Latin America Advisor

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Will Brazil Allow Development on Indigenous Lands?

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro // File Photo: Brazilian Government Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro // File Photo: Brazilian Government

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro this month unveiled legislation that would allow commercial mining on protected indigenous lands, delivering on a campaign promise that has sparked controversy among tribal leaders and environmentalists. The bill would regulate mining, including oil and gas projects, as well as hydroelectric dams, on indigenous reservations for the first time. Will the contentious bill make it through Brazil’s Congress? What advantages and disadvantages would come with developing such untapped areas? Do the benefits of potential economic growth outweigh the costs?

Isabella Alcañiz, associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland: “Brazil has more isolated and uncontacted indigenous tribes than any other country in the world, and the vast majority of these communities live in the Amazon region. The Brazilian constitution protects the integrity of these vulnerable indigenous peoples by guaranteeing their access to land, banning economic development and requiring the intervention of Congress to change that. As a presidential candidate, Bolsonaro had promised already to overturn these constitutional protections. Even with the exceptional legislative powers the Brazilian president has, the bill will have a hard time making its way through Congress successfully. The national legislature of Brazil is extremely fragmented, and the president’s party does not have a majority. Still, Bolsonaro seems quite determined to blow up the world’s largest tropical rain forest and its extremely vulnerable citizens. Increased industrial activity in protected areas will destroy the Amazon and its one-of-a-kind native people. Deforestation rates in the region are already breaking records under the Bolsonaro administration, except in the indigenous-protected areas. There is no advantage to ‘developing’ the Amazon rain forest. It would be equivalent to tearing down the Louvre to make room for new property development because the museum is located in prime real estate. Adding insult to injury, Bolsonaro appointed an evangelical missionary as head of the state organization in charge of protecting uncontacted indigenous tribes.”

Leni Berliner, president and CEO of Energy Farms International: “It is one thing to ‘inhabit and exclusively possess’ an area of land, as indigenous people do per the Brazilian constitution, and quite another to establish and maintain control over that land. Brazil’s experience with agriculture has shown the weakness of territorial management. Regulation of mining is far more desirable than the conditions of informal mining that persist in Brazil. Companies in the extractive industries should be allowed to compete for exploration and operating concessions in indigenous territory. Currently, metal mining and industrial mineral production take place primarily in states with very small areas of indigenous territory, beginning with Minas Gerais, where the indigenous territory comprises a mere 0.11 percent of the total land area. There is some mining and smelting in states with significant (more than 10 percent) indigenous territory, including in Amazonas, Bahia, Goias, Pará, Pernambuco and Rondônia. Petrobras also operates in Amazonas. Hydroelectric development in Brazil should be limited to low-head and run-of-river hydro in order to protect upstream water ecosystems. To the extent the bill would establish a basis for growth of sustainable extractive industries, it should be welcome. Available alternatives in indigenous territories seem to be limited to timber and biotrade, which does not generate much in the way of income.”

Jana Nelson, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “Strategically, in the 1980s, Brazil established protected indigenous lands that overlapped with rare earth mineral deposits. It served both to protect indigenous communities and to maintain a strategic reserve of rare earths. The Brazilian constitution requires that any changes to the legal protections of those lands be done in coordination with indigenous communities. President Bolsonaro’s legislation did not include input from the communities and, therefore, is unlikely to pass Congress as is. The economic advantages of access to these areas is evident. The disadvantages are not just displacement of communities and environmental destruction. Mining and exploration in the region, with little government oversight, could, and has in the past, resulted in labor rights violations, human trafficking of women to the region and environmental disasters arising from weak safety regulations. The benefits of potential economic growth do not outweigh the potential costs, as long as the Brazilian government is not able to regulate and oversee these areas and infrastructure.”

Luiza Lima, public policies campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil: “On the eve of an international mining event in Toronto, Bolsonaro sent to Congress Bill 191/2020, which authorizes the opening of indigenous lands for mineral and energy exploration. In short, Bolsonaro wants to sell the Amazon to predatory national and international interests, including some criminal mafias currently operating along the Amazon basin. If approved, it will lead to forest destruction, land conflict and violence. According to the bill, indigenous people would only be ‘heard,’ without the right to veto these activities in their own territories. The final decision would remain at the president’s or, in some cases, Congress’ hands. The project goes against the constitution, which recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to decide how they want to live, according to their customs and traditions. Since indigenous lands play a key role in protecting the forest, it also consolidates the Bolsonaro government’s of the Amazon. We now see that everything was just marketing and that the president’s real intention is to devastate the Amazon. Since a nearly 30-percent deforestation increase was announced in November, no concrete measures have been taken to contain destruction. On the contrary, the government only awarded land grabbers, and now it opens the door to devastation of indigenous lands. The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, publicly committed to shelve a project of this nature last November. Nevertheless, the same day he received the bill, he broke his promise and created a special commission to evaluate it. Different parties are now submitting requests for the bill’s rejection, in light of its unconstitutionality. It is time for Maia to comply with the constitution and its commitment to the Brazilian population and reject this insane bill.”


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