Brazilian Indigenous Service Members: Essential Assets of the Armed Forces

Brazilian Indigenous Service Members: Essential Assets of the Armed Forces

By Nelza Oliveira/Diálogo
December 19, 2017

No Brasil, todos são brasileiros. Não temos brancos, pretos ou indígenas. Todos somos miscegenados culturalmente. Somos todos brasileiros. Selva! There are still officially very few Brazilian indigenous service members in the country's Armed Forces, but their contribution is essential to military work, especially in the extensive border regions of great logistics difficulties, such as the Amazon. “Without a doubt, indigenous service members have great inherent knowledge to contribute to military exercises, especially with combat doctrine of special forces and small factions in jungle areas,” said Brazilian Army (EB, in Portuguese) Colonel Irtonio Rippel, director of the Ministry of Defense's Military Personnel Division.



“Indigenous cultural knowledge on how to get water and natural food, how to move in the jungle quickly and quietly, how to ambush, guide and engage in stealth combat are very important and often characteristic to certain regions of the Amazon,” said Col. Rippel. “The same goes for indigenous people of the Pantanal.” The region is the largest floodplain in the world at around 250,000 square kilometers, 62 percent of which is located in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul with the rest spread between Bolivia and Paraguay.



Indigenous experience



Indigenous service members, Col. Rippel said, are not only deployed in border platoons, but also in jungle infantry battalions and other units and subunits of the Amazon region’s towns, such as Barcelos, Cruzeiro do Sul, and Teté. According to Col. Rippel, the deployment is essential due to the important and traditional knowledge they bring. “In border platoons, inclusion of indigenous youths leads to an immediate sense of identification and a commitment of mutual support between the community and a small military unit,” Col. Rippel explained.



São Gabriel da Cachoeira is located in the northeastern region of the state of Amazonas, 860 kilometers from the state capital, Manaus, on the border with Colombia and Venezuela. More than 92 percent of its territory is classified as indigenous land and indigenous people comprise 76.6 percent of its population. The municipality is home to 23 ethnicities, three official languages (Tukano, Baniwa, and Nheengatu), in addition to Portuguese, and counts seven different indigenous territories.



In addition to innate knowledge, the ability to communicate in the different dialects of the local tribes makes indigenous service members even more valuable to the Armed Forces, facilitating communication as interpreters and negotiators with the community. Indigenous service members’ knowledge on jungle survival and combat are part of courses held at the Jungle Warfare Training Center,a Manaus-based hub that trains elite EB units. The center is also an international reference in jungle warfare techniques.



Higher numbers



Because ethnicity in Brazil is self-declared, the number of indigenous service members in the Armed Forces may be much higher than official records indicate. In the Brazilian Air Force for example, only 165 of the 65,500 service members declare themselves indigenous. In the EB, the number is 369 of a total force of 220,000.



“There are many more than those who declare themselves. Today, the question of being indigenous is one of dignity and pride for many people. I would say that 80 percent say they are proud to call themselves indigenous in this area,” says EB First Sergeant José Maria Nascimento, of Baré descent, born in the indigenous community of Alto Rio Negro, one of the indigenous territories of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, where he currently serves. “In small towns, communities and villages of the Western Amazon, the population is predominantly indigenous,” said Col. Rippel.



According to Col. Rippel, serving in the military opens up a range of opportunities for indigenous people, such as access to formal education, culture, civics, health, dental, and social care, as well as professional technical training. In many places, he added, recruits’ salaries make them some of the highest-paid people in their families or communities.



“I regard it as a great opportunity that we have, especially for a means of survival,” said 1st Sgt. Nascimento. “Today, I can also see my daughter having the opportunity to study in the Military School. She wants to pursue a military career.”



We are all the same



Since his indigenous community only offered schooling up to eighth grade, 1st Sgt. Nascimento left Alto Rio Negro and moved to São Gabriel da Cachoeira to continue his studies. He later joined the Army, and in 2005 began studying mathematics at the University of Amazonas. First Sgt. Nascimento came back to the Army reserves.



EB Major General Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, of Maués descent, is the first indigenous service member to reach this rank. He was appointed to the chair of the National Indigenous Foundation in May. EB First Lieutenant Sílvia Nobre, of Waiãpi descent from the state of Amapá, is the first indigenous woman to become an officer. She is head of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation/Physiotherapy at the Central Army Hospital, the largest military hospital in Latin America. These examples show that indigenous service members can achieve higher ranks in the Armed Forces.



“A military career is open to people of all ethnicities,” said 1st Sgt. Nascimento. “We already have many high-ranking indigenous service members here: physicians, psychologists, first lieutenants, captains, and majors. The inclusion of indigenous people in the Army has been very fruitful,” he concluded.
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