Under Pressure From Land Grabs, Brazil's Indigenous Communities Fight Back
Claire Rigby Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015
In June 2014, a video released by FUNAI, the Portuguese acronym for Brazil's Department for Indian Affairs, captures the moment seven members of an unnamed, previously uncontacted tribe from the Amazon rainforest made their first voluntary contact with the modern world. The video shows the men emerging naked from the forest onto the banks of the River Envira in the western Brazilian state of Acre, close to the Peruvian border. After calling out, singing and signaling with their hands, they crossed the river to a small indigenous settlement of the local Ashaninka people on the other side. The men told the Ashaninka that they had left the forest to seek help after an attack on their village by what was thought to be a gang of drug traffickers killed several people.
In another recent instance of first contact, Irahoa Awa of the nomadic hunter-gatherer Awa people in the state of Maranhao, in northern Brazil, emerged from the forest with his mother Jakarewyj and his aunt Amakaria in late December 2014. They had been forced out of their forest home, he said, after it had become surrounded by loggers. Shortly afterward, the women, who told of deaths among the forest tribe from respiratory diseases, contracted tuberculosis. Both later recovered.
For the indigenous peoples of the Amazon's forests, colonization is hardly a closed chapter of history. More than 500 years since the first European incursions into Brazil, many of the region's roughly 900,000 indigenous inhabitants still face an ongoing battle against the invasion and expropriation of their lands. Indigenous communities suffer the adverse effects of logging and mining, both legal and illegal, as well as of large hydro-electric plants. Clashes with outsiders often turn violent. Indigenous communities are also deprived of government services, with poor access to health care and education and few alternatives for generating a sustainable income. In many cases, they lack the right to legally inhabit their lands at all. And although indigenous groups are active in civil society, Brazil's National Congress currently has no indigenous members; historically, it has only had one.
PEC 215 and the Battle for Legal Recognition
A fundamental pillar of Brazil's indigenous-rights movement is its call for indigenous territories to be demarcated and legally recognized as protected reserves. Yet activists fear that a constitutional amendment currently making its way through the legislature would not only make future demarcations all but impossible, but could also jeopardize territories that have already been legally recognized by opening them to the possibility of review. That, they fear, could expose such territories to legal yet dangerous mining and other commercial activities should such projects be deemed to be "in the national interest."
According to Article 231 of Brazil's groundbreaking 1988 constitution, "Indians shall have their social organization, customs, languages, creeds and traditions recognized, as well as their original rights to the lands they traditionally occupy, it being incumbent upon the Union to demarcate them, protect and ensure respect for all of their property." As per the constitution, the executive branch is responsible for ratifying demarcated indigenous territory, which often follows a years-long process. Constitutional Amendment Proposal 215, or PEC 215, would pass that power to the National Congress, Brazil's legislature.
Many critics fear that making indigenous land rights a legislative matter would likely politicize the decisions, while putting them in the hands of Brazil's powerful rural caucus in parliament. Some also argue that PEC 215 is unconstitutional. In an interim ruling in 2014, Chief Justice Luis Roberto Barroso determined that "making the recognition of land-a fundamental right-conditional on the decision of a political majority seems to contradict its entire raison d'etre. Indeed, such rights are included in the constitution precisely so that temporary majorities cannot hold sway over them."
According to Beto Ricardo of Brazil's Instituto Socioambiental, or ISA, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on socio-environmental issues, PEC 215 represents the most serious threat to the Amazon's indigenous inhabitants since the large-scale 1970s incursions into the region, which were aimed at settling and populating it as part of the military regime's stated intent to colonize the forest.
Inhabitants of the Amazon are not alone in their fears over the status of present and future demarcated lands; indeed, the federal government has made considerably more progress on the demarcation and ratification process in "Amazonia Legal," or Legal Amazon, a region spread across nine states covering almost 60 percent of Brazil, than in the south of Brazil, which is more developed. As of September, 324 of Brazil's 471 already demarcated and legally recognized indigenous lands were in the Amazon. There, 80 percent of indigenous territories have been demarcated, almost all as a result of the provisions in the 1988 constitution, with the exception of a handful that were created in 1961, including the famous Xingu National Park reserve.
