Paving the Way: Brazil’s Push for Opening Indigenous Land

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 12

On September 24, 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro addressed the United Nations General Assembly, chastising other member states for their criticism of Brazilian domestic policy. In particular, Bolsonaro addressed his desire to modify Article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution and open indigenous lands for commercial use. Citing vast mineral and agricultural potential, Bolsonaro claimed he would boost the struggling Brazilian economy and “civilize and modernize” indigenous groups. Indigenous leaders and activists swiftly decried the move. A joint statement by the 16 peoples of the Xingu region (the largest protected zone of indigenous land in Brazil) condemned Bolsonaro’s actions, claiming the UN speech was merely an attempt to get world leaders to turn a blind eye to ethnocide. Internally, Bolsonaro’s domestic policies are linked to a sharp increase in extrajudicial deforestation and invasions of rapidly-shrinking indigenous land. Unless stopped, Bolsonaro’s current push will not only hasten the invasions of indigenous land, but will also strip indigenous groups of their last and strongest protections, paving the way for complete destruction of ancestral lands and extermination of modern Brazilian indigenous life.

Ever since Brazil’s military dictatorship bulldozed and massacred its way through the Amazon in the 1960s and 1970s, land rights and survival have been synonymous for Brazil’s 305 indigenous groups. In particular, Article 231 of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, written after the dictatorship’s overthrow, recognizes the basic right of Brazilian indigenous to exist and thrive on their ancestral lands. This affirmation has been the cornerstone of Brazilian indigenous policy over the last four decades and is recognized as the most fundamental of protections for nearly 900,000 people.

Bolsonaro’s current push, although frightening, is an expected challenge to the norms established by Article 231. Quoted in the late 1990s saying “it’s a shame the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians,” Bolsonaro has long been perceived as an enemy for Brazilian indigenous. During the 2018 presidential campaign, his biggest promise was to not demarcate “one centimeter more” of indigenous land, a move that he has since upheld. In doing so, Bolsonaro froze increased protections for Brazilian indigenous, setting the stage for directly challenging Article 231 and the question of indigenous land protection at its core. Presently, only 60.4 percent of the 688 indigenous territories in Brazil are officially recognized. Numerous groups live alongside highways or farms, uncertain if their ancestral lands will ever be acknowledged. Furthermore, without federal recognition nor protection, illegal mining, ranching, and logging organizations often move in and force indigenous groups out.

Even within protected or recognized territories, indigenous leaders are plagued by illegal industry, and can do little to protect their rapidly-shrinking land while the Brazilian government stands by. By Bolsonaro’s September UN speech, there were 153 recorded invasions of indigenous territory in 2019, more than double 2018’s total. Trespassers often arrive armed, leading to numerous deaths over the last several decades, including the murders of several prominent Brazilian activists. The true concern, however, lies in the destruction of indigenous land, especially for groups living in the Amazon. Rede Xingu+, an indigenous-environmental coalition, estimated 69,000 football fields of indigenous territory had been destroyed in just one region. Accompanying the destruction are ecological loss, depleted food supplies, shelter and access to medicinal plants.

Although the Brazilian government can claim independence from the current destruction of indigenous land, Bolsonaro’s policies and rhetoric are viewed as a legitimizing factor for the invaders. In particular, indigenous leaders compare Bolsonaro’s push to modify Article 231 with the dictatorship’s slogan, “a land without people for a people without land,” referring to the expansion of agribusiness in the 1960s-70s. The broad support Bolsonaro enjoys by agribusiness amplify these comparisons. Furthermore, on his first day in office, Bolsonaro tried (and failed) to place indigenous land demarcation under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture. Environmental fines for illegal logging have also fallen by 30 percent under Bolsonaro, significantly reducing the penalties in the rare instance invaders are caught.

Bolsonaro’s administration has also worked to heavily limit the Brazilian government’s ability to monitor and respond to threats against indigenous territory. Early into his Presidential term, Bolsonaro pushed to place FUNAI (Brazil’s National Indian Foundation) under the control of the Ministry of Family, Women, and Human Rights, whose minister is infamous for being anti-indigenous. After the Brazilian Congress blocked the move, Bolsonaro slashed FUNAI’s budget, to the point where in the 8.5m hectare Javari region, only 18 employees remain, limiting their ability to detect let alone intervene in the ongoing incursions by miners searching for gold. Bruno Pereira, the head of uncontacted indigenous groups at FUNAI, was also dismissed without apparent reason. In response, Brazilian experts wrote an open letter claiming that the dismissal would “provoke genocide” against uncontacted and recently contacted peoples.

Bolsonaro’s push to amend Article 231, however, represents a fundamental shift in anti-indigenous policy. Despite being in its nascent stages, it is clear that Bolsonaro has tired of sitting by and waiting for illegal industry and invaders to clear the land for him. By directly attacking Article 231, Bolsonaro revealed his endgame, as by modifying the economic exploitation clauses, he would legally open up ancestral lands for private use and destroy the concept of protected territory in Brazil. Indigenous leaders, in a series of public statements, expressed concern that their lands would be sold to foreign interests and that they would be forced off or killed.

Despite the severity of Bolsonaro’s push, it is yet in its early stages and can be stopped. As shown with FUNAI, the Brazilian Congress has proven somewhat hostile to clear, overreaching power moves by Bolsonaro. An attempt to dismantle the national indigenous healthcare industry was likewise stymied by widespread public protest. Although the fate of Article 231 remains unclear, one truth is indisputable. Should Bolsonaro’s administration succeed in modifying the Constitution, indigenous life in Brazil will undergo rapid and dramatic change, destroying lifestyles that have survived six hundred years of colonialism and hostility.

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