The brevity of our lifetime makes it necessary a brutal imaginative effort to put the vastness of the past into perspective. If what happened a few decades ago seems to have taken place in another era of the world, it is even more difficult to conceive of time scales that make all recorded history through written means turn into the proverbial blink of an eye.
Suddenly, however, this kind of scale became politically and, above all, ethically relevant again. Over the past few days, people in Brasilia spent their breath in Brasilia to decide whether the country’s indigenous lands can only be protected by law if they were occupied by native peoples in 1988, when the present Constitution came into force.
I write this column to say that the choice of 1988 as a “time frame” is a swindle. In fact, even if we chose 1500 as the base year, it would still be stupid. The only acceptable milestone is 15,000 years before the present.
I say this not because it is possible or desirable to make indigenous lands return to what they were when human beings first set foot in Brazilian territory. The very number I’m using is a symbolic rounding – the ancestors of today’s native peoples were certainly here 12,000 years ago, it’s quite possible they had arrived a few thousand years before that, maybe someday we’ll confirm an even older presence.
In any case, using the number is a way of tearing the scales out of our eyes and putting things on the right scale. Every hoodlum or rogue who starts to mumble about “much land for little Indian” should be confronted with the inescapable fact that the peoples who are now denied the right to their land belong to an unbroken lineage of inhabitants, who are here for 30 times longer than any European descendant.
Or there is more than five times the time that separates us from building the pyramids. Or seven times the temporal gulf between us and the rise of Christianity. Use the scale you prefer. From any angle we look at the issue, what emerges is the almost unimaginable durability of the link between these groups and the territory that gained the arbitrary label of “Brazil”.
Notice that I wrote “peoples” in the plural. Fifteen thousand years was enough time for hundreds and even thousands of different ways to build a society to flourish here.
As archeology shows, it was enough time for the country’s own supposedly untouched forests to be turned into gigantic orchards. For the artificial hills of the sambaquis to rise, marking the funerals of a thousand powerful chiefs. So that a good part of the Amazon would be covered with roads, dams and wooden walls.
Most of this richness and diversity has been irretrievably destroyed. This loss is enough to calm the dishonest or ignorant who say they fear that Christ the Redeemer or Avenida Paulista will become indigenous land: the peoples who could claim these places no longer exist.
Those who survived the Apocalypse in miniature of more than five centuries of invasion, however, there is no justification for being denied the land. Any juggling act that seeks to counteract this is nothing more than a thin cloak covering an indecent greed, unworthy of those who stuff their mouths to declare themselves “civilized”.
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