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BRASILIA, Brazil – More than 1,000 indigenous Brazilians gathered outside Congress Wednesday for an annual three-day campout to protest what they see as rollbacks of indigenous rights under President Jair Bolsonaro.
Tents dotted the lawn in front of the National Congress, where indigenous leaders sang, danced and sold crafts while wearing traditional feathered headdresses with their faces painted red and black.
The event, known as the Free Land Encampment, began its 15th edition with a sense of animosity toward Bolsonaro, whose policies indigenous leaders are calling the biggest setbacks to their peoples' rights in recent history.
"This government came in immediately attacking us and our rights in a way we haven't seen before," said Paulo Tupiniquim, executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil, which organized the event. "We are here to show that we will resist and will not accept our rights being taken away."
The government has called in National Guard forces for security at the encampment as a "preventative measure."
At the same event in 2017, police shot tear gas at the indigenous protesters who retaliated by shooting at them with bows and arrows.
"We are not violent. Violent are those who attack the sacred right to free demonstration with armed troops," the organizers wrote in a statement protesting the National Guard presence. "They're trying to take the right to come and go from Brazilians who have walked these lands since long before 1500" the statement read, referencing when European colonizers first came to Brazil.
Before becoming president, Bolsonaro promised that if he were elected, "not one more centimeter" of land would be given to indigenous groups and likened indigenous people living in reserves to caged animals in zoos.
On his first day as president, Bolsonaro transferred the authority to designate indigenous land and to grant environmental licenses for businesses on indigenous reserves from the government's indigenous affairs agency to the agriculture ministry. Activists say the move will practically paralyze land allocations and facilitate operations for agribusiness and mining.
Bolsonaro's health minister sparked protests across the country last month when he proposed eliminating the federal indigenous health care program and putting indigenous health care needs in the hands of municipalities. Indigenous groups say that the current program is designed to attend to their specific needs in indigenous languages.
"The government is completely anti-indigenous," Joenia Wapichana, an indigenous congresswoman, told The Associated Press at the protest. "The government is not open to us. He is open to those who defend mining and land grabbing, which is his intention."