By Karla Mendes
Brazil’s highest court has averted a “massacre” by blocking the eviction of 5,000 indigenous people from disputed land, one of their leaders said, in a ruling that boosted ancestral claims.
Guarani-Kaiowa Indians occupied the land in the southwestern Mato Grosso do Sul state in 2016, amid rising violence and tensions following Indian affairs agency FUNAI’s pledge to return ancestral land - owned by farmers - to indigenous people.
“We were expecting a new Caarapo massacre,” indigenous leader Kunumi Apyka’i Rory said, referring to a 2016 attack on indigenous activists by farmers in the same region.
“It would be a bloodshed but because of Nhanderu and our prayers we managed,” he said in a statement by Conselho Indigenista Missionario (Cimi), a monitoring group linked to the Catholic Church.
South America’s largest country is grappling with scores of deadly unresolved indigenous land issues, in one of the world’s clearest examples of the conflict between preserving indigenous culture and promoting economic development.
Cimi says hundreds of indigenous people are killed each year in territorial conflicts with ranchers in Brazil, rich in land to be exploited and low on deeds and property records.
Brazil’s highest court on Monday overturned a removal order issued in 2016 by a lower court, following a request from FUNAI, the government agency responsible for restoring indigenous people to land that they were evicted from decades ago.
The use of police force to comply with the earlier legal order could have “serious and unacceptable consequences” and “risk to order and public safety”, Carmen Lucia, head of the supreme court, wrote in her decision.
“This scenario seems to show a risk of exacerbation between the parties in conflict and a consequent worsening situation of violence in the region,” she said.
Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people - who are disproportionately impacted by poverty and other social problems - control about 13 percent of its territory, mostly in the remote Amazon rainforest.
Numerous court battles pit native people, who say they have been denied access to their ancestral land, against powerful business interests, often soy, beef and sugar farmers holding title deeds.
The process of demarcating land to indigenous people is controversial, despite safeguards in the constitution and United Nations guidelines that are supposed to enshrine rights for indigenous people.
FUNAI is in charge of allocating land to the country’s some 300 indigenous tribes but progress has stalled amid budget cuts and proposals from powerful rural lawmakers to change the process, including opening up indigenous reserves to mining.
The Supreme Court decision paves the way for secure land demarcation for indigenous peoples throughout the country, said Rafael Modesto dos Santos, a lawyer with Cimi.
“It guarantees the indigenous people’s lives and physical integrity,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“(Otherwise) there would be a massacre, that is no doubt ... because 5,000 indigenous people with no possibility of defense (would) confront the government apparatus of war.”
Dos Santos said most land conflicts in Mato Grosso do Sul state derive from the illegal sale of indigenous land by the local government to ranchers, and the subsequent issuance of illegal titles over the last century.
A spokeswoman for the government of Mato Grosso do Sul, Beatricce Bruno, denied the accusations in emailed comments and said that it has always respected the law and court decisions.
Conflict over indigenous land in the state “is an old problem ... due to the lack of a secure legal framework”, she said.
The supreme court’s emergency decision to prevent the evictions will allow the Guarani-Kaiowa to remain on the land until the court issues a final decision on its ownership, which could take up to 10 years, dos Santos said.
Published on Reuters on April 11, 2018
By Peter Prengaman
Women cook over a dozen little open fires, while men lie on hammocks inside an adjoining building and naked children with distended bellies and dirty faces run around the shelter for indigenous Warao who have fled Venezuela's troubles.
Opened late last year with a capacity for housing about 250 people, the former warehouse in this Brazilian town now has upward of 500, and more are arriving daily. With no more space for hammocks, people are sleeping on the concrete floor.
Health workers scramble to identify children with measles — one in the shelter died this month — and address severe malnutrition and myriad other medical issues.
"All Venezuelans arriving here are in a precarious situation," said Luis Fernando Peres, one of the lead volunteers with Fraternity International Humanitarian Federation, one of the groups working at the shelter. "The Warao are arriving in even worse shape."
As Brazilian authorities scramble to accommodate tens of thousands of desperate Venezuelans crossing the country's northern border to escape their homeland's economic collapse and political unrest, the indigenous Warao are emerging as their biggest challenge.
Traditionally poor and marginalized in Venezuela, the Warao are arriving with even more health problems than other Venezuelans. Those health needs, combined with cultural and linguistic differences, mean authorities have no choice but to set up shelters just for them — and hope they can return to their home lands in Venezuela as integrating them into Brazilian society doesn't appear realistic.
Many Warao have little education and at best a shaky grasp on Spanish, which at least is related to the Portuguese spoken in Brazil. They will stay only with other Warao because they have so much distrust of "criollos," a term they use to refer to non-indigenous Venezuelans.
"We could never be with criollos because you don't know what could happen," said Teolinda Moralera, a 40-year-old Warao woman cooking chicken over a fire.
