Bolsonaro draws battle lines in fight over Amazon indigenous lands

Government by and for the people

Then, in a flurry of progressive reform following the return to civilian rule, came the passage of the 1988 Constitution – a watershed moment, giving Indians the right to be Indians forever, according to Carlos Frederico Marés, an authority on indigenous rights and former president of the indigenous agency, FUNAI.

The Constitution, he says, abolished the “provisional nature” of indigenous rights. From that point onward, federal legislation stopped regarding indigenous people as “backward,” or as “doomed to extinction,” and importantly, determined that Indians should have “the permanent and exclusive right” to their lands – a legal declaration that led to the founding of hundreds of indigenous territories. Unfortunately for all, it also led to decades of conflict as the government dragged its feet on indigenous reserve demarcation, and as rural elites fought to prevent territories from becoming official.

Still, the 1988 Constitution has proven to be a major boon for beleaguered indigenous populations. Far from heading towards extinction, indigenous numbers rebounded, standing today at around 900,000 people, mostly concentrated in the Amazon. Many continue to preserve their cultures and traditions despite pressure to do otherwise.

Attitudes in Brazil are also changing. Recent polls show that the public feels far more favorably toward indigenous groups than in the past, with six out of ten Brazilians currently opposed to any reduction in the amount of land in indigenous hands.

However, many Brazilians living in Amazon towns, like Parintins, have not altered the ways in which they regard and treat Indians. Like Bolsonaro, a self-professed fan of the military dictatorship and its actions, they continue seeing indigenous people as “inferior” and believe they should be assimilated, or sometimes worse.

Luana Ruiz and the anti-indigenous agenda

The strongest advocates of indigenous cultural annihilation are the ruralistas, rural wealthy elites and agribusiness producers, who have the most to gain via access to the timber, land and mineral wealth found within indigenous territories. The bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby is extremely strong in Congress, and it was staunch ruralist support that helped catapult Bolsonaro into office.

Ruralists, along with the president, argue that indigenous peoples control “an enormous amount of land,” utterly disproportionate to their number. Many of those who are hostile to indigenous rights occupy key positions in Bolsonaro’s government. One of the most outspoken advocates of assimilation is Luana Ruiz, a lawyer now serving as Assistant Secretary for Land Affairs in the Agriculture Ministry.

Luana Ruiz, the Bolsonaro administration’s Assistant Secretary for Land Affairs in the Agriculture Ministry. Image courtesy of MAPA

Ruiz is poised to play a leading role in the key task of demarcating indigenous reserves, but no one expects fairness from her process. She is famously vehement in her anti-indigenous views, and outspoken in her statements: “We need to cut the legs off [the indigenous agency] FUNAI” she has said. “We mustn’t talk about indigenous peoples – there are only people, the Brazilian people.… We mustn’t talk about indigenous territory – there is only one territory, the Brazilian territory.” Ruiz has even recommended arms use against retomadas (reoccupations) by Indians of ancestral land.

The Ruiz family seems likely to benefit heavily from this anti-indigenous agenda. The family claims a large property that is superimposed on the Indigenous Territory of Nhanderú Marangatú, which is claimed by the Guarani Kaiowá indigenous group in Mato Grosso do Sul. The process setting up this indigenous territory was completed in 2005, but its demarcation was partially reversed by ruralists who went to court to block it – contributing to a local climate of conflict and violence.

The Catholic Church’s Missionary Indigenous Council, CIMI, has formally requested the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic investigate a claim of possible conflict of interest against Ruiz. The Agriculture Ministry told Mongabay that it has provided information to the Presidency’s Ethics Commission about the questions raised concerning Ruiz.

Leading indigenous experts believe that all the recent talk of assimilation, and of Brazil being a single nation, absent of cultural differences, is a thinly veiled attempt to take Brazil back to the earlier historical assimilation policies of the military dictatorship, when indigenous groups were threatened with extinction.

According to the anthropologist Daniela Alarcon, the discourse that merges indigenous groups with “all Brazilians” is a way of exterminating them as peoples with specific, collective rights. Alarcon explains that, throughout history, the state has not always opted for direct physical violence, but at times has put in practice measures to wipe out the identity of indigenous peoples. She says: “The state has employed a wide range of strategies to infringe the rights of these groups, involving administrative, legislative and judicial measures, as well as the production and circulation of discourses that project a negative image of the Indian.”

According to lawyer Pedro Martins, who works with the human rights NGO, Terra dos Direitos, the Bolsonaro government is already imposing assimilation in many different ways. He says that “the loss of scholarships for indigenous youngsters to go to university, and the proposals that agribusiness and mining companies should be allowed onto indigenous land, are initiatives that oppress indigenous people by making their existence conditional on another, very different way of life.”

Fortaleza Village, a typical Sateré settlement in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Matheus Manfredini
A map of the region in and around Parintins showing indigenous lands and protected areas. Image by Mauricio Torres

A history of degradation

The Sateré-Mawé are well aware of the dangers they face. Today, they number almost 13,000 and live in about 100 villages in the 780,000-hectare (3,011-square mile) Indigenous Territory of Andirá-Marau. They only got the right to their ancestral land officially recognized in 1986, after a damaging conflict with mining companies. Their struggle was recorded in a report published in 2014 by the National Truth Commission, set up by the Brazilian government to investigate human rights violations occurring between 1946 and 1988.

The report relates how, in 1980, the state-owned oil company, Petrobrás, opened 300 kilometers (186 miles) of rough roads into the local rainforest, clearing trees so that helicopters could set down on indigenous land. Then the French company, Elf-Aquitaine, moved in. It only withdrew after an Indian was killed.

“At that time nobody here spoke Portuguese. We were frightened. They stayed for several years then left,” the tuxaua (leader) Donato Lopes told Amazônia Real.

Benito Miquiles, who was born in 1993 a decade after the oil companies left, says his father still talks about the harm done to the environment then: “My father says that there was an abundance [of wildlife] in the region, but when the companies came and carried out explosions with dynamite, a lot of fish, caiman, alligators and turtles died. It became more difficult to hunt in the forest.”

It was the scale of indigenous resistance that convinced the government eventually that the Indians needed a proper indigenous reserve, a process finalized in 1986.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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