career. This FUNAI post had a little wooden house with a simple cement floor, a small window, a blackboard, and a bunch of half-broken desks eaten by cockroaches. This was the school, which made absolutely no sense to them. I took everything out, opened the windows, and we sat on the floor. But the ground was ice-cold. We started breaking up the cement to make a dirt floor and to light fires, because it was very cold. However, I realized that I was too ignorant to teach the children. They asked me things that I didn’t know how to answer. The Guarani-Kaiowá are familiar with invisible beings, for example, and I didn’t know how to deal with that.

Is Guarani an oral language?
They used graphic symbology. For example, when they drew a certain type of star, it meant that there was firewood in that place. They relied on symbols for trees and beings. On the Paraguayan side of the border, linguists had already transcribed the Guarani language into the Western alphabet. I spent a month and a half there to learn the written language and realized that we needed to train Guarani-Kaiowá teachers in Brazil, who would teach the children. In 1979, we held the first national meeting on Indigenous school education in São Paulo, funded by the Ford Foundation, with the participation of the Pro-Indian Commission and the Department of Social Sciences at USP, among other institutions such as CIMI and FUNAI.

How long did you stay in the village?
Until 1991. I would stay for six months, then return to São Paulo for a few months, and that’s how it went during those years. At that time, in Mato Grosso do Sul, deforestation and the opening of large, commercial farming was taking place. Opening farmland means using two massive tractors with a chain between them that passes through knocking everything down. When ranchers encountered Indigenous communities, they called FUNAI to expel them from the land. Its mission was to remove the people and place them in reserves that Marshal Rondon [1865–1958] had demarcated at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of them was in Taquaperi, where I lived. Entire extended families arrived from other places. This started to generate a lot of conflict in the area and many of these families fled. Since I spoke Guarani, FUNAI asked me to find the displaced people. They were expelled, staying in roadside camps or overcrowded reservations. The Guarani way of being involves etiquette. You never speak angrily with anyone; you never shout. Because of this etiquette, they didn’t react violently to the expulsions, especially since they had been told they could come back later. Their houses were burned, and they were loaded onto trucks. There were a lot of suicides during this time, even among young people.

In the Guarani way of being, you never shout at anyone. Because of that, they don’t react violently to the expulsions

And how did your academic life proceed after that experience?
I entered the master’s program at USP in 1982, when I was still living with the Guarani. I wanted to study what I was actually living through, but the postgraduate anthropologists wanted me to do a theoretical thesis, something that didn’t interest me. So, I went back to the village and, when I got back to São Paulo, I found out that my advisor had dropped me from the program. I didn’t care much, because at that point I didn’t think that academic life was for me.

When did the academy’s view of Indigenous peoples begin to change?
In 1988, with the Constituent Assembly, a new line of theory began to develop in anthropology. According to this current of thinking, the Indians weren’t going to disappear, as previous intellectuals had predicted. Anthropologists such as Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro played a leading role in this process. They began to support the idea that culture involves the mechanisms through which one people comes into contact with others and changes. However, even with this contact, they don’t cease to be that people.

How did you get connected to UNICAMP?
In 1990, I participated in a meeting of Indigenous teachers in Manaus who invited me to go to the upper Rio Negro. They already knew how to read and write and wanted to learn how to develop projects and obtain funding to conduct a demographic census. They were in the process of demarcating their lands and the governor of Amazonas at the time was saying that there were only 3,000 Indians in the region. CIMI was saying there were more like 30,000. Anthropologists working in the region claimed that it wasn’t possible to conduct a census, but I thought it was perfectly feasible. I didn’t know anything about demography, but I went to UNICAMP and talked to Maria Coleta de Oliveira, who later became my doctoral advisor. She’s a demographic anthropologist, though she’d never worked with Indigenous people, but she was visionary and agreed that it would be possible to conduct a census. In 1992, we put together a simple questionnaire, mimeographed it, and did the census in partnership with the Indigenous teachers in the region. We visited 300 villages and counted more than 20,000 people living on the upper Rio Negro.

Is that how you became a demographer?
Yes. When we finished the census, we were even able to create a digital database. We took the first computer to Rio Negro. That region is a frontier. When we arrived, several institutions appeared, such as NGOs and the military, asking for access to our database. The Army wanted to know the locations of all the villages in the region. I said: “The database belongs to the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro.” After that, I started working on a doctorate in demography at UNICAMP. To do my dissertation, I started traveling throughout the communities of the Rio Negro.

Was that when you discovered the growth in the Indigenous population?
My PhD defense was difficult. I had discovered that the average number of children per woman on the Rio Negro was seven. At that time, the average number of children per woman in Brazil was two. Now it’s 1.1. In other words, I was claiming that the average number of children per woman among Indigenous peoples was much higher than the average for the rest of the country and, therefore, they were undergoing population recovery. I was the first to make this claim. The demographers didn’t believe it and I received a lot of criticism. Luckily, there were two anthropologists present on the panel who were observing the same phenomenon on the Rio Negro and the Xingu River who supported me. Until then, the prevailing view was that they would dwindle in numbers until they became extinct.

How did your findings affect the formulation of public policy?
After I showed that Indigenous peoples were experiencing a population recovery, other researchers began to identify the same phenomenon in regions like the Xingu, for example. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, invited me to several meetings and seminars, where we analyzed data and discussed the profiles and demographic dynamics of Indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean. We concluded that this phenomenon of population recovery was happening throughout the region. Based on these findings, in 2001, together with the Brazilian Association of Population Studies [ABEP], we created an Indigenous demography committee. The demographic dynamics of Indigenous peoples in Brazil were completely the opposite of the rest of the population. While Brazilian fertility was falling, Indigenous fertility was rising. We began shining a light on the situation, with public policy in mind. This data needs to be taken into account to calculate the demand for medicines, nurses, health centers, and schools.