For the indigenous peoples of the Amazon's forests, colonization is hardly a closed chapter of history.
Because vast swaths of Amazonian forests have remained at least relatively untouched for centuries, demands for land demarcation there have historically been less controversial than elsewhere in Brazil. In contrast, the impoverished indigenous communities south of Amazonia, particularly in the heavily agricultural state of Mato Grosso do Sul, have for years been waging an ardent struggle for recognition in the face of violent opposition from ranchers. "[Demarcating territories] was easier to carry out in Amazonia," says Ricardo, "because the region had far lower levels of occupation by non-indigenous people, and fewer landowners to object."
Yet as pressure on agricultural land grows, so does pressure on Amazonia. For Marilia Garcia Senlle, also of ISA, that pressure, pushing the Amazon frontier further into the forest, is the latest phase of local populations' centuries-long existential battle with colonization. In this case, she says, the threat comes from farmers who "want to produce more beef and soy, and they are moving into the Amazon in order to do so."
As they move into the Amazon, they clear forests to make room for grazing and farmland. The result is the so-called Arc of Deforestation, a deforested swath that sweeps across the southern contours of the Amazon in the shape of an upturned claw, from the state of Acre in the west across Rondonia and Mato Grosso, before curving upward into Para state. The many large, detailed maps ISA has produced since its founding in 1994 reveal the arc's progressive expansion into the forest. An on-the-ground look is more sobering still, as land is cleared for logging, charcoal, cattle or crops-and frequently for all four. Forest fires are a major problem: At any given moment, thousands of fires, sometimes major ones, are raging in the Amazon. Most start during forest clearing or as part of agricultural cycles, but often escalate uncontrollably.
By contrast, the demarcated lands that exist in Amazonia serve as legal barriers to such practices. In addition to conservation reserves, which account for 24 percent of the total area of Amazonia Legal, indigenous and quilombola reserves-settlements founded by escaped slaves and their descendants that have a legal status similar to that of indigenous lands-"act as a screen against deforestation," says Ricardo. Despite illegal encroachment, logging and gold prospecting on many reserves, indigenous reserves in Amazonia Legal continue to register low deforestation rates-only 1.9 percent overall in 2013. By contrast, the deforestation rate of original forest areas in the entire Amazon biome is 22.8 percent.
South of the Arc of Deforestation in Mato Grosso do Sul, where large-scale agriculture is well-established, a large proportion of the state's severely impoverished indigenous communities are crammed into minuscule "micro-territory" reserves-precarious settlements with squalid living conditions, often in roadside encampments near their former homes. Tension is particularly high with ranchers, whose support for agricultural development pits them against local indigenous groups. Various attacks attributed to ranchers and their associates have been documented in the state in recent years, including murders, most recently in August, when a young Guarani-Kaiowa man was shot dead during a confrontation with ranchers.
Persistent exploitation and the threat posed by PEC 215 have now emboldened Brazil's huge, diverse indigenous movement to step up its demands for official land recognition, which it sees as a prerequisite to addressing other grievances. Disparate groups are uniting in opposition to the proposed amendment despite their ethnic and linguistic differences. According to Ricardo, of ISA, Brazil's indigenous population comprises "a mosaic of micro-societies." Of the country's 245 ethnic indigenous groups, 70 percent include fewer than 1,000 members. But that diversity hasn't led to fragmentation: In April, 1,500 indigenous representatives from some 200 ethnicities gathered in Brasilia for the annual Acampamento Terra Livre, meaning "Free Land Camp"-an immense gathering and protest camp, where indigenous groups convene to present and discuss their demands. For Marcos Reis of the Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI, that's just the visible tip of a huge resistance movement. "This is a movement that has 10,000 Indians behind it, from hundreds of [villages] across Brazil."
