From homeland to terra incognita, the indigenous lands of Brazil have today fallen prey to a draconian decree
A GOVERNMENT decree which had put the
indigenous lands of Brazil up for grabs,
is being contested for demarcating 70
indigenous areas and reserves. Till this
date, more than 1, 100 actions have been
registered with the National Indigenous
Foundation (Funai) in this regard. This
is seen as a direct reflection of the decree
signed by the President Fernando
Henrique Cardoso on January 8, 1996.
Brazilian indigenous movements,
progressive NGOS and church organisations have claimed that the decree is
an open invitation to land owners, miners and wood dealers to contest the
demarcation of indigenous reserves.
According to the Sao Paulo-based NGO
Social - Environmental Institute (Isa),
each contestatory action presented a
consistent anthropological report to
support the legal effort.
From April 10, Funai has 60 days
and the Brazilian ministry of justice has
30 days to appreciate the contestatory
actions. Isa affirms that the final decision will be based upon political criteria.
Since the time of its signing, the
decree has faced radical opposition by
progressive grassroots movements in
the country. The Indigenous Missionary
Council (Cimi), an organ of the
Brazilian Catholic Church and the most
important organisation defending the
indigenous peoples of the land, says that
i:the decree "impedes the growing of
Indigenous territories which already are
insufficient for the physical and cultural
survival of the indigenous peoples",
and cites the abject condition of
the Guarani-Kaiowa people inhabiting
the northeastern state of Mato Grosso
"Confined to extremely small reserves, 211 young Indians have committed
suicide in the last decade due to the
absolute lack of surviving with dignity,"
said Cimi officials. Such fate, under the
decree's conditions, have also befallen
the inhabitants of the Guarani-Kaiowa
lands, say reports.
Most surprising, however, was the
position of the Brazilian Institute of
Environment and Natural Renewable
Resources (lbama), the country's most
important environmental protection
agency which contested 19 indigenous
lands, including the Raposa Serra do Sol
reserve in Rondonia state.
Coincidentally, this reserve has been invaded over the years by land owners
and miners on account of its huge
preserve of plywood trees and the
rich sub-oil which hides a varying range
of precious minerals. The Rondonia
government contested even those
indigenous reserves which were
originally demarcated and regularised
by the state itself.
Several private companies have
also entered Funai armed with administrative powers based on the decree.
For example, a wood dealer group
Sattin, which exports timber woods to
Europe, the us and Japan, has been
demanding the lands belonging to the
These groups enjoy the support of
the Agricultural Federation, a big land
owners' organisation. In southern
Paraha state, Kaigang lands were invaded by people from urban centres, who
now demand the land on the decree's
strength. Isa points out that the trend
has become so alarming, that in
Amazonia state, even Cocamas contest
the land of their neighbours - Ticunas.
The internationally renowned 85-
year old indigenous specialist Orlando
Vilals Boas said, "President Fernado
Henrique Cardoso accepted the pressure exerted by powerful wood dealer
groups to sign the decree." In fact, on
January 29, the Folha de Sao Paulo daily
revealed that the ministry of justice had
sent a letter to governers; of states which
have indigenous reserves, guiding them
to contest the demarcation.
"With the possible re-examination
of the demarcated lands and the official
letter of the ministry of justice informing state governments about which
indigenous lands should be contested,
conflicts which had already been solved
will be again brought to light. The contestatory will also make possible that
demands previously non-existent, can
now be freely raised by everyone,"
said anthropologist Joao Pacheco de
Oliveria, president, Brazilian
Association of Anthropology.
Even before Funai decides
which contestatory actions are correct, one can easily foresee that these
actions imply an incredible potential reduction of indigenous lands.
During the last 25 years, Funai has
been lacking in enough infrastructure to protect the nation's indigenous lands and the peoples. With no
trained lawyers and officials, the
organisation may succumb to the
decree, it is feared.
Funai today faces budgetary constraints and a political draining. In 1995,
the Foundation changed its president
thrice, with none of them having implemented a serious working policy.
Ironically, the Brazilian Constitution,
passed in 1988, is considered the most
advanced in the world regarding protection to minorities, civil rights and the
Pacheco de Oliveria also says
that the decree can be applied in
contradiction to one of the most important global legal rules because it
admits retroactivity. He estimates that
47 per cent of Brazil's indigenous
lands, which correspond to 153 areas
and 39 million ha, can be contested
According to the Cimi officials, only
2 10 indigenous areas are protected from
the decree. Strong international opposition to the decree forced the Brazilian
government to reverse its strategy. To
this effect, the minister of justice,
Nelson Jobim, visited Europe in late
March, to discuses the decree with progressive NGOS who are fiercely defending
Brazil's indigenous lands.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament, pressurised by the socialists and
the greens, expressed deep concerns
over the decree. In Germany, the Green
Party asked the government to reduce
its financial aid to Brazil for the demarcation of indigenous lands. Daniello
Mitterran 'd, president, France Liberties
Foundation, also called for a "vigilant
attention" to impede the draconian
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