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Indigenous victory: Brazil’s Temer decrees 1.2 million Amazon reserve

  • In a rare recent victory for Brazil’s indigenous people, President Temer has established the 1.2 million hectare Indigenous Territory of Turubaxi-Téa along the Middle Negro River in Amazonas state.
  • While NGOs and indigenous groups applaud the move, they note that the region has not been claimed by the Temer-backed ruralists, agribusiness and mining interests, who have aggressively disputed indigenous claims to ancestral lands in the southern Amazon region.
  • Two weeks ago, Temer reversed a decree establishing the 532-hectare indigenous Territory of Jaraguá in São Paulo state, ancestral home to 700 Guarani Indians. As a result, the indigenous group has now been squeezed into a reserve covering just 1.7 hectares.
  • Brazil also just established the 5,200-hectare Indigenous Territory of Tapeba, near Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceará. These indigenous victories do not seem to indicate a shift away from Temer’s wave of initiatives undermining indigenous land rights.
Tapeba Indians during a “retomada” (reoccupation) of their ancestral land in the Indigenous Territory of Tapeba. Photo by Renato Santana / Cimi

The Temer government, widely criticized for its attacks on indigenous rights, has approved its first significant measure in favor of the country’s indigenous communities.

Last week, Brazil’s official gazette published a decree, signed by Justice Minister Torquato Jardim, establishing the Indigenous Territory of Turubaxi-Téa along the middle reaches of the Negro River in the state of Amazonas. More than 900 Indians from ten different groups, distributed in eight villages, inhabit the reserve, which covers 1.2 million hectares (2.9 million acres).

It is an important victory for the Indians, who have been struggling for over two decades to have their lands recognized. The long delay has harmed the communities, as the un-demarcated land has been repeatedly invaded by loggers and farmers.

The indigenous groups are confident that the situation will now improve. “We are still suffering threats and other acts of disrespect,” said Carlos Nery Pira-Tapuya, president of the Association of Indigenous Communities on the Middle Negro River (ACIMRN). “But we believe that, once our territory is demarcated, there will be fewer invasions and in this way our communities will be able to make great advances in administering the territory.”

Marivelton Barroso Baré, president of the Federation of the Indigenous Organization of the Negro River (FOIRN), said the government has finally done what it should have done years ago: “It is the duty of the Brazilian state to recognise the rights of the indigenous population as the original inhabitants. Now we need to go on struggling to speed up other demarcations in the region.”

A Guarani protest, called “O Jaraguá é guarani,” in the center of Sao Paulo, in July 2014. Photo by Isabel Harari / ISA

Despite the repeated incursions by loggers and farmers, the dispute over this land has by no means been as fierce or violent as in the southern Amazon basin, where large scale agribusiness has arrived and highway construction has increased access to outsiders and led to a rocketing in land prices.

No one in Brasilia was lobbying against the creation of Turubaxi-Téa reserve and no one contested its boundaries, established by the indigenous agency FUNAI after an anthropological study. In the southern Amazon, the ruralistas have worked aggressively to undermine indigenous rights and dispute land claims.

Even so, the process is far from complete. The anthropologist, Lúcia Van Velthem, who coordinated the anthropological study, said that two important steps are still required: the physical marking out of the limits of the reserve, and the final approval, known as homologação, which gives the Indians definitive rights over the land. “Both of these procedures take time and are difficult,” she warned.

The territory of Turubaxi-Téa is inhabited by Indians from the Arapaso, Baniwa, Baré, Desana, Nadöb, Kuripaco, Pira-Tapuya, Tariana, Tikuna and Tukano groups. The creation of this new reserve brings to eight the number of indigenous territories in the region. Together, these eight indigenous reserves cover almost 13 million hectares (32 million acres), with a total population of over 30,000.

This mosaic of territories is currently functioning as an effective barrier against deforestation and helping to protect one of the least spoilt stretches of tropical forest in the world.