"The life of Warao is all about Warao," added Moralera, who came to the shelter two weeks ago with her husband and children, ages 15, 18, 20 and 23.
Authorities in Pacaraima, a hardscrabble dusty border town in the middle of the Amazon region, say the Warao began crossing into the region in 2016, a full year before tens of thousands of non-indigenous Venezuelans began arriving.
The "boat people," as their name denotes in the Warao language, have lived for centuries in the Orinoco Delta in northeastern Venezuela, more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) from Pacaraima.
Over the last several decades, fish supplies declined in their home territory as major rivers have been diverted and deepened for shipping, pushing many to migrate to Venezuelan cities to sell crafts and beg. When Venezuela fell into crisis, an already precarious situation was exacerbated.
Many of those interviewed said the Venezuela's socialist government led by President Nicolas Maduro abandoned them to the point that there were no services or food in areas where they lived.
"The Warao were always poor. With Maduro, we got even poorer," said Sumilde Gonzalez, 40, who came to the shelter with her husband and two young children.
The first arrivals in Pacaraima lived on the streets and begged, refusing to go to shelters with non-indigenous people. They had few work prospects. Many who could, traveled south to Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon region, or east to the city of Belem. There, as in Pacaraima, many live on the street, beg and sell handicrafts in the other cities.
Marcio Coelho, coordinator of the Pacaraima shelter, said a Warao-only shelter was the only way to get them off the streets.
"The city had no way to accommodate them," he said.
One possibility being floated is to designate a piece of land for Warao. The federal government has just announced plans to build a "base of support." The head of the government's National Indian Foundation has begun meeting with Warao leaders and with several groups indigenous to Brazil's Roraima state.
But it's unclear whether any of the Brazilian indigenous peoples would be willing to cede some of their land. In a statement, the foundation said the base would be temporary and the army would oversee it. No other details were given, and follow-up emails and calls seeking details were not answered.
While shelters are an improvement, they will work only as long as the government and volunteers continue to provide everything.
The local residents' frustration with the Warao, and the onslaught of Venezuelans in general, is palpable.
Pacaraima, which only has 11,000 people and is surrounded by indigenous lands, has many dirt roads and essentially exists to cater to travelers crossing the border both ways.
Around the corner from the shelter, Evaldo de Souza Rocha runs a fish market. He said Warao are always asking for water and dig through the trash at night, to the point that he now has locks on the cans. Some wood he had outside his house, which he planned to use for a project, disappeared one morning.
"It's a small thing, but it matters," he said, adding that he suspects the wood was burned in the open fires at the shelter.
Lizardi Reinosa, 23-year-old Warao who arrived with his younger brother a few months ago, said his attempts to find work are always met with a firm "no." In Pacaraima, many young locals earn a few dollars a day unloading cargo trucks.
"They tell me they will only give jobs to Brazilians, not Warao," said Reinosa, who on a recent day walked the town with dozens of other young men hoping to find a place for a pickup soccer game.
"Get to work, Warao!" a passing driver yelled at them.
Despite the difficulties and an uncertain future, many Warao say they are happy to be in Brazil, even going so far as to call the shelter a "paradise" compared to what they left behind.
One of those is Beodilio Zapata, a 23-year-old who recently arrived with his wife and severely malnourished sons, ages 1 and 2.
"Venezuela is misery," he said, as the boys, naked and with large bellies and blotchy spots on their heads from malnutrition, climbed on him. "Everybody who is there wants to come here."
Published on Tampa Bay Times on March 27, 2018
By Alan Tormaid Campbell
On 23 August it emerged that the president of Brazil, Michel Temer, had issued a decree abolishing the protected status of an immense area of the Amazon forest. The area is in the north of the country, beyond the Amazon river, going up to the frontiers with French Guiana and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). The estimated size is 4.5 million hectares, the size of Denmark or Switzerland.
The decree was shocking, but not entirely unexpected. Temer is in political difficulties, facing corruption charges and needing political allies. There are more than 30 registered political parties in Brazil, and to get anything done in Congress they form bancadas (“benches” or coalitions). One of the most powerful is the bancada ruralista, consisting of powerful, wealthy agribusiness interests (mostly cattle and soya) together with those who represent mining and other extractive industries. And, making things gloomier, the evangelicals attach themselves to this bancada.
For years now the ruralistas have loudly condemned environmental laws that protect the Amazon forest. The national parks protect biodiversity and the “áreas indígenas” (Indian reservations) protect the indigenous peoples. The ruralistaswant rid of the lot. Specifically, they want to abolish Funai (the Indian Protection Service, a government department) and get rid of, as they put it, “NGOs and anthropologists”. Temer needs the support of this bancada and is seeing to their desires.