I’ll never forget the machete mark on my neck. Every indigenist in Brazil suffers this kind of violence

In 2012 you became the first president of FUNAI.
Since the early 1990s, I’ve been a consultant to the Ministries of Education and Health on issues involving Indigenous education and healthcare. In 2012 I was invited to assume the presidency of FUNAI. When they called me, I asked: “But how many people have you already invited?” I found out I was the seventh. Nobody wanted to be president of FUNAI, because nobody knew what to do with the Indians. I took it on, because I’m an indigenist and I would feel right at home. When I took over, I talked to all the employees. That was the first year that FUNAI implemented its entire budget, it was a lot of work. Just because someone is an anthropologist or indigenist doesn’t mean they’ll be good at implementing public policy. They are different qualities. Work needs to be done to get workers engaged with projects. For example, Indigenous schools can’t be made of cement. It makes no sense to carry cement 500 kilometers upriver from the town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, it makes it too expensive. So, it’s better to build schools using good-quality wood and ecological tile or straw, materials that we can find in the communities, or nearby. In other words, if you don’t know Brazil and public administration, even if you’re a good anthropologist or indigenist, there’s no way you could be a good FUNAI president. I spent just over a year in the presidency. I had a lot of difficulties with the anthropologists and with the government, which wouldn’t make the authorizations I thought were necessary. My health was also affected.

Do you think that the presence of Indigenous people on the board of FUNAI would be a way of guaranteeing good management?
Just as being a woman doesn’t guarantee that one is a feminist, being Indigenous does not guarantee that one is a good indigenist. I don’t think it’s a good idea to stipulate that only they can be FUNAI employees. This is the first lesson: it’s no use knowing anthropology and ethnology if you don’t know what’s actually happening or who’s doing what. I think it’s great that the Indians want to take over FUNAI, but people need to understand that it’s going to be a lot of work and they’re going to have to rely a lot on the indigenists.

How is FUNAI doing today?
The foundation has been militarized and delivered into the hands of evangelical fundamentalist missionaries who want to civilize the Indians and “take the devil out of the body” of Indigenous cultures. It’s implementing very little of its budget. Despite this, it has a corps of very good technical indigenists, who are recent civil service exam graduates, as was the case with Bruno, who was murdered. Before, there were 800 employees, but many have retired. So, we need to open more civil service exam opportunities and train staff, especially in the areas of environmental and territorial management, in addition to creating circular economy projects. One task the foundation has done very little of is to encourage the dissemination of Indigenous culture among non-Indigenous schools.

What do you expect from the next census?
The 1991 Census didn’t cover the remote communities on the Rio Negro, only the cities. I was on the census’s Civil Society Commission when I began fighting to include Indigenous-oriented questions for the census sectors that coincided with Indigenous lands. Based on location, in 2010, census agents began to have access to questions about language and ethnicity. In the census that’s now underway, there is one questionnaire per Indigenous community. In the 1991 Census, 180 peoples were identified. Later, we mapped 305. I think that in the current one we’ll reach 400.

What’s your main activity these days?
I’ve been a researcher at NEPO [Elza Berquó Center for Population Study] since 2005. I passed the competitive exam after I finished my doctorate in 2003. I’m doing action research: research and social intervention. In recent years, I was on the IBGE [Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics] census technical committee, responsible for the quilombolas [areas settled by escaped slaves], which I had to begin studying. I organized my recordings of songs, revisited photos, and will be returning them to the communities through organizing exhibitions and other activities. I also serve as a member of the Advisory Board for the UN Population Fund in Brazil, on the Board of Directors of the Instituto Socioambiental and I’m the coordinator of the ABEP Demography of Indigenous Peoples work group.

How was your life during the pandemic?
I have an immunodeficiency. The doctor doesn’t know whether it was a result of having had a lot of malaria or if it has a genetic basis. So, the pandemic has affected my social life, because I still can’t go places where there’s a lot of people. I can’t take any chances, and it’s no use getting vaccinated because my immune system can’t build defenses. I only see my children and hug my granddaughter wearing a mask. She’s going to be 6 years old. During the first year of the pandemic, before there was a vaccine, I lost many elderly Indigenous friends. Today, I do a lot of things via WhatsApp. We’ve formed an organization called União Amazônia Viva, based on the initiative of photographer Sebastião Salgado. I’m a friend of Expedicionários da Saúde, a nonprofit group of Campinas doctors that does emergency response and is organized around working with Indigenous healthcare. In partnership with doctors who worked in Indigenous lands, such as the Xingu Program of UNIFESP [Federal University of São Paulo] and the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health of the Ministry of Health, they created networks for supplying oxygen. I spent 2020 involved in this project. Lockdowns were necessary in the villages, and they didn’t have any food, so I also helped to organize donations of staple food baskets.

Throughout such a multifaceted career, were there ever any situations that made you fearful?
Many times. When I lived in the village of Taquaperi, in the 1980s, the project I was working on had a house in the city of Amambai, 30 kilometers away. Once every three months or so I went into town. One day, very early in the morning, I woke up and lit the wood stove to make my mate [tea]. I heard a noise at the door, which was unlocked, and a farmer suddenly opened the front door of the house, with a machete in his hand. He put the machete to my neck and said, “You anthropologists have no idea what you’re getting into.” I’ll never forget the machete mark on my neck. He removed the blade without hurting me, but I was left terrified. Before that, I’d already been threatened with rape by truck drivers while I was waiting for the bus on the side of the road. But I carried pepper spray, and I used it on them and managed to get away. When I was president of FUNAI, I also received a lot of threats over the phone and was intimidated by unexpected visitors who showed up in my office. Everyone who is an indigenist in Brazil, at some point, suffers this type of violence.