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Indigenous Brazilians under threat from killings and resource projects: UN Rapporteur

Indigenous peoples in Brazil are at risk from an alarming uptick in violence as well as from natural-resource development projects that threaten their existence.

That’s what United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz found during her visit to the Brazil last month. During her 11 days in the country, Tauli-Corpuz addressed a wide range of issues facing indigenous peoples, but focused in particular on land demarcation, mega-projects, and attacks in her end-of-mission statement.

“Brazil has a number of exemplary constitutional provisions pertaining to indigenous peoples’ rights and in the past it has been a world leader in the area of demarcation of indigenous peoples’ territories,” Tauli-Corpuz said in the statement, released March 17, her last day in the country.

However, there has been no progress on issues of concern or on key recommendations made by her predecessor James Anaya following his 2008 visit to Brazil, Tauli-Corpuz said. Land demarcation processes have stalled, evictions are ongoing, consultation is lacking, and killings and threats are perpetuated with impunity, according to Tauli-Corpuz.

“The risks facing indigenous peoples are more profound than at any time since the adoption of the Constitution in 1988,” she said.

The Catholic Church-affiliated Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) has been documenting killings and attacks against indigenous peoples in the country. The council was established as a branch of Brazil’s National Conference of Bishops in 1972, a year after the term liberation theology — a Latin American Catholic theological movement that originated in Brazil and that emphasizes liberation from injustice and oppression — was coined.

In 2014, CIMI documented the killings of 138 indigenous leaders in Brazil, compared to 92 in 2007, according to Tauli-Corpuz. The state with the highest number of killings is Mato Grosso do Sul, one of three states where the UN official conducted site visits. She visited indigenous Guarani-Kaiowá communities reclaiming traditional lands in Mato Grosso do Sul, located in the southwestern part of the country, bordering Paraguay. Some communities, like one called Kurusu Ambá, have been in the demarcation process for nearly a decade.

Indigenous Guarani-Kaiowa communities in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in southwestern Brazil face evictions, attacks, and killings. Photo by Percurso da Cultura.

“Attacks and killings frequently constitute reprisals in contexts where indigenous peoples reoccupy ancestral lands following long periods waiting for the completion of demarcation processes,” Tauli-Corpuz said in her statement.

“I find it extremely alarming that a series of these attacks, involving shootings and leading to the injury of indigenous peoples in the communities of Kurusu Ambá, Dourados and Taquara in Mato Grosso do Sul, followed my visits to these areas,” she said.

Gunmen on horseback and in trucks opened fire on the Guarani-Kaiowá of Kurusu Ambá just hours after Tauli-Corpuz’s March 10 visit, according to CIMI. It was not the first time gunmen opened fire on the community. It was not even the first time this year. On January 31, gunmen shot up the camps that comprise Kurusu Ambá and burned one to the ground, CIMI reported. Four indigenous leaders have been killed in Kurusu Ambá since 2007, according to the group.

Ita Poty, another Guarani-Kaiowá land reclamation site in Mato Grosso do Sul, was attacked on March 12, also while Tauli-Corpuz was still in the country. Gunmen fired at local families, and severely wounded a man named Isael Reginaldo, who was taken to the hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. Cattle ranchers occupying Guarani-Kaiowá lands are behind the attacks, according to NGOs and media reports.

Killings around the country are often linked to land conflicts, but indigenous people are also the victims of violent hate crimes in urban settings. On December 30, 2015, two-year-old Vítor Pinto, an indigenous Kaingang child, was stabbed while nursing in his mother’s arms at the bus station in Imbituba, a coastal town in southern Brazil. He died soon after.

Indigenous peoples are at risk from much more than armed attacks and killings, according to Tauli-Corpuz.

“Even in contexts where direct physical violence was not reported by indigenous peoples they face profound threats to their existence. This arises from the actions and omissions of the State and private actors in the context of development projects imposed upon indigenous peoples without any consultation or attempt to obtain their free prior and informed consent,” she said.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, conducted an 11-day official visit to Brazil in March 2016. Photo by UN Geneva.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s end-of-mission statement highlights several hydro-electric and mining projects about which indigenous communities and leaders raised concerns during her visit, including the Tapajós dam complex in the state of Pará in northern Brazil; the Vale and BHP Billington mine in Minas Gerais that sparked an environmental disaster and at least 17 deaths when a tailings dam collapsed in November 2015; and other hydro-electric and gold and bauxite mining projects.

Concerns regarding the natural resource projects included the absence of prior consultation, the lack of demarcation of indigenous lands, and the judiciary’s manoeuvres to prevent legal challenges to development projects by indigenous peoples.

In the case of the fiercely contested Belo Monte hydro-electric dam under construction on a tributary of the Amazon River, the concerns are all of the above and then some. Neither the government nor the project developers have implemented necessary conditions and mitigation measures such as the establishment of monitoring units to protect indigenous lands, compensation for lost livelihoods, and the strengthening of the local presence of the governmental National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), according to Tauli-Corpuz’s statement.

“The cumulative effect of this inaction has been to threaten the very survival of the impacted indigenous peoples,” she said.

“Respect Our Rights,” reads a banner at an indigenous protest against the fiercely contested Belo Monte hydro-electric dam under construction in northern Brazil. Photo by Ocupacao Munduruku.

Many factors at play with regard to Belo Monte mirror those at play on a national scale. Throw in corruption scandals, attempts in Congress to weaken legal protections for indigenous rights and the environment, and a dash of political crisis, and the forecast doesn’t look good.

“There would therefore appear to be a perfect storm on the horizon, in which a convergence of these and other factors will lead to the pursuit of economic interests in a manner that further subordinates the rights of indigenous peoples. The risk of ethnocidal effects in such contexts cannot be overlooked nor underestimated,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

The UN official made several preliminary recommendations at the end of her visit. “Efforts should be redoubled to move beyond the current impasse in relation to land demarcation, as the urgently needed solutions are possible if the necessary political will exists,” she said. She also called on the Brazilian government to take immediate steps to protect indigenous leaders and conclude investigations into all killings of indigenous peoples.

Tauli-Corpuz will present a final report on her findings and recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September.