Temer made his move at the end of August, centring on Amapá and the Jarí river. Although it is on the Atlantic coast, the state of Amapá is to many Brazilians as remote as you can get. There is no access by road, except one to the north into French Guiana, still not wholly paved. A mining enterprise called Icomi (Indústria e Comércio de Minérios), a subsidiary of the US company Bethlehem Steel, began extracting manganese in a remote mine from the late 1940s onwards. Icomi pretty well owned Amapá. In 1973 geologists from Icomi exploring westwards came across uncontacted Indians. They alerted Funai and a team arrived to establish what was known as an “attraction front”, finding out who these people were and getting them under some sort of control.
They had found the Wayapí people, occupying territory that went westwards across a watershed into affluents of the Jarí river. It was a kind of resurrection, as their presence in that area had been recorded historically. Their language is of the Tupi-Guaraní family. They are excellent gardeners, hunters and fishers. When contact was made they were hunting with bows and arrows. Many shotguns were handed out as part of the “attraction” process. Today they are wholly dependent on guns and ammunition. Fishing with canoes is more important in the west, where waters flowing into the Jarí are much richer in fish than the eastern waters that flow into the Atlantic. They practise “slash-and-burn agriculture”, felling trees and burning out the garden area. Bitter manioc is the staple crop along with a range of potato-like tubers. Bananas, pineapples, and various other fruits are grown. They wear scarlet loincloths and use two kinds of body paint – urucú (arnotto), a red, sticky paste, and genipa, a black dye which is applied carefully and dries into patterns which can’t be washed off. Women make manioc beer, called caxiri, and the social high point is the regular caxiri spree, sometimes accompanied by rather wonderful dances, sometimes just leading to what one might call the usual high spirits.
There was an urgency about this contact because the military dictatorship that took over Brazil (from 1964 to 1985) had embarked on a large programme of road building in the Amazon, the most famous being the “Transamazônica” running through the centre of the country. The Wayapí were in the way of a planned road called the “Northern Perimetral”, which was to run along the Guiana frontier and all the way to Venezuela. The 1973 oil crisis wrecked the Brazilian economy and grandiose schemes had to be abandoned.
The Wayapí had made sporadic contacts with outsiders before this. Some had wandered north and found a small Brazilian air force base near the Jarí river. Those returning from there to their villages brought back devastating diseases – dysentery and measles. Their land had also been invaded on occasions by gold prospectors both from the east side and from the west via the Jarí. These contacts always resulted in epidemics, respiratory complaints being particularly serious. What might be a slight cold or a cough to us can be fatal to those with no immunity. When Funai began its operation in 1973 the situation was already precarious.
Funai’s record in its dealings with Brazil’s indigenous people is not good. Chronically underfunded, often poorly staffed, often failing in elementary procedures, careless, offhand, the organisation certainly deserves the criticisms it gets. But like so much else in Brazil, muddling through in some way or another does eventually get some sort of result. In this case it’s clear that had Funai not intervened, the Wayapí would have faced extinction. There were 152 souls in the area in 1974. Now there are more than 1,000. Everyone has muddled through and they’ve made it. And although health programmes may not be particularly good, they are significantly better than the healthcare available to poor Brazilians.
Protecting the health of the Indians goes along with the other priority – protecting their land. During the 1970s and 80s gold prospectors continued to enter Wayapí territory. Confrontations sometimes became violent. There was an urgent need to get the land demarcated and recognised with legal protection. Largely through the relentless and indefatigable efforts of an NGO based in São Paulo, the Wayapí reserve was legally secured by 1996. The estimated area is about 600,000 hectares.
Muita terra, pouco índio (“much land, few Indians”) is the grumble you hear on the streets of local towns from frustrated prospectors. But it’s not just Indian land that’s involved in the crisis. For a number of years organisations at all levels, municipal, state, and national, have shown remarkable initiative in creating (with legal protection, it should be emphasised) a network of “conservation units” under various headings: national parks, areas of ambiental protection, biological reserves, sustainable development reserves, and so on. These now form a continuous block from the Guiana frontier southwards, enveloping the reservations of the Wayapí and the Wayana-Apalai further to the west, giving these two reserves extra protection.
But Temer discovered Renca. This is the “Reserva Nacional de Cobre e Associados” (National Copper Reserve), established in 1984 by the military dictatorship, not to protect the environment, but to secure possession of minerals in the area and make sure that the government could control their extraction. This is the targeted area that Temer wants to open. It includes eight “conservation units” and the two Indian reserves (Wayapí and Wayana-Apalai).
A federal judge, Rolando Valcir Spanholo, has blocked Temer’s decision pending consultation by Congress. This cannot be more than a holding move.
