Radio Yandê founder Renata Machado. Rádio Yandê is one of the few outlets in Brazil to tell the stories of the country's indigenous people on their own terms. (Alfredo Boc Boc)
Radio Yandê founder Renata Machado. Rádio Yandê is one of the few outlets in Brazil to tell the stories of the country's indigenous people on their own terms. (Alfredo Boc Boc)

How Brazil’s ‘ethno-communicators’ are helping indigenous people find their voice

The people who run Radio Yandê, a Brazilian digital portal dedicated to indigenous issues, have many words to define what they do, but even though the site has stories, video and audio, none of those definitions include the word journalist.

“What we do is ethno-communication,” said Renata Machado, a Tupinambá who co-founded the portal five years ago. “It’s communication with identity, not journalism but communication in every sense. Journalism imposes through formats but indigenous people have their own cultural ways of communicating.”

The reluctance to define themselves as journalists is partly down to culture and partly down to semantics, as well as a controversial law (no longer active) that ruled only those with journalism degrees could call themselves journalists.

But it also reflects the reality of an exclusion that is extreme even in a country notorious for its inequality. Brazil, the most populous country in Latin America with 208 million people and close to a million indigenous citizens, has almost no indigenous journalists working at major media outlets and very few publications or sites dedicated exclusively to indigenous issues.

That exclusion is not restricted to indigenous journalists; most of Brazil’s minorities are under-represented in traditional newsrooms. However, for people who still suffer from extreme prejudice and violence more than 500 years after the first Portuguese touched land in Brazil, the dearth of indigenous voices–and with it information on policy, security and other crucial issues–is an additional hurdle in a life already replete with intractable obstacles.

“The history of indigenous people in Brazil is different to that in other countries of Latin America,” said Ailton Krenak, a 64-year old journalist who was one of the indigenous pioneers when he wrote an article for the well-known newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo 35 years ago. “There were no indios [indigenous people] who could read or write in Portuguese until the 1970s and 1980s. Indios were more worried about not being killed. We never had the right to live like normal people, never mind the right to read or write.”

The lack of indigenous people in Brazilian journalism is no surprise; the illiteracy rate in the indigenous community stands at 23.3 percent, more than twice the national figure of 9.6 percent, according to the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI), a Catholic Church-run charity that has been working with communities across Brazil since 1972.

The size and complexity of Brazil is also a factor, said André Villas-Bôas, the executive secretary of the Instituto Socioambiental, an environmental rights NGO. With close to a million indigenous people from 242 communities speaking 160 languages often thousands of miles apart, indigenous people rarely communicate amongst themselves, never mind the outside world, Villas-Bôas said.

Unlike South American neighbors such as Bolivia, Chile and Peru, Brazil’s indigenous people do not have the same active networks and there are relatively few of them in powerful positions who are working to change the status quo.

In journalism, as in almost all spheres of public life, indigenous people are either underrepresented or not represented at all.

“There are no strong news publications because for that you’d need investment,” Daniela Alarcon, a Brazilian anthropologist and journalist who studies the Tupinambá community in their heartland in southern Bahia state, told CPJ. “There is a lack of that kind of initiative.”

“If you compare Brazil with Chile, for example, where indigenous people have been going to university for a long time, then things are very different here. There are very few [indigenous people] in public positions in Brazil, in all of our history we’ve had only one indigenous deputy elected to Congress.”

Nevertheless, some organizations have taken tentative steps toward claiming a presence online.

A member of Rádio Yandê speaks with demonstrators as they hold tear gas capsules, during a rally in 2017. (Daiara Tukano)
A member of Rádio Yandê speaks with demonstrators as they hold tear gas capsules, during a rally in 2017. (Daiara Tukano)

Radio Yandê is one of the few outlets seeking to tell the stories of indigenous peoples and communities on their own terms. Meaning ‘Our Radio’ in the Tupi group of languages, the web-based radio station and aggregator was founded in 2013 and features recordings of indigenous music from around the world as well as news about regional gatherings and symposiums of indigenous groups in Brazil.

Another is Índios Online, a volunteer-run site that features stories and photo-essays about indigenous events from across Brazil. News content, however, is sporadic and localized, with recent features including a one-paragraph note on a protest by a Kariri-Xocó over the state of the San Francisco River, and news of an assembly of Pankararu people in Pernambuco state.

For both sites, contributors and funding are forever in short supply and much of the content is focused on global indigenous questions rather than on-the-ground stories affecting indigenous communities in Brazil.

The absence of reportage or regular contributors is exacerbated by poor communications with remote communities. Not all are connected to the internet and some are not even accessible via mobile phones, making it hard to share stories, video and audio files, Machado said.

“For these spaces to gain projection they want to mimic the mainstream,” Krenak told CPJ. “They are trying to find ways to be attractive. I admire what they are doing and support them. If we didn’t have them then it would be only CIMI and Funai (the National Indian Foundation), and for all the good that they do they are not the voices of indigenous peoples but the voice of the Catholic Church and the state. I still think it will be a long time before indigenous people catch up and do the same as other citizens in taking the initiative to write and publish independently.”

Krenak declared himself pessimistic and said he did not believe indigenous peoples would find a significant voice any time soon. Others, however, said even though their concerns are underreported they are reaching greater audience than ever before thanks to modern technologies.

“There have been advances,” said Mayra Wapixana, an indigenous leader in Roraima state, where land conflicts are common. “The communication network used by indigenous peoples is more and more consolidated, more and more active.”

“WhatsApp, Facebook, these medias are being used a lot,” she added. “Technology is very present, they have internet in the community, they have cellular phones. The question mark is over how we use those mediums for our cause, so that they can be useful.”