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Amid Growing Violence, Brazil Is Weakening Indigenous Rights

Reading Time: 4 minutesResearch shows this comes at great social, economic and environmental cost.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Francisco Alves / Mobilização Nacional Indígena/Flickr CC by 2.0

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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 initiatives sponsored 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.

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.

Chavez is a Takana leader from Bolivia, and represents COICA (Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin), an umbrella group covering indigenous organizations in all nine countries of the Amazon.

Mezúa is an Embera from Panama and Secretary General of the Mesoamerican Alliance for Communities and Forests, representing forest communities and indigenous organizations from Mexico to Panama’s border with Colombia.

Tags: Amazon, Brazil, Indigenous Rights
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