The Wayapi were facing extinction until a state agency intervened. Photograph: Alan Tormaid CampbellWhy destroy the Amazon forest? Why remove protection from Indian lands? The motive is simply opportunistic greed: “Enrichissez-vous.” Dressing up the project in economic terms comes close to lying. When the BBC World Service broke the Renca story on 24 August the commentator went “over to our business reporter in Hong Kong”. The wisdom from Hong Kong (about the fate of Amapá) was that “the government needs the money” and that the initiative will “create jobs”, and “raise revenue from taxes and royalties”. The stupidity of this response should make comment unnecessary. Given that the levels and layers of corruption in Brazilian political life are stupefying, where will the taxes and royalties go? Temer claims that “only a third” of the area is to be opened for mining. Only? The disruption will be colossal. Frontier violence will spread. Land-grabbing will be rife. And once the process is begun it is very difficult to stop or control. The damage is permanent.
It is also claimed that the indigenous reserves will be protected. How, precisely? The grimmest aspect of Brazilian expansion into the interior of the country concerns the dispossession of Indian lands, so often by violence and murder. There are particular struggles going on now in a number of places where the various authorities appear incapable of defending those who are attacked. It was ever thus. On top of that, being “Indian” in Brazil means that you will frequently collide with intense habits of prejudice and racism.
It’s more protection that’s required, not less – protection for the land and protection for the people – the obvious point being that everyone benefits. All the reservations, natural and indigenous, are enormous assets to the country. All Brazilians deserve better than to have these assets trashed by this surge of corrupt greed.
Published on The Guardian on September 9, 2017.
By Sue Branford
Brazil’s Supreme Court made two key decisions that strongly favored the country’s indigenous communities Wednesday, rulings that appear to refute the current administration’s recent attempt to link all indigenous land claims to an arbitrary 1988 occupation date, rather than to a long history of documented occupation, as required by Brazil’s Constitution.
The court ruled that both of the civil actions that the Mato Grosso state government had brought against the indigenous agency, Funai, were inadmissible. About a hundred Indians, gathered in the courtroom, greeted the decision with cheers. Outside the building, dozens of Indians, who had spent the night waiting in Brasilia’s central square (the Praça dos Três Poderes), celebrated noisily.
In both cases, the Mato Grosso government claimed that federally established indigenous reserves had been set up on land that belonged to Mato Grosso state, and that had not been traditionally occupied by the indigenous people living there today. Through ACO 362, Mato Grosso claimed compensation for land the federal government used to establish the Xingu Indigenous Park, created by the Villas-Boas brothers in 1961. Through ACO 366, Mato Grosso claimed compensation for land federally demarcated as indigenous territories for the Nambikwara, Pareci and Enawenê-Nauê Indians in the 1980s.
Judge Marco Aurelio Mello said that there was enough evidence to show that indigenous communities had occupied the area of the Xingu Indigenous Park for at least 800 years. Judge Alexandre de Moraes concurred: “Indigenous communities cannot be denied this traditional settlement. Funai does not need to compensate the state for the use of its own lands.” Similar statements were made with respect to the Nambikwara, Pareci and Enawenê-Nauê reserves. The Mato Grosso state government was ordered to pay Funai’s legal fees.
The rulings are a major setback for President Michel Temer, who had openly supported the state government claims, reportedly under pressure from the powerful bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress on whom he depends for his political survival.
But the rulings did not directly address the controversial “marco temporal,” the recent recommendation made by the Attorney General’s office and signed by President Temer, stating that indigenous groups should only have the right to legally claim land if they were physically occupying it on 5 October 1988, the day the current Brazilian Constitution was promulgated. If this recommendation is applied throughout Amazonia, scores of indigenous communities, forcibly evicted from their land during the military government (1964-1985), will lose their land rights.
However, all members of the Court, with the exception of Chief Justice Gilmar Mendes, indirectly rebutted the idea of a 1988 cut-off, by clearly stating that the basis of “traditional occupation” — which the Indians must demonstrate to have their land rights confirmed — is founded on very different criteria. “The vast majority of the ministers of the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the concept of traditional occupation is related to the way they [indigenous people] have occupied their land, and is based on legislation much earlier than the 1988 federal Constitution,” said Cleber Buzatto, the director of Cimi, the Catholic Church’s Missionary Indigenous Council.
Rafael Modesto dos Santos, legal consultant at Cimi, said that in his view the rulings were a serious setback for the federal government: “Despite not being directly examined in the rulings, the concept of the marco temporal was severely damaged and the indigenous communities have been strengthened. This directly affects the recommendation from the Attorney General’s office signed by Temer.”
Minister Luis Roberto Barroso made it clear, in his vote, that he opposed the marco temporal: “In my understanding, traditional indigenous occupation will only lose its validity if it is demonstrated that the Indians voluntarily left their territories or it is shown that their cultural links with the area have been broken.”
Chief Justice Gilmar Mendes, the main advocate for the marco temporal, was not allowed to vote on ACO 362 because he had already made his position clear in the 1990s when he was Attorney-General and, at the time, believed that the state government was wrong in its claim. As a result, the vote on ACO 362 was unanimous.
