Brazil's sorrow

From homeland to terra incognita, the indigenous lands of Brazil have today fallen prey to a draconian decree

By Carlos Tautz
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Condemned: cultivators slash a (Credit: Mark Edwards)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 do Sul.

"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 Guarani-Kaiowas.

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 environment.

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 retroactively.

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 decree.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.