Endangered Territory: An Amazon Rainforest Ritual of Transition

From sunrise to sundown, parents watched from the sidelines as Indigenous teenagers gyrated in a circle beneath the thatched roof of a hut in Brazil’s Amazonian jungle. A few of the adults puffed on tobacco infused with wood from a nearby tree.

For six grueling days, the Tembé Tenehara youth endured a seemingly never-ending procession, causing some to develop swollen and bandaged feet. Despite receiving minimal sustenance and sleeping in hammocks strung up inside the hut each night, these young individuals persevered in the Alto Rio Guama region, participating in the revered “Wyra’whaw” rite of passage.

Those participating in the “Wyra’whaw” rite of passage had already experienced significant physical changes. The girls had already begun menstruating, while the boys’ once-high voices had started to deepen. On the final day of the ritual, the Teko-Haw village would view the girls and boys as women and men, ushering them into leadership roles as they prepare for an uncertain future.

Concerned about preserving their culture, language, and traditions, Sergio Muti Tembé, the leader of the Tembé community in the territory, spoke candidly with The Associated Press, citing the loss of these precious elements by other Indigenous groups in Brazil. It is customary for members of Indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon to adopt their ethnic group’s name as their surname.

In recent years, the culture of the Tembé, Timbira, and Kaapor ethnicities has been increasingly threatened. Although the Alto Rio Guama territory is a 280,000-hectare (1,081-square-mile) area of preserved forest in the northeastern Amazon, it is surrounded by severely logged landscapes. The territory is home to approximately 2,500 people of the aforementioned ethnic groups.

Despite being a preserved forest, the Alto Rio Guama territory has also fallen victim to illegal occupancy by around 1,600 non-Indigenous settlers, some of whom have been there for decades. Public prosecutors in Para state have reported that many of the settlers engage in illegal activities such as logging the territory’s trees or growing marijuana.

The Indigenous community of the Alto Rio Guama territory has taken on the important task of patrolling and attempting to expel unwanted non-Indigenous settlers from their land. However, due to limited capacity and authority, they have been seeking additional assistance. Last month, state and federal authorities initiated a plan to remove these illegal settlers.

This operation is the first under current Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva aimed at removing land grabbers since a similar initiative to expel illegal gold miners from the Yanomami people’s territory.

As part of their plan, authorities warned that they may need to forcibly remove settlers who refused to leave the territory. Additionally, they pledged to eliminate access roads and any irregular installations. According to a statement released by prosecutors, as of Monday, 90% of the settlers had voluntarily departed. However, the remaining settlers are facing difficulties due to the road damage caused by heavy rainfall. A statement from the general secretariat of Brazil’s presidency confirmed this.

According to a statement released by Nilton Tubino, the coordinator of the operation, it is expected that the total eviction of all remaining settlers from the Alto Rio Guama territory will be completed by the end of this week.

Sergio Muti Tembé, the leader of the Tembé people in the Alto Rio Guama territory, expressed gratitude for the government’s efforts to remove illegal settlers from their land. He believes that this intervention was necessary and has come at an opportune time for his community. Furthermore, he remains hopeful that this will ensure the preservation of both their land and their customs for future generations.

As the Wyra’whaw ritual approached its conclusion, mothers took to painting their children’s bodies with the juice of the genipap fruit. Within a matter of hours, the fruit extract had dyed their skin jet black. The girls experienced a complete transformation as their bodies were painted from head to toe, while the boys had unique designs, including an upside-down triangle across the lower half of their faces, resembling a beard.

The morning after the genipap fruit body paint ritual, each adorned adolescent received a white headband embellished with dangling feathers. Pairs of boys and girls, their arms interlocked, joyfully skipped barefoot around the circle of assembled villagers, symbolizing their transition into adulthood as they approached the ritual’s final stages.