Although he was the last to speak and was thus defending a lost cause, Mendes made a long speech that denigrated indigenous land rights, saying that, without the marco temporal, “we will end up handing back Copacabana [Rio’s most famous beach] to the Indians.”
Luis Enrique Eloy, a Terena indian and lawyer for the Articulation of the Indigenous People of Brazil (Apib), expressed a different view: “The Supreme Court decided that these lands never belonged to the Mato Grosso government, and it’s impossible to ignore the presence of the Indians,” he said.
Though important, it is unlikely this week’s decisions will be the final word on the marco temporal, but experts suggest the rulings may cause Temer and his rural caucus allies to pause for thought and to reconsider their strategy. Although Brazil’s top judges have often been overruled by the executive in recent years, they are still a power to reckon with, and able to put a check on perceived presidential excesses.
Published on Mongabay on August 17, 2017.
The United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have condemned Brazil’s “attack” on its indigenous peoples.
In a new statement, UN and IACHR experts have warned that Brazilian Indians are at great risk as politicians continue pushing to weaken their hard-won land rights.
Brazil’s constitution states that indigenous territories must be mapped out and protected for the Indians’ exclusive use. But anti-indigenous politicians linked to Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby are calling for changes to the law which could enable them to steal and destroy these lands for large-scale plantations and “development” projects. This is the most serious attack Brazilian Indians have experienced in decades.
Without their lands, indigenous peoples cannot survive. Tribes nationwide have united in protest against this onslaught on their rights. One indigenous leader, Adalto Guarani, said that the politicians’ plans “are like an atomic bomb… which could kill all the Indians in Brazil” and has called for people around the world to take action.
Brazil is home to over 250 tribes, including over 100 who are uncontacted and reject contact with mainstream society. Uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. They face genocide and will be killed by disease and violence brought by invaders if their land is not protected, but the teams charged with keeping outsiders away are paralyzed by recent budget cuts.
The statement slams the “illegitimate criminalization” of indigenous peoples’ allies. The anti-indigenous agribusiness lobby instigated an inquiry whose recently published report attacked indigenous leaders, anthropologists, public prosecutors and NGOs, including Survival International. The report was met with outrage and incredulity in Brazil and beyond.
The experts also highlighted that over the last 15 years, Brazil has seen “the highest number of killings of environmental and land defenders of any country”. Dozens of indigenous leaders have been assassinated in recent years, following attempts to reoccupy their ancestral land, and last month, thirteen Gamela Indians were hospitalized after a violent attack by men armed with machetes in the Amazon.
The UN and the IACHR have recommended that “Brazil should be strengthening institutional and legal protection for indigenous peoples”.
Survival has launched a campaign to defend indigenous rights in Brazil.
Published on Survival on June 9, 2017.
BY ADOLFO CHAVEZ AND CÁNDIDO MEZÚA
Brazil has some of the world’s strongest protections for indigenous rights – on paper. In reality, dozens of indigenous people are killed each year in conflicts over land and resources. Brazil is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders. Even as this violence escalates, the current government is working to weaken these rights through a series of initiativessponsored by political leaders with connections to agroindustry and the exploitation of natural resources.
When thousands of indigenous leaders gathered in Brasília and marched on Congress to protest this offensive in April, they were met with police violence and tear gas. Our eyes burned too; we were there to support them as part of a delegation of indigenous leaders from Latin America and Indonesia. We all knew the fate of indigenous rights in Latin America’s most powerful nation influences the behaviors of governments globally.
To understand what is at stake – for indigenous peoples and the country – it is worth reviewing the measures under consideration at the highest levels of government.
At greatest risk are protections enshrined in Article 231 of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, which is recognized internationally for its robust protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. These include the right to their tribal social structure, customs, languages, beliefs and traditions, and the inalienable and permanent right to their ancestral lands.
Indigenous communities report a growing lack of enforcement of these protections, as the increasingly influential “bancada ruralista” – Congress members with agroindustry ties – ramps up efforts to stop the process of demarcating, or recognizing, indigenous territories. These currently occupy 12.2 percent of the country, mostly within the Amazon.
Recognition of indigenous lands slowed under President Dilma Rousseff. Since Michel Temer became president in August, however, no territories have been approved for demarcation, and the agency in charge of the process has been crippled by cuts in funding and staff. Now, Congress is evaluating a proposed amendment – the Proposta de Emenda a Constituição 215 – that would transfer the ability to demarcate indigenous lands from the executive to the legislative branch – home of the powerful bancada ruralista.
In further indication of the government’s intentions, the president named the world’s largest producer of soy as his agriculture minister. Any action that weakens indigenous land rights and environmental safeguards could benefit him personally. The new Minister of Justice is a member of the group of legislators who proposed the constitutional amendment known as PEC 215, and said recently that, “Land does not fill the empty stomach,” suggesting that the indigenous way of life contributes nothing to the national economy.
