Colonized Bodies: Women, Nature, and Indigeneity

When I first initiated my doctoral project, I wasn’t thinking of any specific gender issue. I focused on analysing the environmental changes that occurred in Western Mato Grosso in Brazil at the turn of the twentieth century.[1] At that time, capitalism had expanded its influence throughout unexploited territories in what were considered “peripheral” countries. In Mato Grosso, a distant Brazilian province right at the confluence between Amazon and Pantanal, international capitals—mainly from England, France, Belgium, and later from the United States—were investing in mining, cattle, rubber, and fur enterprises.

In 1881, an Uruguayan named Jaime Cibils Buxareo bought a one-million hectare farm in Mato Grosso from the powerful manorial family, Pereira Leite. Located between the Jauru river to the north and Uberaba lake to the south, the farm was limited by the Paraguai river to the east, extending beyond the border between Brazil and Bolivia to the west. Cibils also bought a rustic beef jerky production in the sesmaria Descalvado, right in the center of former Pereira Leite’s dominion. Because of its strategic location, it became headquarters of Cibils’s enterprise.

Soon, Descalvados would become the most important industrial establishment in the Mato Grosso province, attracting attention from celebrated journalists, politicians, and entrepreneurs such as Rui Barbosa, Leopold II of Belgium, and Percival Farqhar. Yet before this happened, Cibils worked to modernize the farm’s facilities, installing steam machines, building worker housing, and implementing a small store to engage workers in a credit system—actually a peonage system.

As a member of an extended capitalist network, connected by blood and matrimonial ties, and with business in Cuba, the United States, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, Cibils managed to transform the previous rustic factory in a modern plant which eventually produced more than 100 thousand kilograms of beef extract annually. Through his contacts in Europe, Cibils turned his Descalvados farm into a major exportation company which supplied beef extract to Belgium, Germany, France, and many other countries from the 1880s through the 1910s.

In 1895, Cibils obtained property titles for most of the farm lots of Descalvados. He then raised capital with some Belgian investors and organized a corporation—Cibils Products Companies—which supposedly included partnership with King Leopold II as a false figurehead. Many former members of the Belgian Public Force in Congo went to Mato Grosso in Brazil to assist running the beef extract production. The officer Franz Dionant became Descalvados’s manager and got an authorization from the governor of Mato Grosso to form a militia, allegedly to fight murderers and thieves. In his own words, his army did “wonders” against these Brazilian and Bolivian criminals.

“I myself organized (…) a small militia made up of former sub-officers from the Belgian army, who did wonders against assassins and plunderers we used to have as neighbors in both Bolivian and Brazilian territories.”[2]

This violence alerted me to the obvious fact that the commodification of vast sacred indigenous lands would not come without war: an unfair war over different and incompatible ways of thinking and experiencing the world. While the native population—mainly Bororos but also Chiquitanos, Guatós, and other groups—were fighting for their lives, their cultures, their lands, and their autonomy, the invaders intended to turn nature into an economic resource for power and profit.[3]

Bororos in Descalvados (1895). Photo by Julio Koslowsky.

However, Cibils’s army could not afford to completely exterminate the native population. In order to pursue its capitalist goals, Cibils’s corporation would need a local human workforce, not only to minimize costs, but also because local knowledge would be crucial to colonize this wild area.[4] Obviously, Bororos and the other groups would not agree to provide energy and information freely in service of the takeover of their own territory.

Nevertheless, Cibils’s company, the Brazilian State, and Mato Grosso’s local government had congruent plans for Mato Grosso. They intended to incorporate indigenous lands into a capitalist economy. They would then unite forces to transform the environment of Mato Grosso into economic resources, including the local population who they meant to turn into modern workers. By confining indigenous people to small villages, they reduced their means to survive, forcing them to work in exchange for food. Physical violence was always essential to control them. 

Bororo’s land was occupied by armed men who forced native populations to employ their daily labour in wrangling and preparing cattle for meat production, robbing their time otherwise spent on activities such as hunting, fishing, and cultivating. Dionant wrote of a Bororo young man who captured more than twenty savage bulls in one single day at great risk to his life.

As I went deeper into my research, I realized that Bororo women faced even more violent oppression. In Bororo culture, maternal ancestry determines each person’s place in the social and spatial structure. Moreover, the women are guardians of culture and traditional knowledge. Therefore, in order to dominate the Bororo, Cibils people frequently attacked women through rape, prostitution, aggression, and feminicide. The colonialists also stimulated gender violence within the indigenous community, imposing specific standards to women’s behavior like monogamy and “decency.” Indigenous women had to wear modern clothes to cover their breasts, their genitals, and their thighs.

Furthermore, Brazilian authorities, colluding with capitalists, sent many young Bororo girls to religious missions and brothels far from their original communities. Either sewing, cooking, or copulating, they were compulsorily working for the benefit of national or international colonialists.

Missão salesiana para meninas Bororos (1908), from Brasiliana Fotográfica.

After I finished my thesis, I read a book by Silvia Federici entitled Caliban and the Witch, which theoretically supported all my findings concerning the specific violence perpetrated against Bororo women.[5] Unfortunately, it is not a local misfortune, but a global tragedy. Federici shows that dominating women’s bodies is a fundamental pattern in global capitalism. Since the early times of primitive accumulation, there has been a movement orchestrated by states and capitalist authorities to expropriate women of their reproduction, sexuality, knowledge, and cultural choices.

In this sense, the oppression against women resembles the dominance capitalists attempt over indigenous populations and their lands. As a compression roller, capitalism aims to turn women, nature, and non-white men into things to be used in the interests of few capital accumulators. Thereby, racism, misogyny, and devastation have some common practices to be fought.

As Márcia Kambeba teaches us, we can rewrite history so that all the worlds can fit into this world, where there won’t be dominators and dominated. Let’s respect diversity and difference so we might have a world free from violence and from prejudice.[6]

[1] Alexia Helena de Araujo Shellard, “Viver na fronteira: transformações socioambientais nos sertões do Brasil nos limites com a Bolívia (1881-1912),” PhD diss., Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, 2019.

[2] Franz Dionant, Le rio Paraguay & l’état brésilien de Matto-Grosso (Brussels: L’Imprimerie Nouvelle, 1907).

[3] The Brazilian and Bolivian “criminals” that Dionant wanted to fight were mostly indigenous and quilombolas population who lived near the region.

[4] A wild area refers to a place where political, economic, and social organizations are not capitalist, christian, liberal, national, etc.

[5] Silvia Federici, Calibã e a bruxa: mulheres, corpo e acumulação primitiva (São Paulo: Elefante, 2017).

[6] Márcia Kambeba, “Márcia Kambeba, entrevista concedida a Leno Danner, Julie Dorrico e Ricardo Machado,” Revista Unisinos no. 527 (August 27, 2018). 2018.

Cover Image Credit: Cardoso Ayala and Feliciano Simon, Álbum Graphico do Estado de Matto Grosso (Corumbá, Hamburgo: Ayala e Simon editores, 1914). Image cropped by editor.