Indigenous women unite against Brazil’s far-right president

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  • Brazil today is home to 900,000 indigenous people, speaking 274 languages and with widely differing cultural traditions. Indigenous rights were enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 constitution, including the demarcation and protection of indigenous ancestral lands.
  • But indigenous people have felt seriously threatened since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, as illegal invasions of indigenous territories have rapidly escalated, and as the administration threatens to put policies in place to limit further indigenous demarcations, eliminate indigenous comments on infrastructure projects, and cut back on health services.
  • Many of the leaders in the fight against Bolsonaro’s policies are women; in this story, they give voice to their outrage at the danger to their homelands, communities and families.

In a country where women account for almost half of Brazil’s 900,000 native people, female indigenous leaders have now stepped boldly into the political spotlight. They are protesting the government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and new policies that threaten indigenous rights guaranteed by the country’s 1988 Constitution and recognized by international treaties.

During this year’s late April annual gathering of indigenous groups in Brasilia, called the Free Land Encampment, indigenous women from a wide range of ethnic groups, with homes in the Amazon and elsewhere, criticized changes that Bolsonaro has made to longstanding policies, including the indigenous land demarcation process and the availability of health services.

On January 1, the first day of his presidency, Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure (MP 870), shifting decision-making power for indigenous reserve demarcations from Funai, Brazil’s indigenous agency, to the Ministry of Agriculture — seen by critics as a conflict of interest, as agricultural elites have long eyed indigenous lands for possible exploitation. The measure also moved Funai (previously housed with the Ministry of Justice) to the new Ministry of Human Rights, Family and Women launched by Bolsonaro, a catchall institution that critics say will wield little real power.

The new government also announced plans to transfer the oversight of health services provided to indigenous peoples by the federal government since 2010 to a special secretariat known as Sesai. The services will now be overseen by municipal and state governments in some regions. Critics fear that the shift to local authorities could be intended as a way for the national government to abrogate its responsibilities.

“The policies adopted by the current government… violate all our rights and aim to destroy us,” Maria Eva Canoé, a leader of the Canoé indigenous group from Northern Rondônia state, told Mongabay during the indigenous encampment.

“But we are strong, we are resistant. And we are here in this… the 15th encampment, to show to the government, and to all society, that we are alive, that we are resisting to exist,” said the 51-year-old teacher, who is a member of the council of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB).

The COIAB representative believes that all of Bolsonaro’s new measures “are bad” but the worst is the land-demarcation power handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture. “Why is it the worst? Because acting this way no indigenous people… will have demarcated land anymore,” Canoé said, adding that indigenous peoples are not invaders. “In the past they lost their land and now they are claiming what belongs to them by right.”

Indigenous rights are guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous groups have the right “not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture” or be imperiled by “any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”

In addition, the UN and the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), of which Brazil is a signatory, requires prior indigenous consultation “before undertaking or permitting any programs for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to their lands.” There are also additional indigenous rights rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

But despite these international agreements, the Bolsonaro’s administration has made it clear that it won’t be allowing indigenous peoples comment on infrastructure projects affecting indigenous territories in the Amazon.

The Bolsonaro administration did not respond to requests for comment.

Indigenous leader Maria Eva Canoé notes that the reason the Canoé people are a minority within their region today is because they were decimated as a people during the colonization of Rondônia state in the 17th century; later the few surviving Canoé women had to marry men from other ethnic groups just to perpetuate their own group.

“The Brazilian State has a priceless debt with indigenous peoples… the Brazilian State will never bring back extinguished indigenous peoples, extinguished languages, destroyed territories [which] are [cultural] deserts today,” taken over by cattle ranches or soy plantations, she said.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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