Our experiences show that this attitude translates worldwide into the criminalization and murder of indigenous peoples, whose homes and forests are bulldozed to make way for the producers of commodities, often for export: palm oil, timber, beef, soy, paper, petroleum, gold and copper are grown or extracted on lands taken from indigenous peoples. Waterways are poisoned with tailings from mining operations and rivers are dammed for electricity, endangering food security and opening forests to further destruction.
Until now the burden of that economic model has fallen most heavily on the more than one billion indigenous and rural forest peoples worldwide. But findings by top environmental research organizations suggest that failure to grant and protect the land rights of indigenous peoples endangers not only their lives; it deprives their countries of significant economic and environmental benefits.
A study released in November found that community and indigenous forests in Brazil store 36 percent more carbon per hectare, and emit 27 times less carbon dioxide from deforestation than forests managed by others.
A second paper revealed that forests legally held by indigenous peoples in Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia could generate billions and sometimes trillions of dollars’ worth of benefits in the form of carbon sequestration, reduced pollution, clean water and more.
And most relevant for the governments that have promised to protect forests as their contribution to slowing climate change, peer-reviewed research published in March revealed a 75-percent drop in deforestation on indigenous lands only two years after the lands were titled. The findings are based on an analysis of satellite images of the Peruvian Amazon, but an unpublished paper by the same authors suggests similar results in Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia.
Destroying the rights of the peoples who outperform all other managers of the rainforest would put at risk the forests that represent Latin American countries’ greatest contribution to slowing climate change. It could also deprive the nation of significant economic benefits.
Indigenous peoples will fight back, with consequences many of our governments are now discovering. Research released last year suggests that investors who fund projects in developing countries are becoming sensitive to the cost of conflict that arises when the land claims of indigenous and local communities are ignored. The study identified major financial risks to private sector actors engaged in extraction and production of commodities for export.
In Brasília two weeks ago, we watched a familiar clash between a powerful government, backed by powerful economic actors, and a small but courageous group of original peoples. It is becoming an increasingly common story in tropical forest countries.
It is also increasingly visible to the world beyond their borders. Most recently, a conflict erupted between indigenous in Northeastern state of Maranhão, Brazil and local ranchers. Armed with machetes and guns, the ranchers attacked a group of Gamela who are seeking to take back land stolen from them under the military dictatorship. The attackers reportedly hacked off the hands of two men and shot five.
The news circled the globe.
Imagine if consumers in North America and Europe refuse to purchase commodities grown on land illegally taken from indigenous peoples, and if investors decline to support projects where communities have not been properly consulted and land tenure is not secure.
Whether the motive of these actors is to conserve tropical forests; to protect their investments, or to support indigenous peoples, the economic impact would be significant.
The evidence suggests there is a significant price to be paid for treating indigenous citizens as mere obstacles to progress and development. Indigenous rights must be respected, regardless of economic considerations. But we can now show there are great advantages to investing in our abilities to create value without destroying natural resources. Tear gas and violence are not the solution, when so much is at stake.
Published on Americas Quaterly's website on May 9, 2017.
By STEPHANIE NOLEN
Munir Chami and Genito Gomes have a considerable amount in common. They’re Brazilians who grew up in the countryside, straight-backed, clear-eyed men in their mid-30s. Each has a ready smile, hospitable nature and a quiet air of authority. Each is married with young children. They each work hard: They spend their days on their families’ land, and they are immensely proud of their connection with it and what they have built there.
In another country, Mr. Chami and Mr. Gomes might well be friends.
Not here. That land they work, it’s the same piece of land, and each man believes with utter conviction that he owns it – and that the other is an invader, a thief, who seeks to take both the land and the identity that comes with it.
Mr. Chami is a soy grower whose family owns a 5,000-hectare industrial farm in the western breadbasket state of Mato Grosso do Sul. They live in a gracious farmhouse surrounded by tall trees, an island in an ocean of dark green fields, outside the town of Aral Moreira.
And Mr. Gomes lives with his family across the road and a few kilometres away, in a settlement of a half-dozen dwellings built of sticks and thatch, at the edge of the last tiny patch of forest in any direction. This land, he says, has belonged to his people, the Kaiowa, since there were first humans on Earth; his people were created from this red soil, and Brazil’s constitution has recognized their right to it since 1988.
Mr. Gomes’s parents and grandparents were driven out by government in the 1950s; their ancestral lands were sold as plantations to farmers. The Kaiowa shifted around the state for decades eking out a living with a bit of hunting and farming, until in 1990 they decided to try to exercise their new constitutional right and filed a claim for the land.
