Dismantling democracy – the assault on indigenous rights in Brazil

Dismantling democracy – the assault on indigenous rights in Brazil

Published on: Thu Jun 6, 2013
Author: Fiona Watson
Source: LAB

No democracy without indigenous rights.These are challenging times if you happen to be an Indian in South America’s largest democracy. Not since the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship when Indians were regarded as obstacles to ‘progress’ and their lands were opened to massive development schemes have they faced such an assault on their rights.

The fortuitous discovery of the landmark Figueiredo Report,  which documented appalling crimes against Brazil’s tribal peoples during the 1940s, 50s and 60s and led to the creation of the tribal rights organisation Survival International  has re-ignited debate, and serves as a warning when the denial of land rights and killing of Indians continues today.

On one side is an intransigent president whose unilateral view of development looks set to turn the Amazon into an industrial heartland to fuel Brazil’s fast growing economy. On the other Brazil’s 238 tribes, determined to defend their hard-won constitutional rights and protect their lands and livelihoods for future generations.  Tellingly, Dilma Rousseff is the only president since the fall of the dictatorship in 1985 who has not met with indigenous peoples. 

This is a battle for the rule of law, and the right to self-determination, a cornerstone of the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples . As COIAB, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon recently stated, ‘The current government is trying to impose its colonial and dominating style on us. …  [it] has caused irreversible harm to indigenous peoples using bills and decrees, many of them unconstitutional.’

One bill under discussion  would prohibit the expansion of indigenous territories and will affect tribes living in the rich agricultural mid-west and south, where violent land conflicts are most acute and where Brazil’s powerful rural lobby includes politicians who own ranches (many now selling sugar cane to supply Brazil’s burgeoning biofuels industry) on indigenous land due to be returned to the Indians. 

It will be particularly disastrous for the Guarani in Mato Grosso do Sul state, living in roadside camps or overcrowded reserves. Their leaders and shamans are systematically attacked and murdered by ranchers’ gunmen as they attempt to regain their ancestral land, tired of waiting for the federal authorities to take action.

In April President Rousseff was booed by farmers at a public event in Mato Grosso do Sul.  A month later the chief minster of the Civil Cabinet advocated that more ministries and government bodies including many working in the powerful agricultural sector such as the Ministries of Agriculture and Agrarian Development should be consulted about demarcation of indigenous territories.

A proposed constitutional amendment would give Congress (dominated by the agricultural and mining lobby) the power to participate in the process of demarcating indigenous land, causing further delays and obstacles to the recognition and protection of territories. This would put the wolf in charge of the sheep.

Further north, in the mineral-rich Amazonian state of Roraima, politicians are backing a draft mining bill. If approved by Congress, it would open up indigenous territories to large-scale mining for the first time. The Yanomami  tribe’s land, the largest forested indigenous territory in the world, is subject to 654 mining requests alone. Yanomami spokesman Davi Kopenawa  says that mining ‘will destroy the streams and the rivers and kill the fish and kill the environment – and kill us.’

And while Brazil’s controversial hydro-electric dams programme in the Amazon will provide cheap energy to the mining companies which are poised to operate in indigenous territories. It will destroy the lands and livelihoods of thousands of Indians.

The Belo Monte dam, which will destroy the livelihoods of thousands of Indians and riverside communities, has become a byword for indigenous resistance. Hundreds of indigenous protestors have repeatedly occupied the dam building site. Yet even the ‘Drop of Water’ campaign against Belo Monte, which gathered more than 1.4 million signatures, mainly from Brazilians, appeared to make little impact on the government.

Frustrated at the lack of consultations and angry at the assault on their rights, indigenous peoples have resorted to direct action – storming congress, occupying dam sites, blockading railway lines, reclaiming sacred land, mounting hungers strikes, and committing suicide.

Even where land is recognized, loggers and settlers invade with impunity. The Awá, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil who number just 450, have lost an astounding 31% of their forest heartland. About 100 Awá are uncontacted, and on the run in a desperate attempt to evade the chainsaws and guns. Haikaramoka’a Awá told Survival ‘The loggers are ruining our forest. They have built roads. We are scared because the loggers could kill us, and the uncontacted Indians.’

Awá indian, Brazil (Photo:  D. Pugliese/Survival

Much has been achieved in Brazil since the 1988 constitution came in to force: Indians have exclusive and ‘original’ rights to their land and most territories in the Amazon have been recognized; the population of many tribes is increasing and indigenous organisations are thriving. However, all these achievements are now in jeopardy.

 As Brazil prepares to host the football World Cup and the Olympics, and seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its human rights record will be scrutinised. International pressure and public opinion have played a key role in support of indigenous rights - they can and must do the same now.

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