Latin America Advisor

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How Should Brazil Resolve Disputes With Its Indigenous?

Antonio Costa (R), who took over Brazil’s National Indian Foundation in January, was sacked last week by officials at the Justice Ministry, a decision Costa says stemmed from his willingness to stand up to powerful political and business elites. // File Photo: Government of Brazil. Antonio Costa (R), who took over Brazil’s National Indian Foundation in January, meets with an indigenous leader // File Photo: Government of Brazil.

In a march that turned violent in Brasília on April 25, indigenous protesters who say farmers are encroaching on their lands clashed with police, with officers launching tear gas and the demonstrators shooting arrows at authorities. The protest happened as lawmakers considered legislation that would transfer the power to set indigenous reservation boundaries from the country’s president to Congress. What is behind the conflict between indigenous groups and farmers in Brazil? Should the government be doing more to mediate land disputes between the two sides? What would be the impact of the legislation giving greater power to Congress to set boundaries of reservations?

Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch: “The very survival of Brazil’s indigenous peoples is imperiled by a spate of threats not seen since the country’s military dictatorship. These threats originate with powerful economic and political actors, principally the ruralista bloc, which represents Brazil’s agribusiness sector and holds many congressional seats and key posts in President Michel Temer’s administration. Indeed, the recently-ousted head of Brazil’s indigenous agency, FUNAI, characterized this bloc’s oversize political influence as a ‘ruralista dictatorship’ that is slashing rights and creating a permissive climate for overt violence against the native minority. It is within this context that police received last month’s historic indigenous mobilization in Brasília with tear gas and rubber bullets. This climate also enabled the barbaric attack on the indigenous Gamela community by ranchers and hired guns. Frustrated by the government’s longstanding refusal to title their ancestral territory, the Gamela staged a land occupation. Their fate, and today’s exponential rise in rural violence, can be directly linked to ruralista efforts to amend the Brazilian Constitution to definitively end indigenous land titling and open currently protected forests to devastating industrial projects. Rather than mediating land disputes, the Temer administration is creating them by allowing land grabbers and their political representatives to set policy. The consequences of these attacks on human rights and environmental protections are manifold: denying indigenous land rights will jeopardize the Amazon’s life-giving ecosystems and, by extension, our collective future. Only the determined efforts of Brazil’s indigenous movement and its allies to counter the ruralista onslaught will ensure native land rights and defend the rainforest.”

Carlos Mateo Paz-Soldan, member of the Advisor board and partner at DTB Associates: “As the global economy reaches into remote and undeveloped areas of the planet in the search for natural resources—whether it is land, fossil fuels, or mineral—indigenous groups and communities that inhabit those areas are increasingly under siege, and most often on the losing side. This is true in Brazil, the United States and elsewhere. Indigenous communities themselves are torn between those who believe isolation or self-determination are the best safeguards of their territories and culture, versus those who believe that integration and adopting global ways are the best approach to confronting demographic, cultural and economic threats from the outside. In 1971, Alaska embarked on a novel approach when the U.S. Congress adopted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). This act established Alaska Native Corporations that covered roughly the same geographic areas traditionally inhabited by the various native groups; assigned the corporations with land ownership and revenue sharing rights; corporations have become a political and economic force in Alaska, with an Alaska Native, Byron Mallott, today in the position of Lieutenant Governor. The ANCSA corporations have also allowed Native peoples to become stakeholders and beneficiaries in the development occurring in their traditional territories, and preserve elements of their culture while better preparing them for the challenges of interacting with a global economy.”

Tom Griffiths, coordinator of the Responsible Finance Programme at Forest Peoples Programme: “Indigenous peoples in Brazil are rightly mobilizing to call for a stop to the intimidation and killings of community leaders who are defending land and territorial rights. The police repression last week in Brasília, seeking to break up indigenous and popular protests against regressive changes to weaken the demarcation ruled for indigenous peoples’ lands, is shocking. Powerful commercial interests and the agro-industry lobby in Brazil are trying to weaken protections for indigenous rights in the Constitution. Indigenous peoples’ organizations and social justice movements are fully right to challenge these potentially harmful reforms. They must be allowed to protest peacefully. At the same time, stronger protection is needed for indigenous leaders threatened by powerful interests that aim to take over community lands. There are high stakes: agribusiness is pushing harder and harder to acquire more land and forests. Pressures are increasing on communities in Brazil as they are in Peru, Colombia, Honduras and Paraguay. Stronger actions must be taken to protect land and forest defenders in Brazil and other Latin American countries.”

Kevin Healy, adjunct faculty member at the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University: “The Brazilian political conflict in front of the national congress building in Brasília in recent days is the latest and one of largest recent mobilizations by indigenous organizations struggling to secure their collective citizenship rights recognized by the 1988 Constitution, a high point in the rebirth of the country’s democracy. The subsequent national governments have been undermining these political, social and cultural rights with various decrees, legal ploys and other measures. Current official initiatives to transfer the authority for demarcating indigenous lands from the national government to the Brazilian Congress dominated by ruralistas, themselves landowners or close allies of elite landowning interests, would represent a huge setback for the 224 indigenous territories where demarcation has been purposely delayed and could be carved up by these non-indigenous interest groups. ‘Demarcation’ has been a rallying cry for decades by indigenous peoples. Without the proper demarcation of land boundaries, indigenous collective territories cannot be legally titled, making them highly vulnerable to land grabs by cattle-ranches, agro-businesses, logging interests, public infrastructural projects and the like. In 2015, a human rights organization of the Catholic Church documented 137 indigenous assassinations by hired guns of mostly expanding economic elite interests, bent on appropriating indigenous lands for ‘development’. Brazilian indigenous peoples have been victims of these gross human rights violations rather than perpetrators of violence. Thus, this push for an institutional role for the Brazilian congress in reversing indigenous collective land rights would represent a huge setback for Brazilian social justice and democracy, as well as the global environmental stakes, with regard to the Amazonian rainforest.”


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