But they had no response for years, and finally in 2004, they decided to go and live there. That year, and in 2007 when they tried again to occupy the land, they were driven out after a couple of days by the farmers who held title. In a third attempt, in 2011, they set up a rough camp of a few houses – and then a group of armed men came to confront them, and Mr. Gomes’s father, Nizio, was shot and killed. Mr. Gomes says the killers were sent by local landowners, including Mr. Chami’s family, in an attempt to force them off the land.
These two men, divided by a couple of kilometres and a lifetime’s worth of conviction, are living out a daily confrontation that is both a historical legacy and an urgent modern problem for Brazil.
Their competing claims to the land echo disputes in Canada and across the New World, between Indigenous communities and the governments of states that were built over top of them. Canada’s own land claims issues are far from resolved, but there the usual battleground is the courts. In Brazil, these disputes still regularly erupt into bloodshed.
There are 900,000 Indigenous people in Brazil, and 12.2 per cent of the country has been declared Indigenous territory, collectively owned by First Nations. Some 98.2 per cent of that land is in the Amazon, and there is conflict around parts of it: Illegal loggers invade it, cattle ranchers try to claim it, and some areas have been irrevocably altered by large government infrastructure projects such as the Belo Monte Dam.
But the worst of the conflict is here, in Mato Grosso do Sul. Slightly more than half of the 754 murders of Indigenous people between 2003 and 2014 were in this one state, according to a report on land conflict compiled by the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Catholic organization that is one of the few advocates for Indigenous rights in Brazil. Ownership of more than two million hectares in the state is being disputed between Indigenous people and other claimants, mostly farmers.
Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985, and the new democratic constitution, which recognized the rights of Indigenous people to their land, charged the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), an arms’-length government body, with demarcating what would be Indigenous territory.
But that process has never been popular with loggers or farmers. Agriculture is one of the few healthy sectors in Brazil’s hobbled economy, and the farm lobby is a key backer of President Michel Temer, the former vice president who took power after Dilma Rousseff was impeached last August. Under his tenure, the already slow process of adjudicating land claims has stalled completely, and the disputes are growing increasingly violent.
In the last hours before she was impeached, Ms. Rousseff’s government approved a long-delayed plan to expand the Guarani-Kaiowa territory, from 3,600 hectares to 56,000. Agribusiness responded with outrage, and newly installed President Temer froze action on the report.
In January, the government issued a decree that ended FUNAI’s independence in deciding land claims and gave the Ministry of Justice final approval, saying the move would accelerate stalled cases such as that of the Gomes family. The farm lobby heralded the change; Indigenous activists say it is an outright violation of the constitution.
Mr. Temer’s administration has taken a position on Indigenous issues that is conservative even by Brazilian standards. Last month, Osmar Serraglio, the new justice minister, said that Indigenous people need to “stop this discussion about lands” and that their problems could be fixed with better economic opportunities. “Land doesn’t fill anyone’s belly,” he said. He spoke approvingly of court decisions that have favoured agribusiness over Indigenous land claims and said the Indigenous movement was being pushed by non-governmental organizations; he suggested they might somehow be profiting from the land claims issue, although he did not explain how that would be. A third of the donations to his last campaign for office came from agribusiness.
President Temer also appointed a new head of FUNAI; while the organization has traditionally been headed by anthropologists and experts on Indigenous issues, Mr. Temer chose an evangelical pastor and dentist named Antonio Costa. In his first major interview, this past week, he said that Indigenous people can’t remain “frozen in time” and will have to figure out ways to join the formal economy. “American Indians are productive – they have casinos,” he said, heaping praise on that economic model.
The conflict in Mato Grosso do Sul has intensified over the past year; a series of farm occupations by Indigenous groups have been violently broken up by what the state prosecutor calls “militias” formed by farmers. At least two Indigenous men were shot and killed by militia members, and a half-dozen more were wounded. Three police officers were abducted and beaten by a group of Guarani carrying out an occupation, and farmers report that their livestock have been killed and possessions destroyed.
Back in 1990, Mr. Gomes’s father, Nizio, made a land claim on behalf of his people for 30,000 hectares. For more than a decade, there was no official response. “They told us, ‘Wait, wait,’” says his son. “Finally, in 2004, we said, ‘Enough.’ ” Their third attempt to retake the land, in 2011, might have ended with their expulsion much as the others had. But on the 18th day, he says, a line of eight vehicles carrying armed men with masks over their faces, dressed in black or camouflage, pulled into the camp early one morning. Everyone around the houses and the cooking fires fled into the trees.
The armed men went into the forest and called the elder Mr. Gomes, 62, to come out from where he was cutting brush with a machete. A dozen members of the extended family saw him shot, according to testimony collected by the state prosecutor, and then the attackers dragged him out – leaving a wide streak of blood on the ground – and loaded him into the back of a truck.
