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Brazil wants to legalize agribusiness leasing of indigenous lands

  • It is currently illegal under the 1988 Brazilian Constitution for outside agricultural producers to lease land within indigenous reserves from indigenous groups in order to grow commercial commodities crops there. It is also illegal for indigenous groups to convert forests within their reserves to commercial commodities crop production.
  • However, the Bolsonaro government, utilizing public events and public statements, has made it clear that it condones such activities. Brazil currently knows of 22 indigenous reserves in violation of the law, with areas illegally leased to agricultural producers totaling 3.1 million hectares (11,969 square miles).
  • Bolsonaro’s Agriculture Minister stated last week that she wants to see Congress move forward with new measures to make commercial commodities growing legal within indigenous reserves, provided the indigenous people living there agree to the crops and make land leasing agreements with producers.
  • Up until now, indigenous groups have been renowned as the best protectors of the Amazon rainforest. However, the Bolsonaro administration’s moves seem aimed at dividing indigenous groups into two camps, one that favors agribusiness conversion, and one that wants to protect reserve forests and indigenous traditions.
Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles (both wearing glasses and indigenous headdresses), together with Special Secretary for Land Affairs Luiz Nabhan Garcia (to left of Cristina), Mato Grosso governor Mauro Mendes (to right of Salles), along with other officials, during their visit to the Hiriti-Paresi indigenous village in Campo Novo dos Paresis, Mato Grosso, February 13, 2019. Image by Noaldo Santos/MAPA.

Since his time as a federal deputy, Jair Bolsonaro, has consistently advocated for the exploitation of indigenous lands (TIs) for agricultural purposes by non-indigenous people – a desire shared with ruralista agribusiness producers, but a proposition outlawed in the 1988 Brazilian Constitution. Now as president of the Republic, Bolsonaro appears to be urging the ruralistas and their congressional lobby to make aggressive moves in that direction.

Seemingly to promote that purpose, a very well publicized event was held last week, known as the First National Meeting of Indigenous Farmers in the Paresi indigenous villages of Bacaval and Matsene Kalore, in Mato Grosso state. Attending the high-profile event was Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina; Special Secretary for Land Affairs Luiz Nabhan Garcia; Mato Grosso governor Mauro Mendes; and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles.

Salles posted a photo on his Twitter feed in which he donned an indigenous headdress for the Paresi people’s Harvest Celebration and wrote: the “Paresis Indians, who plant and produce [genetically modified soy] with much competence, show they can integrate into agribusiness without losing their origins and traditions.”

It was the Agriculture Minister, however, who perhaps best crystalized the core message of the meeting. Cristina emphasized that a change in federal legislation could allow indigenous people to work with agribusiness in producing large-scale commodities crops on their lands. “That is what we are for in the Congress. Things evolve, change. Your will is sovereign, it is in the ILO [International Labour Organization]-convention 169. You have to decide what you want to do, what is the wish of the indigenous peoples.” Convention 169 does guarantee consultation with indigenous groups regarding major developments that may impact them; it does not, however, grant indigenous groups the right to vote and allow their federal reserves to be deforested and converted to commodities production.

To drive home the administration’s point, Salles, Cristina and their entourage also visited an illegal soybean plantation in the Utiariti Indigenous Reserve in Northwest Mato Grosso. These were croplands banned by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, last June. National transgenic legislation prohibits the planting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within conservation units (UCs), of which indigenous lands are part. At the time, IBAMA fined 17 non-indigenous tenants and five Paresis and Nambiquaras associations.

A U.S.-made John Deere harvester provides a photo op for Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, Mato Grosso Governor Mauro Mendes, Special Secretary for Land Affairs Luiz Nabhan Garcia and others during their visit to an illegal soy plantation within the Campo Novo do Paresis indigenous reserve, February 13, 2019. Credit Noaldo Santos/MAPA.

In addition to transgenic crops, IBAMA detected illegal agricultural practices that overused natural resources and impeded the resurgence of native vegetation. The bans on such practices extend over six indigenous reserves in the region. Since, under law, indigenous territories belong to the federal Union, indigenous people are not allowed to produce commercial agricultural monocultures on their reserves, or lease the lands for that use.

According to FUNAI, the nation’s indigenous affairs agency, Brazil currently knows of 22 indigenous reserves in violation of the law, with areas illegally leased to agricultural producers – a total of 3.1 million hectares (11,969 square miles).

However, on its website, the Ministry of Agriculture claims that “large-scale soybean, corn and bean production in the Campo Novo dos Paresis region was authorized by the Federal Public Ministry and IBAMA.” The Paresis had planned to plant 10,000 hectares (24,710) in commercial crops for the 2018/19 harvest, of which the majority, 8,700 hectares (21,498), would have been in soybeans.

But the accuracy of the Agriculture Ministry statement has been strongly denied: “IBAMA has not signed any agreement on planting in the Paresi, Rio Formoso, Tirecatinga, Utiariti, Manoki and Uirapuru lands before or after the embargoes carried out in 2018,” said Suely Araújo, IBAMA’s president during Michel Temer’s administration.

