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Latin America-Europe trade pact to include historic indigenous rights clause

  • The Mercosur trade bloc (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the European Union are expected to conclude trade negotiations and put finishing touches on a trade agreement by the end of this year.
  • That pact will include landmark indigenous human rights clauses meant to protect indigenous groups from violence, land theft and other civil rights violations.
  • The human rights guarantees institutionalized in the trade agreement, if violated, could potentially lead to major trade boycotts, and are particularly important to indigenous groups in Brazil, where the agribusiness lobby known as the bancada ruralista wields tremendous political power.
  • Brazil’s ruralist elite has been engaged in a decades-long effort to deny indigenous groups rights to their ancestral lands. Violence by large scale farmers and land thieves has seriously escalated under the Temer administration, which strongly backs the ruralist agenda.
A young Guarani-Kaiowá man. This indigenous group has lost most of its ancestral land in Brazil’s Mato Gross Do Sul state. A Photo by percursodacultura on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

International trade negotiators don’t historically have a strong track record when it comes to protecting environmental or indigenous rights. So policymakers are hailing as monumental the indigenous human rights assurances to be included in a major trade agreement currently being finalized between Latin America and Europe.

It will be the first time that human rights clauses – specifically indigenous human rights – will be included in a trade agreement between the Mercosur trade bloc (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the European Union. This is according to Francisco Assis, Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Mercosur, who spoke at a meeting in Brussels, 20 November 2017.

The delegation was held by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), and in attendance were Members of the European Parliament, Marisa Matias and Francisco Assis; leaders of Brazil’s Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous group, Inaye Lopes Gomes and Daniel Lemes Vasques; along with Brazilian politicians, Janete Capiberibe and Paulo Fernando dos Santos (Brazilian politicians).

Guarani-Kaiowå leaders, Inane Lopes Gomes and Daniel Lemes Vasques speak at the European Parliament. Photo courtesy of UNPO

UNPO project officer, Lukas van Dierman told Mongabay that there is now unprecedented support from the European Union for indigenous rights, which are now being recognized in the groundbreaking trans-continental trade agreement.

The Sustainability Impact Assessment for the EU-Mercosur trade deal includes consultations with indigenous groups, while the European Parliament has stated that any final agreement must include “fundamental and human rights.”

Earlier this year, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from various political parties signed a letter, calling for an investigation into the alleged negative treatment of indigenous people during recent protests in Brazil. Last year, the European parliament also passed Resolution 2016/2991(RSP), specifically urging the Brazilian government to enforce human rights for the Guarani-Kaiowá. MEPs have also launched an informal ‘friendship group,’ holding events, conducting fact-finding missions and offering written and oral parliamentary questions supporting the Guarani-Kaiowá, who have been deprived of most of their ancestral land in Brazil’s Mato Gross Do Sul state.

A Guarani-Kaiowá community in Brazil. Photo by percursodacultura on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

At the most extreme, failure to uphold the human rights stipulations included within the EU-Mercosur trade agreement could result in trade embargoes against Brazil. If the clauses are broken, citizens in Europe can write to their MEPs who can hold national governments to account. This is despite the historic precedent of the “lives and dignity” of indigenous people being “so often sacrificed in the name of economic development,” says Dierman.

The EU-Mercosur trade agreement, he says, is a reason for the Guarani-Kaiowá and other indigenous people “to be optimistic” despite the intense political, and sometimes physical, attacks against indigenous groups in Brazil – as recognized by the United Nations in June.

This optimism, however, arrives amid escalating violence. A recently published report, by the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), found a marked rise in violent attacks on indigenous people in Brazil throughout 2016 after the establishment of the Michel Temer administration, which replaced the government of Dilma Rousseff.

MEP Francisco Assis and UNPO project officer Lukas van Dierman presenting at the UNPO delegation in Brussels. Photo courtesy of UNPO

One example given in the report comes from Mato Grosso do Sul state, where the Guarani-Kaiowá attempted to reclaim a small portion of their ancestral land; the indigenous leader Clodiodi Aquileu Rodrigues de Souza was assassinated, and five others were injured by firearms.

While there is hope the EU-Mercosur agreement will help prevent further violence, there is reason to be “cautious” says Dierman. Brazil has signed international treaties before with little effect on internal events.

Brazil promised to restore indigenous ancestral land rights in its 1988 constitution, and again with its ratifying of the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ILO 169) in 2002. However, the Brazilian government has dragged its feet and failed to carry out the demarcation of much indigenous territories required by law. Nor, say experts, is the Temer administration effectively punishing those responsible for violence against indigenous people.

The “words are perfect, all the rights are there… the problem is with carrying them out,” explains Dierman.

Out of all the Mercosur nations, Brazil is the largest and most influential economic player, it is also a country where much indigenous land has been taken for agribusiness. So it’s not surprising that a key “stumbling block” in the trade negotiations arose out of agribusiness issues – especially concerns over Mercosur exported beef and soy, much of which is grown on lands that have been expropriated, often illegally, from indigenous groups.

Brazilian politician Paulo Fernando dos Santos speaks at the UNPO delegation in Brussels. Photo courtesy of UNPO

The agribusiness lobby in Brazil, the bancada ruralista, currently has “immense power and leverage,” says Dierman, with around 40 percent of the Congress included within its ranks. In league with other conservatives, the ruralistas have blocked three major attempts to impeach Brazil’s current president, Michel Temer, even though the president is accused of corruption and has an extraordinarily low, 3.4 percent approval rating. Blairo Maggi, Temer’s Agriculture Minister, a leading ruralist, is also under investigation for corruption.

The administration has reduced the national budget and introduced austerity measures, which have reduced government administration services for indigenous people resulting in “economic and political asphyxia,” the CIMI report says.

The government severely cut the 2017 budget for the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI), reducing it to a ten-year low, and does not plan to “maintain and develop” institutional capacity for dialogue and conciliation, as past administrations have done, CIMi’s report states. A reduction in law enforcement in remote areas, and government support for the ruralist agenda, has resulted in large-scale farmers and elite land grabbers being emboldened to perpetrate violence on indigenous people.

In this charged political environment there is a “high risk that farmers will resort to the practice of slaughter,” says Dierman, adding that the government should be reducing conflicts by compensating farmers for land “that was given by the government to their grandparents after it was taken from indigenous peoples.”

A Guarani-Kaiowá community. The new trade international trade agreement is one of the first assuring indigenous rights, which could set a precedent for future trade agreements. Photo by midianinja on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

However, no such compensation is currently being offered by the Temer government, effectively “pitting [landowners and indigenous people] against each other,” says Dierman. Some experts point out that indigenous rights were also badly abused under the previous Dilma Rousseff administration, though violence has since escalated.

While “provisions are still being defined,” says Rocio Rodrigo, International Trade Association Secretariat, the 17-year-long EU-Mercosur trade negotiations are expected, by both sides, to conclude this year.

However, it remains to be seen if the trade influence Europe can wield to uphold human rights as part of the Mercosur trade agreement, will truly be sufficient to provide needed protections in the Amazon and across Brazil. But, says Dierman, the trade pact, with its indigenous human rights clauses, could represent “a last hope” for indigenous people in Brazil.

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