In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, indigenous groups are struggling for basic human rights

Land invasions on indigenous reserves have increased by 150% since Bolsonaro’s election. At least 16 attacks on indigenous communities have been documented thus far, including four homicides, as well as instances of stoning, deforesting, and arson.

April 18, 2019 by Neeti Prakash
Brazil Indigenous

Brazil’s Indigenous communities are witnessing an onslaught on their basic rights since the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president. In his first 100 days, the right-wing head of state has proposed a host of policies that weaken indigenous organizations, relax safeguards for indigenous resources and target indigenous healthcare systems.

During his presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro advocated for forcible assimilation of the indigenous communities and appropriation of their land for commercial use. He denounced the reservation of indigenous lands as an “an obstacle to agribusiness” and lamented that an “uncultured” minority population was in control of nearly 12% of Brazil’s national territory.

Bolsonaro’s hateful rhetoric is now being institutionalized through his policies. Merely hours after being sworn into office, he issued an executive order that stripped off FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs office under the Ministry of Justice, of its power to regulate indigenous and quilombola (runaway slave descendants) territories. This authority was instead given to the Ministry of Agriculture – a move that is bound to benefit the agribusinesses with more resources and laxer licensing. Under the same order, the Agriculture ministry was also given control of the Brazilian Forestry Service which promotes sustainable development in Brazil’s forests, most crucially the Amazon.

Cleber Buzzatto, executive secretary at CIMI (Indigenous Missionary Council) commented, “We consider this change by the Brazilian government very negative, since the agriculture ministry has a history of acting in favour of the agribusinesses’ interests. These are organizations with intense anti-indigenous action. In our view, giving responsibility of land designations to this structure means the government will violate the constitution.”

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 upholds the indigenous people’s right to their reserved land as ‘inalienable’, ‘original’ and preceding the state’s right to the land. Article 231 of the Constitution states that “the lands traditionally occupied by the Indigenous communities are those that they have inhabited permanently, used for their productive activity, their welfare and necessary for their cultural and physical reproduction, according to their uses, customs and traditions.” Ipso facto, the reserved indigenous lands cannot be sold, mortgaged or encumbered in any way and are unavailable for industrial and commercial activities.

Land invasions on indigenous reserves have increased by 150% since Bolsonaro’s election. Nearly a week after he took office, dozens of armed men invaded protected indigenous lands in a remote area of ​​the Amazon encouraged by his anti-indigenous remarks. Several indigenous organizations presented a joint report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which states that at least 16 attacks on indigenous communities have been documented thus far. In addition to four homicides, the report also recounts instances of stoning, deforesting, and arson.

Leaders of the indigenous Apurina and Aruak Baniwa communities penned an open letter criticizing Bolsonaro’ policies. The letter said that “we do not want our numbers to be decimated” through new agribusiness practices, and that they “reject political paternalism and being forced to assimilate”. The leaders stressed that they “want to remain indigenous and demand that our ethnic identity be respected.”

Not just Bolsonaro’s policies but his personnel appointments are also a cause of worry for the indigenous communities. Bolsonaro’s new agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina Corrêa da Costa Dias, who has called for re-appropriating indigenous lands for commercial farming, was scrutinized for accepting campaign donations from the landowner charged with the murder of indigenous leader Marcos Veron. Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s new environmental minister and former environment secretary for the state of Sao Paulo, has a history of allowing industrial companies to operate in nature reserves. Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, who has been appointed to work with land issues is a right-wing former head of the Democratic Ruralist Union, and he has famously opposed demarcations of indigenous territory for decades.

Disguising Corporate Interests as “Development”

In January 2019, Bolsonaro’s Chief of Strategic Affairs, Maynard Santa Rosa, announced plans to build a bridge over the Amazon River in Pará state in order to begin “developing” the region. The bridge will increase accessibility to the region and make way for new industrial projects, including a hydroelectric dam on the Trombetas River, a 1.5 kilometer bridge over the Amazon at the small town of Obidos, and an extension of the BR-163 highway from Santarem north to Brazil’s frontier with Surinam, a distance of roughly 480 kilometers. The area, primarily occupied by indigenous and quilombo populations, was described as “unproductive, desertlike” by Santa Rosa, even though it houses the second largest number of mining dams in Brazil, next only to Minas Gerais, the site of the fateful dam collapse in January 2018 which killed nearly 300.

On March 4, Bolsonaro’s new Minister of Mines and Energy Admiral, Bento Albuquerque, declared plans to permit mining on indigenous land, stating that while the indigenous people will be consulted, they will not not be allowed a veto in the matter. In the same vein, On April 8, Bolsonaro announced his intentions to undertake joint development in the Brazilian Amazon in collaboration with the United States. The government has also pushed forward on the construction of a long-resisted 125 kilometer electrical transmission line in Waimiri Atroari Indigenous Reserve in the states of Amazonas and Roraima under the excuse of “national security”.

Brazil’s first female indigenous congresswoman, Joenia Wapichana, from Roraima, responded to these plans saying, “There is a court decision that the Indians should be consulted and not put under pressure [for industrial development in their land].… This right to consultation is guaranteed under the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s 169 Convention, which is legally binding in Brazil.”

ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 or Convention No. 169 is the only international treaty open for ratification that deals exclusively with the rights of these peoples. Brazil’s recent threat to withdraw from this crucial treaty, has made the situation precarious for the indigenous groups.

Dismantling Indigenous Healthcare

Bolsonaro’s latest attack on the indigenous communities comes in the form of healthcare “reform”. The administration has proposed closing down of Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (Sesai) at the federal level and administering these healthcare services on a municipal level. Sesai is a decentralized care model with 34 special indigenous health districts, run in collaboration with local communities and tailored to their needs.

Shutting down these services would mean the forceful assimilation of these communities into common healthcare services which are already inadequate. Additionally, these systems are not equipped to render services in indigenous languages, which can limit these communities’ access to healthcare.

Guarani Indigenous leader Eloi Jacinto told Brasil de Fato, “This represents the weakening of the subsystem of indigenous health and the Sessai and this for us has a result that is death. The result is the extermination of our peoples. The child, the elderly, the pregnant woman who will suffer. There is an indigenous person who only speaks in the mother tongue and how it will be understood in the SUS, how it will be treated and how its diagnosis will be made. No municipality can support this demand. Our position is not to transfer to the municipality and to maintain as is. We even visit mayors and they are standing against it.”

Mobilizing to Fight Back

Attacks on the indigenous communities have by no means gone unchallenged. People from across Brazil are retaliating with mass mobilizations and demonstrations.

In January, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) launched the “Red January” campaign of demonstrations under which hundreds from around the world in different cities protested Bolsonaro’s first month in power, the ensuing hate crimes against the indigenous people and his discriminatory policies. Demonstrators held placards which read “Stop Brazil’s genocide now!” and “Bolsonaro: protect indigenous land.”

In March, the communities responded to government’s attacks on Sesai by mobilizing and demonstrating to defend Sesai and their right to accessible healthcare. People from the affected communities occupied the building of the Ministry of Health in Curitiba, while hundred others joined protests in Bahia, Porto Velho, and Brasilia. With their banners raised, the demonstrators called for “more health, more rights, and more respect”.

In the face of Bolsonaro’s violent hostility, Brazil’s indigenous people stand in defiance. Rosilene Guajajara said, “We’ve been resisting for 519 years. We won’t stop now. We’ll put all our strength together and we’ll win.” Ninawa Huni Kuin added, “We fight to protect life and land. We will defend our nation.”