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Brazil's Bolsonaro: a death warrant for indigenous territories?

Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro next to Onyx Lorenzoni, his new chief of staff, during a ceremony in Brasilia, Brazil January 1, 2019.
Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro next to Onyx Lorenzoni, his new chief of staff, during a ceremony in Brasilia, Brazil January 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro issued an executive order Wednesday making the Ministry of Agriculture responsible for indigenous land, including regulation and creation of new reserves.These matters were  previously administered by the National Indian Foundation known as (FUNAI). The move, which came during the first hours of Bolsonaro's administration, has generated much controversy.


The new agricultural minister is now Tereza Cristina, the former head of the Parliamentary Agricultural Front, an agrobusiness lobby.

In the lead-up to Brazil’s election in October last year, Bolsonaro indicated he was considering making such a move.

He insisted that commercial activity not be banned on indigenous land.

Bolsonaro's order will also affect quilombolas: territory belonging to descendants of former slaves. These areas, previously administered by the government’s agrarian reform institute INCRA, will also fall under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Fears provoked following order

Lex Costa, a Brazil-based political blogger, told Rfi that prior to Bolsonaro, laws granted indigenous people "full rights over large swaths of land in Brazil.”

But indigenous territories and farming areas often exist side-by-side

Tensions have thus been growing between those who want to expand farming areas and those trying to protect indigenous territory.

Infrastructure projects have further added to the problem.

Railways and hydroelectric plants that require special authorisation used to be given by FUNAI, says Costa. But farmers in general saw FUNAI as 'an impediment' to develop business.

Many thus fear that Cristina, the new Agriculture minister with close ties to agrobusiness groups and lobbyists, will be more favourable to business developers than to indigenous people.

“It means we will see a trend under a previous president continue", says Ronny Hansen, a senior adviser at Rainforest Foundation Norway.

The trend, according to Hansen, is one where agrobusiness lobbies hold increasingly more power, with their interests being considered a priority.

This latest announcement is worrisome, Hansen told Rfi. Constitutionally recognised rights to land for indigenous people now appear weakened.

But, as Costa notes, no action has yet been taken, and some argue that FUNAI was too ideological rather than being technical.

She also pointed out that there were complaints of indigenous people accepting bribes from 'illicit actors', 'charging fees to use highways' and other similar cases.

Brazil’s indigenous population

According to Survival International, 0.4 percent of Brazil’s population is indigenous. The government has recognised some 690 territories for its indigenous population that covers 13 per cent of the country’s land mass.

But most Brazilians don’t seem to pay much attention to the affairs of its indigenous people.

“We are taught in school that indigenous [people] are lazy…so we have this image of indigenous people” says Glauber Sezerino, the co-president of Autres Brésils, or Other Brazils in English, a Paris-based NGO that works to help people learn about Brazil. He adds that Bolsonaro tried to use that image as a means to justify placing agrobusinesses in indigenous areas.

But Costa told Rfi that “with over 60 thousand homicides a year and over 12 percent unemployment” most Brazilians don’t spend much time thinking about human rights issues pertaining to indigenous people.

Integrating indigenous people

In a tweet on 2 January, Bolsonaro wrote that more than 15 percent of national territory is marked as indigenous land and quilombolas. He adds that fewer than one million people live in those isolated places of Brazil which are exploited and manipulated by Ngos, promising to "integrate these citizens and value them as Brazilians.”


According to Hansen, such talk of integration harkens back to colonial times.

“That thinking has meant death, destruction and displacement for the majority of Brazil’s indigenous population for hundreds of years” he says. He adds that this goal to ‘modernize’ the indigenous people should be up to them. 

Only the indigenous people should decide whether to adhere to Bolsonaro’s policies, or to their own way of life.

However, Augusto Heleno, the new minister of Institutional Security said in an interview on 3 January  that indigenous people needed to be integrated into modern society in a way that their traditional and values remained.

“Brazil has never actually [done anything] right about its aboriginal population” laments Sezerino, adding the situation was just as complicated under the left-wing governments of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef.

Power to agrobusinesses

But this executive order by Bolsonaro has openly given more power to the agrobusinesses. While the Ministry of Agriculture has always been close to the agricultural lobbyists behind closed doors, there will no longer be a need to hide such close ties, Sezerion told Rfi..

In response , Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous leader in Brazil who ran as a candidate for vice-president for the Socialism and Freedom party last year, urged people to fight back:

“If we're the first to be attacked, we have to be the first to react. If we resist this far, it's not now that we're going back. We are not afraid, we are not invaders so we do not accept these attacks and everyone is summoned to fight!


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