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Brazil 2017: environmental and indigenous rollbacks, rising violence

  • The bancada ruralista, or ruralist lobby, in Brazil’s congress flexed its muscles in 2017, making numerous demands on President Michel Temer to make presidential decrees weakening environmental protections and revoking land rights to indigenous and traditional communities in Brazil – decisions especially impacting the Amazon.
  • Emboldened ruralists – including agribusiness, cattle ranchers, land thieves and loggers – stepped up violent attacks in 2017, making Brazil the most dangerous country in the world for social or environmental activists. There were 63 assassinations by the end of October.
  • Budgets to FUNAI, the indigenous agency; IBAMA, the environmental agency; and other institutions, were reduced so severely this year that these government regulatory agencies were largely unable to do their enforcement and protection work.
  • In 2017, Temer led attempts to dismember Jimanxim National Forest and National Park, and to open the vast RENCA preserve in the Amazon to mining – efforts that have failed to date, but are still being pursued. Resistance has remained fierce, especially among indigenous groups, with Temer sometimes forced to backtrack on his initiatives.
Brazil’s Michel Temer meets with his ministers, many of whom like agriculture minister Blairo Maggi, hail from, or have close ties to, Brazil’s elite ruralists. Since this 2016 photo was taken, several ministers have been forced to resign due to corruption charges; both Maggi and Temer are currently under investigation for corruption. Photo by José Cruz / Agência Brasil

2017 proved challenging for conservation in the Brazilian Amazon. The year was marked by a deluge of initiatives by Michel Temer, a weak president, who, facing accusations of corruption, embarked on a survival strategy that put his administration at the disposal of the rural caucus, the bancada ruralista, which holds a controlling bloc of votes in Congress.

These politicians and their backers – agribusiness, cattle ranchers, land thieves and loggers – have long expressed resentment at what they see as the excessive amount of Brazilian land occupied by conservation units, indigenous reserves, traditional communities, and quilombos (communities set up by Afro-Brazilians, many of them runaway slaves).

Early in 2016 – before agreeing to support Temer in his rise to power via the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff – the bancada ruralista drew up a list of political demands. The document entitled “Pauta Positiva – Biênio 2016-2017,” obliged a rollback of many environmental and social advances achieved since the country emerged from military dictatorship in 1985.

Once Temer took office, the caucus gained even greater power and influence over the president as congress was called on three times to vote to prevent the chief executive from being investigated by the Supreme Court for corruption.

With each new vote the ruralists pressed Temer to enact more of their demands.

Still, the rural lobby hasn’t had it all its own way. The president’s 2017 initiatives often provoked a furious reaction from indigenous and popular movements, NGOs, the independent litigators of the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), lawyers and members of civil society, and sometimes the international community. The opposition succeeded in delaying, or getting suspended, a surprisingly large number of measures, though few have been fully withdrawn.

Indigenous leaders tear-gassed by police in front of Brazil’s National Congress in April 2017. Indigenous and traditional communities have seen a surge in violence against them and a loss of land rights since Temer took power in 2016, a trend which escalated significantly in 2017. Photo by Wilson Dias courtesy of Agencia Brasil

A rising tide of violence

Resistance stayed strong through 2017, even though it became increasingly dangerous to voice dissent in Brazil, with growing criminalization of social movements. Conflict centered this year around the denial of land rights to indigenous and traditional communities, peasant farmers and quilombolas.

Violence has now escalated to the point that Brazil is rated the most dangerous country in the world for social or environmental activists. By the end of October, 63 assassinations had been recorded in the countryside, higher than the 61 killed during all of 2016. According to the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), more murders have already occurred in 2017 than any year since 2003, when 73 people were killed.

Ruralists, likely emboldened by Temer’s sympathetic policies, have escalated their aggression, with this year seeing a series of violent massacres, decapitations, hands lopped off with machetes, torture and death.

The following are some of the massacres that occurred this year (defined by the CPT as the assassination of two or more people at the same time):

Meanwhile, the government systematically undermined regulatory and law enforcement institutions. The Temer administration began the year by slashing the budget for INCRA, the National Institution for Colonization and Agrarian Reform; for FUNAI, the indigenous agency; and for IBAMA, the environmental agency. Coming on the heels of past reductions, this year’s draconian cuts left the agencies hard pressed to provide even basic protections.

