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Activists slam Bolsonaro rule change seen as ending demarcation of Indigenous lands

Indigenous movement protest in Brasília in April 2022. Since before he was elected in 2018, President Jair Bolsonaro has said he would not allow the demarcation of Indigenous territories in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Midia Ninja.

  • The Brazilian government has drawn up a new statute for Funai, the country’s Indigenous affairs agency, without the input of Indigenous peoples.
  • Indigenous rights activists say the structural changes will hinder the body’s functioning and effectively end the demarcation of new Indigenous territories across the country.
  • The move is the latest attempt by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro to undermine Funai, according to insiders and observers.
  • Bolsonaro came to power in 2019 on a campaign promise to stop demarcating Indigenous territories and to “deliver a blow to the neck” of Funai.

A radical change to how Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency functions has prompted alarm among activists, who say it effectively threatens to end the demarcation of Indigenous territories and set back policymaking.

Decree 11,226, published Oct. 10 in the official government gazette, abolishes the regional committees of the National Indian Foundation, or Funai. These committees are regional-level bodies where Indigenous peoples, Funai employees and other civil servants work together to plan policies and evaluate results.

Members of these participatory bodies say their removal from the Funai statute will make it difficult to continue studies, such as public consultations and protection fronts for isolated Indigenous peoples, and could even affect the demarcation of new Indigenous territories.

“Remember how the [Jair] Bolsonaro government promised to strike a blow to Funai? First he cut the number of staff, and now, with this decree, he has cut the foundation’s head off,” said Antonio Eduardo Cerqueira de Oliveira, executive secretary of the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church.

“This is basically the end for the foundation,” Cerqueira added.

He also raised concerns over the reallocation of important roles, such as committee members, across virtually all of Funai’s directorates. More than 1,000 positions within the foundation will be reshuffled or will have new duties attached to them. The government will have the power to freely appoint who it wants to those positions, which could further accelerate what observers call the dismantling of Funai since Bolsonaro took office at the start of 2019.

According to the text of the decree, the changes will come into force Oct. 27.

“What you can see is that there is pressure to reduce the foundation’s power to deliberate over Indigenous issues, meaning it loses its responsibilities and purpose,” Cerqueira said.

The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) said the abolition of the Funai’s participatory bodies “reinforces the systemic omission of and actions against Indigenous rights” and is in violation of international treaties.

Indigenous people protest in Brasília, in front of the Congress, in 2021. Indigenous rights advocates say Bolsonaro’s new decree will, in effect, end the demarcation of new indigenous lands. Photo courtesy of Scarlett Rocha/Apib.

“The decree undermines the principle of the consultation and prior, free and informed consent of Indigenous peoples, enshrined in Article 6 [of Convention 169] of the International Labour Organization,” APIB’s legal adviser wrote in an analysis of the decree. “The state has the duty to consult Indigenous peoples in advance each and every time acts of an administrative or legislative nature are likely to affect them.”

The changes to Funai’s statute also remove Indigenous communities’ power to manage heritage assets passed on to them by public authorities.

The presidential decree is already being challenged in Congress, led by Joênia Wapichana, the sole Indigenous member of Congress, who filed a Legislative Decree Proposal (PDL) seeking to block the decree’s actions.

In presenting her proposal, Wapichana said Funai’s new statute “dismantles territorial monitoring” by thinning out the foundation’s structure, its surveillance capabilities, and training programs for Indigenous peoples. Wapichana also pointed to funding cuts made to the Museu do Índio, Funai’s museum in Rio de Janeiro dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of Brazil.

“It is unacceptable for the Bolsonaro government to push through the restructuring of Funai without consulting Indigenous peoples, something that is guaranteed in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization and other legal provisions,” she said.

Funai employees, many caught off guard by the decree, have also been trying to get to grips with the scope of the changes to the organization, particularly in relation to how the foundation’s regional coordinating bodies will be affected.

“We are suspicious, because of everything that the current Funai administration has already done to harm Indigenous rights and against Funai employees themselves,” said Fernando Vianna, president of the Associated Indigenists, a group of Funai employees that works with other bodies to call attention to the dismantling of the foundation.

