Indigenous communities under critical threat in Brazil

Indigenous communities under critical threat in Brazil

People of the Guarani tribe from Pico de Jaraguá, near São Paulo, protest against the proposal to reform the indigenous land demarcation system, on 28 April 2017.

(Gustavo Basso)

Brazil, caught in the grip of economic and political crises for several months, is totally neglecting the indigenous issue. Worse still, the situation is fuelling attacks against Amerindians and their most basic rights. Their survival has never been so threatened.

At the beginning of June, the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed serious concerns over these attacks. “Against this backdrop, Brazil should be strengthening institutional and legal protection for indigenous peoples,” representatives from the two organisations stated in a joint press release. “It is highly troubling that, instead, Brazil is considering weakening those protections.”

So how and why are the risks faced by indigenous people being heightened? It should be noted, first of all, that the situation of Brazil’s 900,000 or so indigenous peoples was already far from ideal under the governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Although the Brazilian constitution established, 30 years ago, that all indigenous ancestral lands should be registered (through the demarcation process) and therefore protected, the country continues to be the scene of endless land disputes, some fought in the courts and others with arms. Meanwhile, the living conditions of indigenous peoples have become ever more precarious over time.

And since the coming to power of President Michel Temer, back by a very conservative Congress, all remaining hopes of seeing an improvement in their situation have disappeared. The power wielded by the ‘ruralist’ bloc of parliamentarians, who defend agribusiness interests, has been magnified by the weakening of the executive, caught up in a morass of corruption related scandals, as well as by a recession in which only agriculture and raw materials are still managing to keep the economy afloat.

All indicators in the red

“It’s not only the landowners attacking us now, but our own government,” says the Guarani chief Ladío Verón, from Mato Grosso. For indigenous leaders and those defending their cause, all the indicators are in the red.

The new president, for example, began by appointing Blairo Maggi, the “King of Soy” as his minister for agriculture. Maggi, made his fortune in the Mato Grosso region, one of the hotspots in terms of land disputes. The state has not approved the demarcation of a single indigenous territory for over a year – a process requiring the signature of the justice minister and the president.

The national foundation in charge of indigenous affairs, FUNAI, a public body, has seen its budget almost halved, and the replacement of one director after another in recent months.

“These budget cuts are compounded by political interference and the appointment of people known for their anti-Indian actions, contributing to the militarisation of the FUNAI, with the appointment of an army general as the foundation’s president,” comments Felipe Milanez, social science professor at the University of Bahia and a writer specialising in the Amazonian environment and indigenous issues.

Some members of the Brazilian Congress would like to see the 50-year-old institution completely dismantled: a report drawn up following a parliamentary commission of inquiry considered the foundation to be “over-protective and paternalistic”.

The FUNAI, made up of on-the-ground specialists and scientists, including numerous anthropologists, is the last rampart protecting indigenous cultures and way of life in the face of powerful economic interests.

“The FUNAI is the only government agency in which Indians still have any faith,” notes Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. During her last visit to Brazil, she was able to see how the budget cutbacks were directly affecting the human resources on the ground. Almost 350 jobs and 50 local coordination offices were cut in March. And yet it is precisely when no FUNAI agents are in place to keep watch over what is happening in remote regions that the violence reignites.

Tauli-Corpuz warns that if the foundation were to disappear, it would be a step backward in the protection of indigenous lands. “We are particularly concerned about future land demarcation procedures but also about the future of indigenous lands that have already been recognised,” said the UN Special Rapporteur.

The biggest fear among Brazil’s 300 tribes is the prospective change in the land demarcation procedure. Constitutional amendment 215 (PEC 2015) is a long-standing proposal that has never been as close to being adopted.

“I can only hope that it will not and that the indigenous movements will also manage to mobilise Brazilians to put pressure on Congress,” Milanez told Equal Times. “But it is true that the proposal is creating panic among Indians, as it would put an end to land rights and mark the opening of a new colonial era in Brazil.”

The amendment proposes to transfer the power to ratify land allocations from the executive to parliamentarians. Given the composition of Congress – leaning much more towards protecting economic interests in the agricultural, mining and construction sectors than indigenous rights – there is good reason to fear that indigenous peoples will have even less of a voice and could even be stripped of their rights.

“It’s like an atomic bomb that could kill all the Indians of Brazil,” summarises indigenous leader Adalto Guarani. Indigenous rights defenders such as the NGO Survival International agree that what is happening in Brazil could lead to a genocide.

The rate of murders targeting indigenous leaders, environmental defenders and landless farmers has increased dramatically in the context of the current tensions in Brazil. And the climate of impunity is making matters worse.

“Those who are looking to accumulate land, in whatever way they can, have found an opportunity to accelerate the process and apparently feel confident that they can do so with total impunity,” denounces Jeane Bellini, national coordinator of the Comissão Pastorale da Terra (CPT - Pastoral Land Commission), recalling that only 112 of the 1800 murders perpetrated since 1985 have gone to trial.

Those who killed Marcos Verón in 2003 have not yet been convicted of this crime. His son, Guarani chief Ladío Verón is now trying to alert Europeans to the threats hanging over their territory in Mato Grosso, through an international awareness-raising tour passing through several countries.

“The issue needs to be given exposure outside of Brazil,” insists Felipe Milanez. “Brazil is going through a moment of lethargy in which these atrocities are simply being normalised, nothing is happening, no one is rising up, it’s terrible.”

This story has been translated from French.