Guarani Kaiowa living in Mato Grosso do Sul state. Temer’s executive decrees this year have repeatedly targeted indigenous land rights guaranteed under Brazil’s 1988 constitution. Photo credit: percursodacultura via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Attacks on indigenous land rights

With the agencies weakened, the government began targeting indigenous land rights. In July 2017, Temer approved an Attorney General’s office recommendation, establishing new restrictive criteria for determining indigenous territory boundaries. Most controversial was the adoption of the “marco temporal,” an arbitrary date on which indigenous groups had to physically occupy a traditional territory in order to lay legal claim to it. That arbitrary date was set at 5 October 1988, when the newest federal Constitution was approved – a date, historians point out, by which many Indian groups had already been forced from their lands.

The measure’s legality has been challenged and the Supreme Court may eventually annul it. But in the meantime, the Presidency has instructed the Justice Ministry to implement the initiative. In response, it immediately stopped marking out new indigenous lands and began “reviewing” 19 indigenous territories which had almost completed the long arduous land title process. At stake is a total area of almost 800,000 hectares (3,089 square miles), most in the Amazon basin. If the Justice Ministry decides this land doesn’t belong to the Indians – the country’s best land stewards – major deforestation could be in the offing.

Through another measure, Portaria 68, the government sought to shift the technical task of demarcating indigenous land, until now carried out by FUNAI employees expert in such matters, to a new body, in which other actors, including landowners, will be represented. In the face of a fierce reaction from indigenous leaders, lawyers, the MPF and even the United Nations, the government revoked the most controversial measures, while still moving to create the new body.

Other anti-indigenous initiatives in the pipeline include a presidential decree making it legal for agribusiness to rent land within indigenous reserves on a permanent basis. Márcio Santilli, one of the founders of the NGO Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), said that the initiative, though issued by the nation’s Justice Minister, is clearly unconstitutional.

The future of these Quilombola children, and others like them across Brazil, may depend on the outcome of a legal battle launched by ruralists who are challenging quilombo land claims – a fight which went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2017. Photo by Carol Gayao under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Attacks on quilombolas and traditional communities

In 2017, a major offensive against the quilombolas’ land rights gained momentum. In 2003 the Lula government – more sympathetic to social rights – published a decree, Decreto 4.887, that abolished an old requirement that quilombola communities needed to prove they had lived continuously on the land since 1888, before being given land rights – an unfeasible expectation for communities that had deliberately maintained a low legal profile, having been established by runaway slaves fearful of recapture.

The DEM, a right-wing political party, has now gone to court to annul Lula’s decree. In the face of widespread protest, the Supreme Court has not yet ruled, postponing judgement several times. But even if the court goes against the DEM, quilombolas won’t benefit, as the budget for marking out lands is now so diminished that demarcation is now at a standstill.

Non-indigenous rural communities – including agrarian reform settlements and traditional communities of rubber-tappers, Brazil nut collectors and fishermen – have also suffered major land claim setbacks.

Under Temer, the agrarian reform program has ended. The budget to create extractive reserves (RESEX) – where rural communities can legally harvest forest products provided they preserve the surrounding forest – is now exhausted, leaving a long queue of waiting communities. Likewise, programs by which municipal councils bought food for school lunches from small farmers have also ground to a halt.

Through another presidential decree, MP 759 (now converted into Law 13,456), land that should belong to small farmers is being handed over to outsiders and wealthy elites, who are allowed to register it in their own names. These relaxed land registration rules resulted in land thieves, loggers and cattle ranchers violently evicting peasant families, and moving in on land the farm families had legally claimed. Meanwhile, the rural caucus is providing political cover for private militias sent to seize the land. Local courts, influenced by wealthy elites, have left evicted families with almost no source of appeal.

The vast rainforests of Brazil’s Amazon basin were put at risk in 2017 by the anti-environmental, pro-ruralist policies of President Temer. Photo © Fábio Nascimento / Greenpeace

Conserved lands threatened

Land thieves are also eying the country’s large conservation units, which operate as a buffer zone protecting the Amazon interior from deforestation.

A fierce political battle is now raging over the dismemberment of Jamanxim National Park and Jamanxim National Forest, both created to protect the Amazon rainforest from incursions arising from the paving of the BR-163 highway linking Brasilia to Santarém in Pará state. At the instigation of the rural caucus, the president issued two decrees ­– MP 756 and MP 758 – to seriously weaken the conservation status of these units.

Faced with protest at home and abroad, Temer reversed his position, fully vetoing MP 756 and partially vetoing MP 758. But the story didn’t end there: though the administration has, for the moment accepted that it cannot touch Jamanxim National Forest, it has sent a bill to Congress that would allow outsiders and especially land thieves to claim lands within Jamanxim National Park, achieving via a legislative route much of what the original presidential decree intended. This bill is currently being fast-tracked through Congress.

