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Brazil’s Land Battles

Brazil’s indigenous communities are facing growing threats to their homes and safety. Over the last year, lawmakers have proposed measures to revoke land rights enshrined in the country’s 1988 constitution, open large tracts of environmental (and indigenous) reserves to private interests, and press charges against dozens of indigenous-rights activists.

Brazil is also facing a severe political and economic crisis in the form of a massive corruption scandal that took down former President Dilma Rousseff and left her successor, Michel Temer, with single-digit approval ratings. At the same time the country’s economy—the largest in South America—recently experienced its worst recession in memory, imperiling indigenous rights in the process. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) has seen massive budget cuts, and rights groups have noted an uptick in violence related to rural land disputes. U.N. officials have noted a “worrisome regression” in the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights.

“We’re fighting not only for our lives but also for our way of life,” says Sônia Guajajara, the executive coordinator of APIB, Brazil’s Association of Indigenous People. She spoke with World Policy Journal about challenges indigenous peoples face across Brazil and her hopes for the future.

Danielle Renwick

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I come from the Guajajara tribe in the Araribóia indigenous territory in the northeastern state of Maranhão. There are 28,000 Guajajara people who live in 10 indigenous territories across Brazil. We’ve seen a lot of natural devastation in my lifetime: When I was a kid we used to hunt and fish, and we had access to clean water. Our land has since been deforested, and there’s less to hunt. The fish—a staple of our diet—have gone away, and the creeks have dried up. We now eat foods from outside of the community. All this has changed our way of life.

When you guarantee indigenous rights, you’re naturally guaranteeing conservation. Indigenous groups take care of the environment—it’s part of our way of life. When our land rights are taken away it opens the door to all kinds of exploitation—particularly to farming and mining, which destroy the land. Indigenous territories represent about 12.5 percent of Brazil’s total landmass. Illegal loggers, miners, and squatters continue to encroach on our territory, but due to a lack of political will and competing economic interests, the state is reluctant to take action against them. My own community lives close to illegal settlements and logger encampments, which puts us at constant risk of violence.

I don’t consider myself an activist. I’m a leader who defends indigenous social, environmental, and cultural rights. The Constitution guarantees our rights to land, justice, education, health, and social security, but even so, we don’t always have access to these things in practice. In addition to ensuring land and food security, there’s also a need for basic health services in indigenous villages, as we’re seeing more and more cases of diabetes, colon cancer, and high blood pressure that could easily be prevented. Fighting for such rights is made more difficult by the fact that indigenous people face discrimination and stereotypes—people think we have no place in the cities; that we don’t wear modern clothes or use cell phones. Many Brazilians are unwilling to accept the idea that indigenous people are the original inhabitants of the land.

My organization, APIB, brings together different indigenous and nonindigenous groups—environmental and human rights associations, residents of quilombos [settlements formed by the descendants of escaped slaves], student groups, and activist media—to advocate for indigenous rights before Congress. We try to block measures that would take away our rights, and we advise the few representatives in Congress who support and defend indigenous communities.

To take one example, there’s a worrisome debate happening right now over the so-called statute of limitations on land claims. Brazil has a powerful agricultural industry that is pressuring lawmakers to loosen laws and facilitate outside access to our lands. In July, President Temer signed off on a recommendation supporting the idea that any indigenous group that was not occupying its ancestral land in 1988 [the year the country adopted its current constitution] could lose its right to that land. At the time, many indigenous groups had been illegally expelled from their land. That cutoff point is known as the marco temporal, and it places indigenous groups in a precarious situation. APIB and other indigenous-rights groups have protested these measures and denounced them to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Indigenous groups are often treated as trespassers on our own land, even by the Brazilian government. We have come to expect that illegal mining and logging, and the conflicts that frequently follow, will be met with impunity. Many indigenous people have been killed in land disputes, and there’s usually no investigation, punishment, or justice. [Editor’s note: According to the Pastoral Land Commission, nearly 1,400 people have been killed in land disputes in Brazil since 1985, and only 112 of those cases were brought to trial; the organization reported 42 land conflict-related deaths in the first six months of 2017.]

Temer has no indigenous policy. What he has are alliances and agreements with agribusinesses and mining companies. It’s in his interest to hand over land to the sectors that support him and keep him in power, and under his tenure we’ve seen a brutal attack on the government institutions responsible for safeguarding indigenous rights.

FUNAI is the most important of these bodies—it is responsible for demarcating indigenous territories and overseeing the protection of indigenous rights—yet it has been weakened and turned over to people with no commitment to indigenous communities [Editor’s note: FUNAI’s budget was reduced by over 40 percent last year, and the head of the agency, Antonio Fernandes Toninho Costa, was removed after criticizing the cuts.] Their loyalties are instead with the “ruralist” bloc, an influential group in Congress with ties to landowners, farmers, and speculators.

Last May, deputies in Congress tried to dismantle FUNAI, stripping it of its responsibility to demarcate indigenous territories, and recommended bringing charges against 67 indigenous-rights leaders, reportedly over fraudulent land claims. [Editor’s note: To date, FUNAI retains control over land demarcation. Three United Nations experts and a rapporteur from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights denounced the congressional report.]

Other disturbing rollbacks have taken place. Brazil is home to some of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, and many of FUNAI’s operations to protect these tribes have been shut down due to budget and personnel cuts. Meanwhile, illegal miners and loggers are encroaching on tribal lands, and even killing people. [Editor’s note: FUNAI has closed five bases used to monitor isolated tribes, and in September, federal authorities opened an investigation into the reported killing of 10 members of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon by gold miners.]

For things to change the government needs to recognize indigenous groups as a fundamental part of Brazilian society, and respect our rights. We need to strengthen and fund indigenous political institutions, like FUNAI, COIAB [Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, founded in 1989], and APIB [established in 2005]. This won’t fix everything, but it’s a start.

Despite all the challenges we face, I’m optimistic. We’re gaining allies and visibility.

It’s a time of uncertainty, but we’re gaining strength.

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Danielle Renwick is a New York-based journalist.

[Photo courtesy of Senado Federal]

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