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Bolsonaro hands over indigenous land demarcation to agriculture ministry

  • The new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has issued an administrative decree shifting the responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from FUNAI, the government’s indigenous affairs office, to the ministry of agriculture.
  • Also as part of the decree, Bolsonaro shifted authority over the regularization of quilombola territory (land belonging to runaway slave descendants), from the government’s agrarian reform institute, INCRA, to the ministry of agriculture.
  • Critics responded with alarm, seeing the move as a direct conflict of interest. But the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress has long demanded this government reorganization, which analysts say will give agribusiness the political levers needed to invade and transform indigenous territories and treat forests as an industrial resource.
  • Brazil’s indigenous communities are known to be the best stewards of the Amazon. But Bolsonaro’s moves could signal the weakening, or even the dismantling, of the indigenous reserve system. The potentially resulting wholesale deforestation could be a disaster to indigenous peoples, biodiversity, and even the regional and global climate.
Jair Bolsonaro, displaying his notorious finger shooting gesture. He has been hailed as the “Trump of the Tropics.” In one of his first acts as president this week, he took aim at Brazil’s indigenous reserves and their long delayed demarcation as required by the nation’s 1988 Constitution. Image found on enu.blogspot.

On his first day in office, President Jair Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure (Medida Provisório 870) taking away the responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from the government’s indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, and handing it over to the agriculture ministry.

In the same decree, Bolsonaro also shifted authority over the regularization of quilombola territory (land belonging to runaway slave descendants), from the government’s agrarian reform institute, INCRA, to the ministry of agriculture. The measures greatly weakens FUNAI, taking away its most important functions, as well as INCRA, according to analysts.

In practice, key areas of indigenous and quilombo policy will now be in the hands of industrial agribusiness advocates, a long-time demand of the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress.

Ruralist backing significantly helped Bolsonaro in gaining office, and these new measures had been widely expected after the President-elect chose federal deputy Tereza Cristina as minister of agriculture. Formerly, Cristina was president of the Parliamentary Agriculture Front (FPA), the main ruralist lobby in the federal legislature which supports the rapid expansion of large scale farmers and ranchers.

However, few thought the President would act so quickly. Bolsonaro appears to be carrying out a promise made in his electoral campaign. In August 2018 he said: “If I’m elected, I’ll deliver a blow to FUNAI, a blow to the neck. There’s no other way. It’s not useful anymore.”

Sônia Gujajajara, coordinator of the Articulation of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), speaks at the Ministries Esplanade in Brasília. Image courtesy of Waldemir Barreto / Agência Senado.

A strong critical response

Indigenous specialists responded with profound concern to Bolsonaro’s administrative moves this week. Leila Sotto-Maior, who retired from FUNAI in 2018 after 20 years with the agency, is one of Brazil’s leading experts on indigenous territorial rights. She told Mongabay that the government’s actions represent a serious conflict of interest: “They seem to have had the clear intention of infringing the Federal Constitution [of 1988] with respect to the need to recognize the rights of indigenous people as the original inhabitants,” she said. “What they want to do is to usurp the rights of indigenous people and to get hold of the lands of the Union [that is, public land] to advance agribusiness, creating havoc with our forests and denying any right to contest what they are doing.”

Indigenous communities are reeling. Sônia Gujajajara, president of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), one of Brazil’s leading indigenous groups, tweeted: “The unravelling has begun … Does anyone still doubt that he [Bolsonaro] will carry out his electoral promises to exclude us [indigenous people from our constitutional rights]?”

A Guarani indigenous leader, speaking with NGO Survival International, asked: “Is this President Jair Bolsonaro a real human being? I think not. The first thing he’s done is to mess with indigenous rights. I ask: who were the first inhabitants of this country?”

Yanomami children at a health seminar run by SESAI (Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health). Many Yanomami have high levels of toxic mercury in their blood due to illegal mining operations within their territory. Photo credit: Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena (Sesai) on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Targeting indigenous reserves

If Bolsonaro continues to follow through with his campaign promises, this week’s actions could be just the beginning of trouble for indigenous communities. Throughout the election, he repeatedly pledged that, once in office, he would reduce in size – or even abolish – particular indigenous reserves.

A favorite Bolsonaro target has been the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous territory in Roraima state, in the very north of Brazil. It’s one of the country’s largest reserves, covering 1.7 million hectares (6,500 square miles) and is inhabited by about 20,000 indigenous people, mainly Macuxi.