Another huge environmental battle this year arose over the National Copper and Associated Reserve (RENCA), a gigantic national reserve of 4.6 million hectares (17,800 square miles) that straddles the states of Pará and Amapá in the Amazon.

Known for its rich mineral resources, RENCA was created in 1984 by the military dictatorship, to prevent the area from being taken over by foreign mining companies. The Temer government has no such concerns and the abolition of RENCA, announced in August, was carried out at the behest of Canadian mining companies.

RENCA, however, contains nine conservation and indigenous areas, and plays a key role in Amazon conservation, though this wasn’t the original military government’s intent. Temer’s decree was met with dissent at home and abroad, and he has revoked the edict – for now.

The threat that the opening of RENCA poses to the environment became especially clear in light of new research in 2017, finding that mining activity has caused nearly 10 percent of Amazon deforestation.

If climate change continues to worsen unchecked, and forest degradation continues unabated, then unstoppable Amazon mega-fires could be seen in this century; such fires would greatly increase the release of carbon into the atmosphere worsening climate change. Photo courtesy of IBAMA

A game of chess

The clash between the rural caucus and its opponents has been likened to a political chess match, in which hundreds of thousands of Brazilians are pawns. The rural caucus has launched gambit after gambit, only to see many of its moves partially blocked by resolute resistance from social movements, NGOs and environmentalists.

But the caucus, made up of skilled political operatives, has time and again regrouped and devised new tactics for achieving its goals. While this match plays out, government agencies remain at a regulatory and enforcement standstill throughout the Amazon basin.

One casualty of this cat-and-mouse game may be Brazil’s pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 37 percent by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels – a promise that relies on drastically reduced deforestation, along with significant reforestation.

As Temer presses forward with ruralist land usurpation objectives, the possibility of achieving the nation’s Paris goal is receding. Brazil increased its carbon emissions by 8.9 percent in 2016 over 2015 and another increase seems likely in 2017.

Importantly, Brazil’s biggest carbon emitters weren’t urban or industrial states, but Pará and Mato Grosso, where the Amazon rainforest, with its immense carbon storage capacity, is being aggressively assaulted by cattle ranchers and soy producers.

One reason for the big increase in carbon releases this year: human-set wildfires in the Amazon intended to clear land for agribusiness. Scientists warn: forest degradation is turning the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source in some dry years, which is bad news for a world in need of drastic greenhouse gas reductions.

An indigenous mother and child enjoy a river in the Amazon. The establishment of the Indigenous Territory of Turubaxi-Téa, covering 1.2 million hectares along the Middle Negro River in Amazonas state, was a major victory for indigenous groups in Brazil in 2017, at a time when many government decisions have gone against indigenous ancestral land rights. Brazil’s plans to build mega-dams in the Amazon were also back-burnered this year. Photo credit: Zanini H. via Visual Hunt / CC BY

One big Amazon environmental threat, the construction of mega-dams which loomed during the Rousseff administration, has faded for now. Brazil’s construction companies – once so powerful they could make or break presidents, and who long lobbied for lucrative dam contracts – have been laid low by the Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal, a massive corruption investigation.

Marcelo Odebrecht, CEO of the Odebrecht construction firm, left prison this month after serving more than two years in prison for running one of the most extensive political corruption networks in the nation’s history. Since his conviction, the company’s prestige has crumbled, new orders fell away and some 100,000 workers were sacked. Chinese state companies have stepped into the void, with China offering Brazil a $20 billion infrastructure credit line in 2017 that could see Amazon mega-dam projects come roaring back soon.

As bad as the news has been for the environment and the Amazon in 2017, indigenous communities and social movements have now clearly recognized the risk posed by agribusiness, and by its need for new roads, railways and industrial waterways to carry commodities downstream for export to Europe, the U.S. and Asia. They’ve also developed new strategies to protect their land and culture against increasingly strident government attacks.

In April, for example, 3,000 indigenous leaders met in Brasilia, setting up what they called the Acampamento Livre Terra (Free Land Camp) – the biggest indigenous mobilization in Brazil’s history. In May, social movements carried out a large anti-Temer demonstration. Then in December, 90 Munduruku Indians prevented a public hearing in itaituba for the new Ferroagrão (Grainrail) railway, saying they hadn’t been properly consulted regarding the project. Amidst the gloom felt among environmental and social activists, some see a bright flicker of renewed resistance and hope – especially as elections loom in October 2018.

The Temer administration largely failed to respond to Mongabay’s repeated requests for comment throughout 2017.

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An indigenous demonstration against the “marco temporal” in Brasilia in 2017. Resistance against the Temer government is especially strong within indigenous groups, who have repeatedly reached out to the international community for support. Photo courtesy of Guilherme Cavalli / Cimi
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