Siã Huni Kuin Case: When the Blindness of Justice Causes the Unfair Condemnatanion of a Great Indigenous Leader of the Amazon Rainforest
By Zezé Weiss –
Near the Rio Branco Palace, in the center of the capital of Acre, on the side of the
Peoples of the Forest Plaza, stands a statue in clay and bronze, to scale, of Chico
Mendes holding a child by the hand. It was there that I found one day, in deep talk,
Siã Huni Kuin exchanging prose with the great rubbertapper leader.
There, in the hot and humid twilight, leaning against one of the many palm trees that
protected Chico Mendes from the street winds, Siã opened his heart to his friend, absent
from this world’s physical space, due to the precise action of a murderous bullet, fired
three decades ago by the latifundio forces.
“Things aren’t easy, Txai. They continue to persecute our peoples, disrespecting our
cultures. But I keep fighting, defending our forest. From time to time I travel, even out
of Brazil. Did you know they are paying us now? What do I do with the money I
make? The same as always, Txai: I invest in my community, on the River Jordão.”
The dialogue of José Osair Sales, born on the Fortaleza rubber ranch, on the banks of
the river Jordão, in 1964, son of Rita Monteiro and the great cacique and main
leadership of the Huni Kuin people, Sueiro Cerqueira Sales, certainly did not take place
this way, in a straight line, because, following the cultural tradition of the Kaxinawá,
Siã doesn’t speak this way; his speech is always elliptical, metaphorical. Its contents,
however, could not be more current.
In 2014, the great leader Siã Huni Kuin, who in the late 1970s, together with other
leaders, fought for the demarcation of the Kaxinawá Indigenous Land of the Jordan
River and then to create a cooperative which, according to the anthropologist Marcelo
Piedrafita, “would collectively organize the production of rubber and the sale of goods
on the rubber trails of his Indigenous Land," embarked on yet another trip to spread the culture of his people to Europe.
In the baggage of Siã, one of many of his rich career of struggles, partly documented by
the anthropologist Mauro Almeida: “In 1989, there was a project to liberate
rubbertappers and farmers on the Upper Juruá from debt slavery. With Terri Aquino’s
help, the Kaxinawá were included. Siã came to São Paulo to make purchases with the
resources attributed to the Jordan Kaxinawá. Together, we strolled through the shops on
Rua 25 de Maio in São Paulo, where everything is cheaper, and Siã filmed the purchase of hammocks and other goods, which he paid with the money he took from a bag. It was
his financial report to his people – he was taking "goods" for a price many times less than what was charged by the bosses and middlemen.
A similar situation happened in 1993, when I received Siã in the United States for
interviews with the Reebok Human Rights Award, of which he was the winner. As an
award-winning forest citizen, Siã gave lectures and, in addition to the thousands of
dollars in prize money, he earned some extra money from the universities.
Paid in cash, he put the dollars in a bag and returned with them to Brazil, without
declaring it to customs, because this procedure of searching another’s backpack was
never part of his people’s rituals.
Years later, when I met him and asked him what he had done with the prize money,
Siã said in the most natural voice in the world: “I stopped in São Paulo, made some
purchases to take to the village. And with the big money I bought a rubber plantation to
expand our Indigenous Land.”
During that trip in 2014, Siã went to Germany where, at Artist Ernesto Neto’s
invitation, he gave a special guest lecture at the HAUX HAUX exhibition, at the Arp Museum
Banhof Rolandseck. From Germany, he went to Spain, where he also lectured at AYA,
the International Ayahausca Conference, a sacred drink used for millennia by the Acre
During this tour, Siã also passed through Vienna and several other European cities,
performing ritual ceremonies and giving lectures. For his work of more than two
months on the Old Continent, he received about five thousand euros, according to
receipts issued by all his contractors.
In December 2014, he returned to Brazil and, as always, stopped in Rio and São Paulo.
As usual, he waited among friends and family for a cheaper ticket to Acre.
In São Paulo, he spent part of the euros shopping for the village before flying home. As
president of the Jordan River Kaxinawá Rubbertapper Association (ASKARJ), one of
the first local indigenous organizations established in Acre, he said that the resources
saved would be invested in the organization he has run since 1988.
On the way, from Rio Branco to Cruzeiro do Sul, he was approached during a federal
police operation, in the town of Feijó. During the search, in his suitcase, police found 39
grams of Cannabis, bought in São Paulo for his own use, and 4,200 euros undeclared, a
value a little above the 10 thousand Brazilian Reais allowed by law.
He was arrested and charged with international drug trafficking. Released by a habeas
corpus, Siã has lived under this weight ever since, having to go to Feijó every month to
prove that he is within the state of Acre and available to justice. On March 19 of this
year, he was sentenced in a first-tier court to ten years in prison.
Given Siã’s track record and the circumstances of his condemnation, defenders of
indigenous and human rights, such as Jairo Lima, specialized in indigenous matters,
consider this sentence hard, unjust and questionable. They claim that in this case, as in so many others, there is a lack of understanding on the part of a justice that, in its traditional blindness has lowered its standardizing, impartial and relentless wrath on an impotent and vulnerable indigenous citizen.
While awaiting second-tier trial, the great leader who dedicated his life to raise funds to
expand and consolidate the collective territory of the Huni Kuin people, made up of
three Indigenous Lands, with 107,603 hectares, now occupied by just over 3,500
indigenous people, distributed in 34 villages, on the Tarauacá and Jordan rivers, Siã has
the support of friends who mobilize in his defense in Brazil and worldwide.
According to the anthropologist Dedé Maia, Siã’s friends are not looking for an
exception to the rule in defense of an indigenous leader. What they want is for those
responsible for justice to understand the social, cultural and historical intricacies of the
condemned citizen, so that Siã’s case is no longer part of this grim statistic of the unfair
processes that have recently been taking our country by assault.
May the innumerous testimonies of Siã’s culture and life, the historical records of his
unwavering commitment to the defense of the peoples of the forest, the proofs of the
lawful payments for his services rendered in Europe, and the intercession of all the
enchanted yuxibus, make the second-tier judge, responsible for Process No. 0500023-
55-2014.8.01.0013, currently being processed in the Criminal District of Feijó, aware of
this factual and cultural evidence.
Only then, a great leader, condemned unjustly, can return to live in peace with his
people in the heart of the forest.