Farmers, arriving in the southern part of the region in the 1970s and carrying out large-scale rice cultivation there, were fiercely opposed to giving the Indians such a large territory. The conflict generated considerable violence. Bolsonaro has always taken the side of the farmers, saying back in 2016 that: “In 2019 we’re going to rip up Raposa Serra do Sol. We’re going to give all the farmers guns.” Experts see Bolsonaro’s repeated pledge to weaken Brazil’s gun laws – allowing the population to freely buy arms – as akin to adding gasoline to the fire of Amazon agribusiness / indigenous conflicts.

Yanomami women gathered at a government-sponsored health event. Bolsonaro has called the government’s creation of the Yanomami indigenous reserve a “criminal act.” Photo credit: Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena (Sesai) on Foter.com / CC BY-NC.

Another large indigenous reserve that Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticized is the Yanomami territory, which straddles Brazil’s border with Venezuela. It was officially recognized by the government just before Brazil hosted the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Covering 9.4 million hectares (36,290 square miles), it is one of the most important protected areas on the planet, conserving tremendous biodiversity. It is home to about 30,000 Yanomami Indians.

According to Sotto-Maior, Bolsonaro appointed people to his transition team who want to isolate the indigenous population there onto small conserved forest “islands,” taking away their right to a continuous territory. She said: “This type of demarcation would free up areas for exploitation by foreign capital, whether for hydroelectric power or mining, without the measures needing to be approved by the National Congress. These activities will threaten indigenous land in both Raposa Serra do Sol and the Yanomami [territory].”

Bolsonaro, while a federal deputy, was vehemently opposed to the creation of the territory back in 1992. He said in 2017: “I fought with Jarbas Passarinho [the then Minister of Justice who signed the decree]. I fought with him because of the crime of high treason he committed in demarcating the Yanomami reserve. It was a criminal act.”

Sotto-Maior is fearful for the future: “What we are seeing is a serious reversal [of indigenous policy] and the risk of many conflicts in the countryside. It seems to me that there is a lack of understanding [in the Bolsonaro administration] of the need to reconcile traditional and local knowledge with agribusiness expansion.”

There have been numerous criticisms on social media to Bolsonaro’s FUNAI / INCRA executive order this week. The President, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” responded via Twitter: “More than 15% of national territory is demarcated as indigenous and quilombola land. Fewer than one million people, exploited and manipulated by NGOs, live in these isolated places, Together, we will integrate these citizens and give value to all Brazilians.”

A meeting of the bancada ruralista – congressional supporters of agribusiness – with then candidate Jair Bolsonaro at center in white shirt. Tereza Cristina, to the right of the new president, is Bolsonaro’s choice as Minister of Agriculture. Photo: FPA / Flickr.

A threat to Brazil, South America and the world

International environmentalists are also concerned by Bolsonaro’s administrative decree. Indigenous communities have long been recognized as being the best guardians of the Amazon rainforest; the undermining of those land rights and territories could lead to greatly increased deforestation on protected lands.

Going forward, the consequences of Bolsonaro’s actions may well be dramatic, not only for Brazil but for the planet. The eventual loss of indigenous reserves and large swathes of the Amazon rainforest, known as “the lungs of the world” and vital to carbon sequestration, could have major repercussions for regional and global climate stability.

Working with a mathematical model, researchers from Brazil’s prestigious National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the body that monitors Amazon deforestation, simulated what could happen if the new president delivers on his Amazon pledges. They calculated that Bolsonaro’s policies could lead to a jump in deforestation from present levels of 6,900 square kilometers (2,664 square miles) annually, to 25,600 square kilometres (9,884 square miles) per year by 2020.

In an editorial published in the journal Science Advances, two prestigious scientists, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, warned last year that the Amazon forest may be close to “a threshold beyond which the region’s tropical rainforest may undergo irreversible changes that transform the landscape into degraded savanna with sparse, shrubby plant cover and low biodiversity.”

Such an event could have catastrophic consequences for us all. Recent studies are already showing that the Amazon forest, once an important carbon sink, may now be emitting more carbon than it absorbs. If the forest starts to die, much of the carbon currently stored in its biomass could be released to the atmosphere. Scientists have calculated that the Amazon holds one fifth of the planet’s biomass. A shift to far dryer times and to savanna could cause Brazil’s carbon emissions to shoot up exponentially – while also being a major threat to the nation’s agribusiness-based economy.

Bolsonaro’s proposed Amazon policies, if carried out, could ultimately help dash the world’s hopes of achieving the global climate goals agreed to in Paris, a failure that could lead to climate chaos. They could also lead to a Brazilian agribusiness collapse – leaving China, other nations, and the European Union short of critical commodities ranging from beef to soy, cotton and corn.

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Indigenous communities have long been recognized as the best protectors of Amazon rainforests, which harbor tremendous biodiversity. Environmentalists fear that Bolsonaro’s policies could undermine decades of hard work by indigenous people and conservationists in the region. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.