His body has never been recovered. Twelve men were charged with crimes related to the killing; seven are in jail and five are out on bail, all still awaiting trial. (Mr. Chami’s father-in-law, Idelfino Maganha, is among those charged.) The accused say that Mr. Gomes was not shot – that he disappeared, fled across the border to Paraguay, and is alive and well. The case might never have gotten as far as it has had the wife of one of the accused not gone to police to report his involvement when she found out he was having an affair. Prosecutors were prepared to act on the testimony of one bitter wife, but not dozens of Indigenous eye witnesses to the attack, notes Genito Gomes.
Before the shooting, the Maganha family had obtained an expulsion order – but FUNAI had it overturned after the shooting, and the Supreme Court ruled that the Gomes family could stay until their land claim is adjudicated.
The farmers believed that by killing Nizio Gomes, the cassique, or chief, they could drive the occupiers off, the younger Mr. Gomes says. They have faced a constant threat of violence through the ensuing years – armed men with dogs on chains continue to patrol the periphery of the area they occupy. “But we stayed because this is our land – it belongs to the Kaiowa – we lost our leader, lost our father, but we’ll stay.”
Mr. Gomes says his father remembered being carried off this land as a child of 3, in the arms of his own parents, when the Guarani-Kaiowa were forcibly dispersed by the federal government in the 1950s so the land could be made into maté plantations. (Before they were moved out, they were forced to chop down their forests and clear the land for the new occupants.) Some of the family went to Paraguay, some to towns or reserves in Brazil. “But our parents always said, this is your land.”
Mr. Chami has a very different understanding of the conflict. “For 50 years there were no Indians here – these days they’re trying to steal everything,” he says. The government encouraged settlement of the land in the 1930s, he says, and his father-in-law’s family bought the farm in 1970. There were no Indigenous people around, he says. He believes that NGOs, particularly international ones, are stirring up this conflict, and bringing Indigenous people from Paraguay to the area to make fictitious land claims. (The U.K.-based group Survival International has an awareness campaign on attacks on the Guarani-Kaiowa.)
Today his family business is spending the equivalent of $17,000 per month on private security to protect the land, he said; a group of Guarani invaded the farm workers’ quarters and drove out the occupants and occupied those, too, back in 2011. He said they have received no compensation from the government for the land they have lost – a fifth of their farm.
What frustrates him most of all is that the occupied land is not, from his perspective, in use. “They take our land and it’s not productive: What’s the point of their land – they produce nothing. Not even cassava to eat – the government has to give them everything. They’re just producing children – now there are 200. Soon there will be 300, and then 400 – where’s it going to end?”
The Maganha farm has never employed Indigenous workers – Mr. Chami says they “have no interest” in working. This view is widely shared in the agricultural industry in the state. Indigenous people live on reserves surrounded by farms that in most cases refuse to hire them; the stereotype of “lazy Indian” is so entrenched here that the words are often spoken as one. Consequently there is near-total Indigenous unemployment.
Mr. Chami says the family fears they may lose more land, if the demarcations go forward after court challenges. “Because of the politics it might be possible – but we’re working to keep that from happening.” How? “With registered arms and private security.”
But he does not expect help from government. “It’s frustrating, to be honest – because our production is what lifts the country.” Agriculture contributed 23 per cent of Brazil’s GDP last year, one of the few healthy sectors as the country drags through a brutal recession.
Mr. Gomes says that, in fact, his family is making intense use of the land: They must be on it to perform the rituals that keep them healthy and whole. They gather to dance in the early morning and the evenings. They hunt and they fish. Their life there is basic: their camp has no electricity, and they bathe in and bring drinking water from a river. But they prefer this to anywhere else. “We need the land to be able to live our culture,” he said. “We Kaiowa, we know the danger from the farmers. But we have to come back to our land. It’s sacred. That’s why it’s worth it to us to risk, so we can be on the land.”
Some people in the tribe get a family-allowance grant (as do nearly half of all Brazilians), and some get a rations basket from FUNAI. But there is no work. “There’s only jobs on the farms and nobody wants to work for the enemy.”
Carlos Marés, a former head of FUNAI and a professor of agrarian law, has spent his career assessing disputes like these, and says there is some validity in both perspectives. “The lands are Indigenous, at least part of them, according to the constitution of 1988,” he says. “But the occupants, most of the time, bought the land in good faith, without knowing the extent of the conflict.”
Brazilian law permits the government to buy farm land and give it to the Guarani-Kaiowa to settle land claims, he said – but only when farmers agree to sell, and the federal government sees its interests most closely aligned with agribusiness. That means the conflict will likely intensify, he said: “Indigenous people, not just the Guarani, but all over Brazil, lack land and are determined to fight to the death for it, so there can be no solution to the conflict without restitution of the land to them.”
That’s how Mr. Chami sees it, too: “They want their own country,” he said, tossing up his hands in frustration.
Mr. Gomes, across the road, puts it more simply. “We just need to be home, on our land.”
Published on The Globe and Mail's website on April 7, 2017.