In a statement published on Oct. 11 on Funai’s website, the foundation’s management body said the regional and technical coordinating bodies will “be strengthened by the new statute, without losses or cuts,” and that the changes will “guarantee efficiency in the use of the resources available without increasing expenditure in direct administration costs.” The statement made no mention of the public outcry against the new statute by Indigenous protection organizations. When contacted for comment by InfoAmazonia, Funai did not respond to any of the criticisms.

Brazilian National Indigenous Mobilization 2018
Over 3,000 Indigenous from over 100 different communities marched in front of Brazilian Ministries in 2018 to bring a message to the government: “No more indigenous genocide – Demarcation Now!” Image by 350 .org via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Four years of dismantling

This restructuring of Funai is just the latest in a long line of anti-Indigenous policies pursued by President Jair Bolsonaro. In his nearly four years in power, Bolsonaro has watered down state protections for existing Indigenous territories and refused to demarcate any new Indigenous territories.

When announcing his presidential bid in 2017, Bolsonaro, at the time a member of Congress, promised that his government would not cede “a single centimeter of land demarcated for Indigenous or Quilombola reserves,” and pledged to “deliver a blow to the neck of Funai.”

In the first three years of the Bolsonaro administration, deforestation inside existing Indigenous territories increased by 138%, according to a study by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples. Government interventions in Funai’s decision-making processes have also left Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation at greater risk.

“The Indigenous body has repeatedly excused itself from its duties with regard to the demarcation and protection of Indigenous lands, as well as the monitoring, protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous peoples,” APIB said in a statement.

Among the Bolsnaro government’s failures in relation to its duties toward isolated Indigenous peoples is its threat to refuse to renew land usage restrictions for areas inside the Piripkura and Ituna-Itatá Indigenous territories, where isolated Indigenous peoples are known to live. Both territories have come under increasing attacks from land invaders, such as illegal loggers and miners. Bolsonaro has also refused to renew the exclusive land usage rights for isolated Indigenous peoples on the Jacareúba/Katawixi Indigenous Territory, which has been left unprotected since December 2021.

Heat spots in area next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, in Labrea, Amazonas state. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

No consultation with affected communities

The decree, announced without any prior consultation with Brazil’s Indigenous peoples, is part of a string of unilateral decisions by the current administration relating to Indigenous peoples.

Recently, the federal government unilaterally concluded the process for free, prior and informed consultation for Indigenous communities who would potentially be affected by a project to repave the BR-319 highway cutting through the Amazon. The Indigenous communities of Lago Capanã, Ipixuna, Nove de Janeiro, Ariramba, Apurinã do Igarapé Tauamirim and Apurinã do Igarapé São João all lie within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the highway. The decision ignored protests from the Federal Public Ministry and Indigenous groups themselves, who alleged that their rights were violated in order for roadworks to commence on the federal government project.

In May this year, citing the international fertilizer crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bolsonaro asked Congress to speed up the approval of a bill that seeks to legalize mining inside Indigenous territories — an activity that’s prohibited under Brazil’s Constitution. He defended the bill by saying it was necessary to boost potassium mining in the Amazon.

In Autazes, a municipality in the Madeira River Basin in the state of Amazonas, Canada-based miner Brazil Potash has plans to dig for the mineral that’s used in the production of fertilizer. There have been reports of Indigenous people in the area being co-opted by the company to undermine the prior consultation process and force the project through. A report published by Funai’s Indigenist Associates and the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (INESC), titled “Anti-Indigenous Foundation: A Portrait of Funai under the Bolsonaro Government,” says the foundation has become increasingly militarized and is now “an agency for anti-Indigenous policies.”

Banner image: Indigenous movement protest in Brasília in April 2022. Since before he was elected in 2018, President Jair Bolsonaro has said he would not allow the demarcation of Indigenous territories in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Midia Ninja.

This story was reported in Portuguese by InfoAmazonia and translated to English by Matthew Rose.

See related coverage:

How an Indigenous family under siege became a symbol of resistance in the Amazon

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