MAPA minister Tereza Cristina at the ceremony introducing the new board of directors for the Parliamentary Agriculture Front (FPA), Brazil’s powerful far-right ruralist congressional lobby, February 2019. Shortly before his election, the FPA threw the weight of their full support behind Bolsonaro. Image by Alan Santos/PR/MAPA.

In an official notification, the Federal Public Ministry in Mato Grosso (MPF-MT), independent litigators, declared that “the MPF… defends… the Federal Constitution and the legislation, which assure indigenous peoples the exclusive use of their lands, thereby preventing people from the surrounding society from taking advantage of traditional indigenous territory for their economic activities, disguised as illegal partnership or lease agreements.”

The MPF is, however, currently intermediating a Term of Conduct Adjustment (TAC), between IBAMA and the Paresis, to “regularize the agricultural production in the region, as well as offering sustainable cultivation options, with the support of Embrapa,” a state-owned agricultural research company affiliated with the Agriculture Ministry.

Critics are strongly opposed to what they see as a transparent attempt by the Bolsonaro administration to engineer a policy and legal reversal: “There is a great effort on the part of the ruralistas to de-characterize the so-called exclusive use of indigenous territories. Their strategy is to form commercial partnerships with indigenous people and, with that, to dismantle the very definition of indigenous land,” a socio-environmental policy specialist told Mongabay under the condition of anonymity.

“Indigenous peoples reject the model of [agribusiness commodities] monoculture, which is not compatible with our reality and our way of life,” said Dinaman Tuxá, coordinator of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), to Mongabay. “The TI legislation prohibits high production of grains and [outsider agribusiness] predatory activity. If the TAC [agreement] is signed, it will open a dangerous precedent by allowing something illegal, which in the future, will facilitate the lease of indigenous lands.”

Yesterday, Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina met with the president of Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court (STF), Dias Toffoli, to propose a negotiated solution to the ongoing legal disputes between indigenous peoples and rural producers. “For more than 20 years we have [had judicial] actions coming from both sides; I think it’s a lose-lose game,” said Cristina.

Toffoli agreed there is a need to respect the rights of indigenous minorities, “without demeaning the right of rural producers, who often are not large landowners but small producers.” Evidence shows that large-scale landowners are also often involved in indigenous legal disputes. No official decision regarding the resolution of indigenous and producer conflicts was announced.

Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles dons a headdress as he joins Paresis indigenous people in Mato Grosso state last week. Image found on Twitter.

Environment Minister Salles speaks out

Also last week, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles gave a controversial interview on Brazilian television. Here are some excerpts, all of which evoked a strong reaction from environmentalists:

Statement: “We will not change [Brazil’s Paris Agreement] target, although the agreement [allows] the change of the target. It’s not [only] up: you can review the goals anywhere [and in both directions].”

Response: This is false. if Brazil decides to revise its voluntary 2015 Paris Climate Agreement carbon emission target downward, then Brazil would need to leave the Paris accord.

Statement: “I do not need to have a secretariat [of forests]. IBAMA is there for that.”

Response: IBAMA is an oversight agency that detects and punishes environmental crimes. The Secretariat of Climate and Forests, abolished by President Bolsonaro, had a different purpose. It formulated public policies and was responsible for the implementation of plans for the prevention and control of deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes.

Statement: “What difference does it make who Chico Mendes is? (…) On the side of the environmentalists, [the ones] more connected to the left, [they] extoll Mendes. Agribusiness people say that he used the rubber tappers to benefit himself.”

Response: Chico Mendes was a rubber tapper and environmental activist leader who fought effectively and boldly for the preservation of the Amazon forest and was murdered by a large-scale agricultural producer in 1988. The Brazilian government honored Mendes by naming its national park service after him.

President of BNDES Joaquim Levy (center) and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles (left) during meeting discussing the Amazon Fund at BNDES headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of Rossana Fraga/BNDES.

Salles demands Amazon Fund data for apparent audit

In other news last week, Minister Salles met with BNDES officials in order to obtain full access to Amazon Fund contracts managed by the giant development bank. The minister wanted specific information such as targets and reports on the fund’s activities, but the BNDES officials raised questions of his having access to the information, based on privacy rules and bureaucratic procedures not being properly met by the demand.

Salles next reportedly contacted the Comptroller-General of the Union (CGU), Wagner Rosário, who has the legal prerogative to gain access to any document dealing with the federal administration. The analysis of Amazon Fund contracts is expected to take 60 days, after which government measures may be taken. What those measures could be, or why they might be taken, is currently unknown.

The Amazon Fund has 103 contracts to limit deforestation in effect in Brazil, about half of them with NGOs, and has already received R$ 3.4 billion (US$ 1.3 billion), mostly from the Norwegian government. Earlier, the Ministry of the Environment notified Brazilian environmental NGOs who receive federal funding that the Bolsonaro administration will be auditing their contracts, and at first threatened to put a hold on funding during the audit. Environmental groups have expressed deep concern over the administration’s actions.

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