When PEC 215 was approved in a preliminary vote in October by a special congressional committee formed for the purpose, indigenous demonstrators blocked roads in seven states and also staged a protest at the World Indigenous Games, which were being held at the time in northern Brazil. In some parts of the Amazon, Brazil's indigenous people are also taking up arms and deploying direct tactics to defend their land against logging. In the state of Maranhao, the Kaapor people have formed "a militia of 'forest guardians'" using bows and arrows and bordunas, or heavy batons, to defend themselves against illegal loggers. In nearby Arariboia, militias including members of the Guajajara people have also captured illegal loggers, holding them hostage and confiscating their wood.
PEC 215 will soon be voted on in the full Congress, where it needs to pass by a 60 percent majority in order to proceed to the Federal Senate, Brazil's upper house. There, due to a campaign mounted by indigenous organizations in 2015, 48 senators, or 60 percent of the upper house, have already signed a manifesto against PEC 215, calling it "an infringement on the rights of indigenous peoples" and pledging to vote against it should it arrive in their chamber. If successful, that campaign could block the amendment's passage, constituting a major victory for Brazil's indigenous communities, but not only for them.
Although indigenous groups are active in civil society, Brazil's National Congress currently has no indigenous members.
"People need to realize that PEC 215 doesn't only affect indigenous peoples," said Sonia Guajajara, president of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, speaking just before the December COP21 climate talks in Paris. "It affects everyone. It's not only a regression in terms of indigenous rights, but also in terms of environmental rights. To deny the right to demarcation of territories is also to reject climatic equilibrium, for example, and the conservation of biodiversity."
The Environmental and Cultural Impact of Dams and Mines
Until now, the best-known, most emblematic cause of Brazil's indigenous movement in recent years has perhaps been its battle to halt the hydro-electric mega-dam, Belo Monte. The plant, located deep in the Amazon on the Xingu River in northern Brazil and run by state-owned power company Eletronorte, is the third-largest in the world and the largest Brazil has ever seen. Thousands of the area's indigenous inhabitants were expelled during the construction of the 3-mile-wide mega-dam and its immense reservoirs, with many becoming "refugees in their own land," as an essay in El Pais Brazil described it.
The plant, built by a consortium of construction companies, cost $18.5 billion, funds which were primarily drawn from the federally run Brazilian Development Bank. Executives from Camargo Correa, the major Brazilian private conglomerate implicated in the immense "Lava Jato" or "car wash" corruption investigation currently targeting Brazil's political and business elites, have admitted to having paid bribes to secure contracts to build the plant.
Despite fierce, prolonged resistance from local tribes and their supporters in Brazil and beyond, Belo Monte was licensed to operate in November, and its two main reservoirs, spanning an area of 173 square miles, are currently filling with water. Critics argue that the conditions for the dam's construction set by Ibama, Brazil's environmental agency, were never met. Those include conducting studies on the dam's impact on indigenous communities; providing essential services such as clean water, sanitation, health services and other basic human needs to displaced people; ending illegal invasions of indigenous lands in the locality, including illegal settlements on the Cachoeira Seca do Iriri indigenous territory; and the ratification of indigenous reserves in the area.
Problems arising from mega-projects like Belo Monte are far-reaching. Road construction exacerbates deforestation, and indigenous communities living below the barrage become dangerously isolated, seriously compromising their access to clean, fresh water. According to Reis of CIMI, major construction in the Amazon's undeveloped areas can also lead to population spikes in relatively ungoverned territory, creating a "Wild West situation." According to Greenpeace Brazil, Belo Monte led to a 50 percent population increase in the nearby town of Altamira between 2011 and 2014. Homicides rose 79 percent during that period, and alcoholism, violent crime, drug trafficking and prostitution, including forced prostitution, have increased as well.