Despite the political uncertainty of recent years, the communities along the Middle Negro River have made several important advances. They’ve managed to get their traditional way of farming recognized as a “national heritage” by the culture ministry’s IPHAN (the Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage).

They also created an innovative community-based recreational fishing project in which trained Indians assist visiting fishermen and monitor their activities, a program implemented in association with FUNAI, the environmental agency IBAMA, the NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and the Santa Isabel do Rio Negro municipal council. The fishing project has become a sustainable source of income for the communities.

An indigenous mother and child enjoy an Amazon river. The establishment of the Indigenous Territory of Turubaxi-Téa, covering 1.2 million hectares along the Middle Negro River in Amazonas state, is a major victory for indigenous groups in Brazil, at a time when many government decisions have gone against their ancestral land rights. Photo credit: Zanini H. via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Although the establishment of this territory is important, the Temer government’s record on indigenous affairs remains dismal, say critics. “The declaration of the limits of the indigenous territory of Turubaxi-Téa lifts minister Toquato Jardim’s achievements up to a little above zero, given that the Temer government hasn’t yet completed the demarcation process of any indigenous territory,” commented Márcio Santilli, founder-member of ISA.

The Temer government has attacked indigenous rights in a variety of ways. It has instructed FUNAI to reject all demarcations of indigenous land where the Indians were not physically present on the territory in 1988, the date of the promulgation of the current constitution (a legal maneuver known as the marco temporal). The administration has also introduced legislation that would make it possible for “strategic” public works, such as dams or roads, to be undertaken on indigenous land without consulting the Indians, violating the International Labor Organization’s 169 Convention, signed by Brazil.

FUNAI’s budget has been drastically slashed, making it much harder for the agency to monitor what is happening in distant regions. Two as yet unconfirmed massacres of uncontacted Indians in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, in the southwest part of Amazonas, are an example of the kind of atrocity that could occur as a result.

Indeed, the creation of the Indigenous Territory of Turubaxi-Téa seems to be an isolated case, without signalling a shift in government policy.

Just two weeks ago, the same Justice Minister — Torquato Jardim — declared invalid a decree that had established the indigenous territory of Jaraguá in the state of São Paulo. This territory, covering 532 hectares (1,314 acres), is the ancestral home to 700 Guarani Indians. As a result, the indigenous group has now been hemmed into an area of just 1.7 hectares (4.2 acres), the size of two football pitches.

The reversal provoked a fierce reaction from 29 NGOs and indigenous bodies. They jointly issued a strongly-worded press release in which they called the act “an unconstitutional measure that sets a serious precedent and demonstrates the determination of the Temer government to review all indigenous territories currently been demarcated so as to please the rural caucus, its base in Congress.”

The indigenous territory of Jaraguá was created in June 2015, after the Guarani Indians carried out a series of well-supported mobilizations in the city of São Paulo. But local landowners didn’t accept the legal agreement handing over this valuable real estate to the Indians. Former federal deputy, Tito Costa, went to court, claiming that the land belonged to him in an action that has not yet been judged in court.

In a small piece of good news for Brazil’s indigenous people, earlier this month Torquato Jardim also established the 5,200 hectare (12,850 acre) Indigenous Territory of Tapeba, located on the outskirts of Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceará. This action marks the end of a long negotiation process, involving FUNAI, state and municipal governments, indigenous Tapeba leaders, and one of the region’s most powerful political forces, the Arruda Coelho family, which owns a farm superimposed atop the indigenous land.

At first, the Indians dubbed a demand to relinquish 544 hectares (1,444 acres), about 10 percent of their claimed territory — most of it to the Arruda Coelho family — as “indecent and immoral”. But, because the demarcation process came to a standstill after the elite family went to court, the Indians finally gave in to creating a smaller reserve. The 7,000 Indians have warmly welcomed the creation of the territory after so many years of struggle, but others see it, at best, as a partial victory.

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