- During the largest gathering of Indigenous people in Brazil, President Lula recognized six Indigenous lands, resuming the demarcation process which stalled for over five years under the two former presidents.
- Brazil has 733 Indigenous territories, of which 496 are now recognized by the state. The remaining 237 are in different stages of the demarcation procedure.
- The number of demarcations the president recognized was lower than the expected 14 lands, to the disappointment of attending Indigenous leaders who didn’t have their land recognized yet.
- The president declared that he will demarcate the highest number of Indigenous lands possible in his four-year term, but the fate of several lands depends, to a large extent, on the passing of a controversial bill which could restrict the amount of Indigenous lands recognized.
SÃO PAULO — Last Friday, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed documents officially recognizing six Indigenous lands across the country. After years of stalling due to opposition by the two former presidents with the country’s Indigenous policies, they are the first Indigenous lands to be demarcated since 2018.
The president of Brazil’s Indigenous agency (FUNAI), Joenia Wapichana, also signed an ordinance to resume the demarcation process of two other Indigenous lands and set their boundaries; the Sawré Muybu land of the Munduruku people in Pará state and the Krenak de Sete Salões land of the Krenak people in the Minas Gerais state.
Located in different biomes, the Amazon, Cerrado, Caatinga and Atlantic Forest, the six territories add up to 621,800 hectares (over 1,536,500 acres), larger than the size of Brunei, and are home to 4,000 Indigenous people.
The country now has 496 demarcated Indigenous lands of 733 in total. The remaining 237, or 32% of the total, are at different stages of the demarcation process.
During the event in the capital Brasília, the president also signed decrees to revive the National Policy for Territorial and Environmental Management in Indigenous Lands (PNGATI) and the National Council for Indigenous Policy (CNPI), institutions to conserve natural resources on Indigenous lands and include Indigenous organizations in Indigenous policy decisions which were dismantled under the former Jair Bolsonaro government.
If the state does not recognize Indigenous territories, the state and companies can enter their lands for mining projects, constructing hydroelectric dams, building roads and more, without any limit, explains Melissa Curi, director of education at the Brazilian Institute for Development and Sustainability (IABS).
“We are working to demarcate the highest number of Indigenous lands possible, not only because it is their right, but because if we want to reach [my commitment to] zero deforestation by 2030, we need those lands demarcated,” declared President Lula at the closing of the event organized by APIB, an umbrella group representing Brazil’s Indigenous people’s organizations.
Indigenous territories are the most preserved areas in the country. Between 1990 and 2020, Indigenous lands demarcated or awaiting demarcation lost only 1% of their native vegetation area, according to data from MapBiomas, a research collective that tracks land-use changes via satellite imagery. In private areas, on the other hand, the percentage of deforestation was 20.6%. Indigenous lands’ also play an important role in mitigating climate change, according to recent research, being some of the most secure and reliable net carbon sinks over the past two decades.
When their lands are not formally demarcated, lack protection against invaders and succumb to poverty and social changes that incentivize Indigenous peoples to join in unsustainable supply chains, research shows that deforestation on their ancestral lands increases.
Almost 10% of the formally demarcated lands are still not properly protected, as the constitution guarantees, said Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sônia Guajajara during the event. “They are impacted by overlaps, invasions, land grabbing and occupations aimed at the practice of criminal activities, such as illegal extraction of timber and drug trafficking.”
The increase in illegal deforestation and mining in Amazonian Indigenous lands caused the emission of 96 million tons of carbon between 2013 and 2021, according to a study released this month in Nature. Of that total, 59% occurred just between 2019 and 2021 during the former Bolsonaro administration.
While Jair Bolsonaro, president from 2019 to 2022, fulfilled his promise “to not demarcate even a centimeter of Indigenous and quilombola lands,” Michel Temer, president from 2016 to 2018, ratified one land despite having received four demarcation documents ready to be signed.
The newly recognized territories are Arara do Rio Amônia home of the Arara people in Acre state; Uneiuxi home of the Maku Nadёb people in the Amazon state; Avá-Canoeiro home of the Avá-Canoeiro people in Goiás state; Kariri-Xocó home of the Kariri-Xokó in the state of Alagoas; Tremembé da Barra do Mundaú home of the Tremembé people in the state of Ceará; and Rio dos Índios, home of the Kaingang people in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Currently, about 93% of all demarcated areas are concentrated in the Amazon while 40% of the Brazilian Indigenous population live elsewhere, said Sônia Guajajara.
A long, bumpy process
Despite the presidential signing, the number fell short of expectations by Indigenous policy experts. The forecast was that the government would demarcate 14 lands in April, including Aldeia Velha land of the Pataxó people in Bahia; the Cacique Fontoura land of the Karajá people in Mato Grosso; and the Morro dos Cavalos land of the Guarani people in Santa Catarina.
Some Indigenous people attending the event with expectations their land will be demarcated were upset at the outcome and demanded an explanation.
When asked why not all the lands previously announced by the Ministry of Indigenous People were signed, Sônia Guajajara, said: “we are still in their conclusion phase. When you update the work, you see that documentary evidence is still missing, so we presented the processes to the House Civil and [it] was unable to conclude them for today[‘s signature].”
President Lula also said the recognition of Indigenous lands is a lengthy process that has to go through many hands.
The stages of the demarcation process include an approved anthropological study confirming the presence of Indigenous people on ancestral land, a hearing for legal challenges, a declaration of the physical limits of the area by the Minister of Justice and a signature by the president recognizing the land.
Minister Guajajara did not set a deadline for the next demarcations.
However, according to the NGO Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), sources from the Indigenous movement also said that there was pressure from politicians against the decrees.
Melissa Curi of IABS told Mongabay that the delay of the demarcations is due to land conflicts, with rural producers saying they own some of these Indigenous areas. Rural farmers and political supporters, many landowners, are also against the demarcation of Indigenous lands as they want to exploit them to mine resources, log, build development projects or create plantations. The land of the Pataxó people in Bahia, which was not demarcated, is one region where such land conflicts persist.
Each one of the demarcations signed by the president is an administrative solution to the state of territories that resumes the demarcation process and fulfills the constitution, which has been pending for several years, Márcio Santilli, co-founder of ISA, told Mongabay.
“Demarcations are vital for the defense of the original peoples’ inherent rights. It is the recognition by the state of the peoples and their traditions, which go through their relationship with the land,” said Curi.
Article 67 of the Transitional Provisions Acts of the Constitution says that the state must conclude the demarcation of all Indigenous lands within five years from the promulgation of the Constitution.
“We will await the edition of the eight decrees referring to lands that are already physically demarcated,” said Santilli.
The president also declared that he will demarcate the highest number of Indigenous lands possible in his four-year term.
But the fate of this depends on the introduction of a bill defended by many rural farmers and a largely pro-agribusiness Congress that also helped delay the demarcation of the eight lands, Santilli says.
The bill seeks to introduce the controversial marco temporal (‘time frame’) criteria where Indigenous peoples are only entitled to claim lands they were occupying at the time that Brazil’s current Constitution came into effect on October 8, 1988.
The judgement of the marco temporal criteria is at the Federal Supreme Court and will resume on June 7.
Banner image: (Left to right) Minister of State for Development and Social Assistance, Family and Fight against Hunger, Wellington Dias, Minister of State for Indigenous Peoples, Sonia Guajajara, President of the Republic, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President of Wafunai, Joênia Pichan, during the 19th edition of Camp Terra Livre (ATL), 2023. Image by Palácio do Planalto (Brazil presidential palace) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
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