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Film chronicles fight for planet’s ‘lungs’

There’s a quote by the late social justice crusader Upton Sinclair that gets to the heart of climate change inaction with ruthless efficiency.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” the American activist and author once wrote.

The sentiment explains much about why the hunger for political power and personal gain routinely trump the protection of earth’s life support systems.

Those systems include the Amazon basin, the so-called lungs of the planet that once served as a storage system for climate-changing emissions.

These days it’s the reverse, with the forest emitting more carbon dioxide than it can absorb largely due to fires lit to destroy the jungle and make room for commerce.

The flames are a constant menace for Brazil’s indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe, whose war against exploitative forces is examined in the confronting new documentary, The Territory.

Early scenes capture a solemn gathering of tribesmen and women in their rainforest home, listening to a fiery broadcast by Jair Bolsonaro before he became president in 2018.

The far-right leader loudly proclaims that if Brazilians choose him “NGOs won’t get any money. Every citizen will have a firearm in the house. There won’t be one more inch of indigenous reserve”.

The proclamations won favour with Brazil’s non-indigenous poor, who have long considered indigenous territories a wealth-skewing injustice that locks up land for the few.

As one landless farm worker says in the documentary: “The Uru-eu-wau-wau – they don’t farm or create anything. They just live there.

“I’ve spent my whole life working on other people’s land. I’ve always said some day I’ll get my own … my dream is about to come true.”

In the almost four years since Bolsonaro was elected, illegal logging and mining has surged.

And he’s spent much of his term pushing for the development of the Amazon including expanding mining and commercial farming activities, while slashing environmental protections and funding for the indigenous protection agency.

The Territory is the story of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe’s fightback against farmers intent on colonising and clearing land with chainsaws, bulldozers and fire.

It documents the tribe’s use of drones and GPS technology to find and chase off invaders, of dramatic citizens’ arrests staged in the jungle, of raids on the colonisers huts, and their determination to film it all and show the world.

Txai Surui is a 24-year-old indigenous activist from the Amazon and was a executive producer on the documentary.

She made headlines last year when addressing world leaders at the Glasgow climate change summit, telling them: “The earth is speaking. She tells us that we have no more time.”

Now in Australia to promote the film’s limited release, Surui hopes it will be the Amazon’s most powerful weapon of recent years, and that it will remind world leaders and citizens to look beyond self interest.

“It’s not only about the Amazon,” she said this week. “What happens with us, in the Amazon, in the forest, will have consequences for the whole world.”

Brazilians are headed for the polls again next month, with Bolsonaro trailing leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

In the eight years Lula was president, from 2003 to 2010, he established policies that dramatically slowed tropical forest loss.

Under Bolsonaro, deforestation rates have soared with scientists warning the Amazon is approaching a point of no return, beyond which the rainforest will not recover and will degenerate into a dry savanna.

Surui says Lula has done terrible things in the past to indigenous Brazilians but he is the lesser of two evils and hopes he can keep the lead he has over Bolsonaro as election day approaches.

“In the past Lula did bad things to the indigenous people. But now he’s the only one talking to us, with the indigenous movement in Brazil,” she says.

“He promised he would appoint a ministry for indigenous people. He promised he will take the illegal miners off our land. He promised he would change. Lula is the best option right now.”

The Territory, directed by Alex Pritz and produced by Gabriel Uchida, is being shown at limited public screenings in Australia.

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