- Brazil’s Congress has pushed through a new law that includes several anti-Indigenous measures that strip back land rights and open traditional territories to mining and agribusiness.
- It includes the controversial time frame thesis, requiring Indigenous populations to prove they physically occupied their land on Oct. 5 1988, the day of the promulgation of the Federal Constitution; failure to provide such evidence will nullify demarcated land.
- The decision provoked outrage among activists, who say the new law is the biggest setback for Indigenous rights in Brazil in decades.
- Both President Lula and the Supreme Court have previously called the measures in the bill unconstitutional and against public interests, and Indigenous organizations announced they will challenge the law.
Brazil’s Congress has pushed through a new law containing a series of anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental clauses, overruling President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s previous veto of some of the bill’s most harmful passages. Activists have lambasted the decision, saying it drastically strips back Indigenous rights and poses a threat to the future of the Amazon Rainforest and other Brazilian biomes.
On Oct. 20, Lula partially vetoed some of the most contentious clauses in the bill known as PL 2903, which were considered a major setback to Indigenous rights. Among them was the controversial “time frame” proposition (known as marco temporal in Portuguese), which would bar Indigenous people from claiming the rights to land that they did not physically occupy on Oct. 5, 1988, the date Brazil’s current Constitution was promulgated.
Just a month earlier, the Supreme Court had also ruled the marco temporal was unconstitutional, in a 9-2 decision.
But on Dec. 14, Congress, dominated by the powerful ruralist caucus representing agribusiness and mining interests, overwhelmingly voted to reject Lula’s veto, bringing into law most of the vetoed propositions. An absolute majority ruling is required to reject a presidential veto, which means 257 votes in the lower House and 41 in the Senate. The vote surpassed this requirement, with the lower House voting 321-137 and the Senate voting 53-19.
In addition to the marco temporal, which prevents the demarcation of new Indigenous territories without proof of prior occupation, the new law also contains several other measures that activists have labeled anti-Indigenous. Among them: non-Indigenous occupants of traditional lands, including illegal loggers and ranchers, will be permitted to remain there until the territory is demarcated — a process that can take decades. Congress also overturned a veto that opened a loophole for mining, the installation of military equipment, and road construction without prior consultation of the Indigenous population or Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency.
The new law also prohibits already demarcated land from being expanded and enforces the new rules to be applied to territories currently undergoing the demarcation process. Furthermore, any demarcated land that currently doesn’t comply with the new rules will be nullified.
In a statement, the Indigenous rights organization Survival International called these measures “the most serious and vicious attack on Indigenous rights in decades.”
In Brazil, the president can veto a bill if they determine it to be either unconstitutional or contrary to the public interest, or both. In October, Lula declared PL 2903 both “contrary to the public interest and unconstitutional” in a statement made to Rodrigo Pacheco, the Senate president, before vetoing the majority of the proposal.
The majority of Congress, however, sees the bill as a way to guarantee property rights for ruralists and has long pushed for the proposals to be enacted into law. The bill was approved in the lower House, known as the Chamber of Deputies, in May by a vote of 283-155, and in the upper House, the Senate, by 43-21. Considering these previous votes in favor of the bill, the rejection of Lula’s veto was expected.
“For us, this is nothing new for this Congress that we have and a government fully aligned with the interests of agribusiness,” Haroldo Heleno, coordinator at the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, told Mongabay. “Today, we have enemies within the government itself. But the fight continues.”
Some of Lula’s vetoes were upheld, including on the cultivation of transgenic crops on Indigenous lands; the loss of land due to alleged “alteration of the cultural traits of Indigenous community or other factors caused by the passage of time”; and the permission to reach uncontacted Indigenous people without the intermediation of Funai. These measures have not been passed into law.
Caroline Pearce, executive director of Survival International, said the new law gives Brazil’s loggers and ranchers more freedom to invade and conduct activities on Indigenous territories, dealing a severe blow to the environment and its traditional populations.
“It spells doom for much of the Amazon and all of Brazil’s forest,” she said in a statement. “It’s absolutely disastrous for Brazil’s uncontacted tribes — already among the most vulnerable peoples on the planet when their lands are invaded — and for all the country’s Indigenous people.”
Right-wing senator Marcos Rogério defended the vote, saying it was an opportunity to restore legal certainty to rural Brazil, where people live in insecurity due to a lack of definitive land boundaries. “We want peace in the countryside and peace for those who are working and producing food for Brazil and the world,” he said in a statement.
Tereza Cristina, a senator with the congressional ruralist caucus and former agricultural minister under the previous president, Jair Bolsonaro, also hailed the rejection of the veto: “Today we brought peace to the countryside, peace to the cities, peace to Brazil,” she said in a statement.
The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s biggest Indigenous alliance, said it would challenge the law. “Rights are not negotiable and the approval of the time frame measure is illegal,” APIB said in a statement. “In response to the result of the vote, the organization will file an unconstitutionality action with the Supreme Federal Court.”
This action will seek to overturn most of the law’s provisions. “We have the piece ready. We are going to appeal to the Supreme Court to guarantee, including with an injunction, that the law does not apply until the constitutionality of the text is judged and analyzed,” Dinaman Tuxá, a lawyer and executive coordinator of APIB, told Marco Zero, a Brazilian nonprofit news outlet. It’s not clear how long this process will take.
Despite the setback, Indigenous activists have expressed confidence that the Supreme Court will step in and nullify the law. “Indigenous peoples still hope that we will overturn it in the Supreme Court,” Aurelio Tenharim, an Indigenous leader from Amazonas state, told Mongabay. “The fight is not over yet, we’re still fighting. We didn’t lose hope.”
Banner image: On Dec. 14, Indigenous leaders remained outside Congress while lawmakers considered Lula’s vetoes, before marching to the Supreme Court after the law was pushed through. Image © Marina Oliveira/CIMI.
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