As part of the Brazilian government's drive to ramp up renewable energy sources-the country already meets three-quarters of its energy needs with hydro-electric power-at least 40 major hydro-electric plants are currently under construction within Amazonia Legal, with varying impact on indigenous communities. In the hydro-electric complex under construction on the Tapajos River in the state of Para, 7 percent of the land inhabited by the local Munduruku people is to be flooded. The demarcation process to legally recognize the area's Sawre Muybu indigenous reserve has stalled due to pressure from the federal government-precisely to facilitate construction of the dams, according to the Munduruku people. The Munduruku's struggle for land protection earned them the Equator Prize at COP21 in Paris, awarded to "indigenous community initiatives that are advancing innovative solutions for people, nature and resilient communities." On Dec. 5, President Dilma Roussef ratified four demarcated territories; neither Sawre Muybu nor Cachoeira Seca do Iriri, in the vicinity of the Tapajos and Belo Monte hydro-electric plants, respectively, were included.
Indigenous movements have gained momentum, but Brazil's political landscape does not lean in their favor.
Beyond the problems already faced in Amazonia as a result of back-pedaling on demarcation, PEC 215, if passed, will further facilitate construction projects such as dams on indigenous, quilombola and conservation reserves, if they are deemed to be of significant public national interest. Activities considered to be in the national interest, according to the PEC, include mining, hydro-electric plants, oil and gas pipelines, ports, airports, transmission lines, roads, railways and more.
Even if the PEC 215 doesn't pass, Reis says that poor indigenous communities are subject to sophisticated campaigns to convince them of the national importance of major projects that jeopardize their livelihoods. "They bombard them with developmentalist arguments about the good of the nation, and try and bribe them by offering access to schools, health, education: In other words, basic rights that they already possess and that even now are not being fulfilled."
Beyond hydro-electrics, mining has also penetrated deep into the Amazon region, particularly in the Serra dos Carajas, in Para, an area known as the "mineral province of Carajas." There, Vale, a major Brazilian mining company, is currently building the S11D mine, which will be the world's largest iron-ore mine, while also expanding its railway in order to carry the immense projected output from the mine, expected to be 90 million metric tons per year at full capacity by 2018. The mine begins its operations in 2016.
Mining is not currently permissible on indigenous territory; although a clause in the constitution authorizes it under certain circumstances, the necessary regulatory legislation has never been passed. Nevertheless, nearby and upriver mining concerns have already heavily impacted indigenous populations in the Amazon region. In August, a court order halted Vale's Onca Puma nickel mine in Para after it led to serious pollution in the Catete River and caused health problems among the downriver indigenous communities. Residents have reported skin lesions, headaches, diabetes and fetal deformities, apparently resulting from high levels of heavy metals in the water and in their diet. Vale is also a co-owner, along with BHP Billiton, of Samarco, the company responsible for the dam that collapsed in Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais, on Nov. 5. In the worst mining disaster in Brazilian history, 50 million cubic meters of mining residue gushed into the surrounding area, leveling the town of Bento Rodrigues, killing at least 17 people and burying the entire region in a slick of toxic mud. Two weeks after the spill, millions of gallons of the residue found their way into the ocean 500 miles away, extinguishing all life in the River Doce along the way.
The Political Obstacles to Change
Although indigenous movements have gained momentum, Brazil's political landscape does not lean in their favor. While Brazil's executive branch is headed by embattled President Dilma Rousseff, currently the subject of an impeachment process, the majority of parliamentary power is in the hands of an influential set of right-wing coalitions known as the "Bala, Boi e Biblia"-the "Bullet, Beef and Bible" caucus or, more simply, the BBB. Around 200 members of the BBB in Congress are considered to be "beef" supporters, shorthand for ruralist, agricultural interests.
"We have a Congress that panders almost entirely to private interests," says Senlle, of ISA. "Their election campaigns are financed by private companies and private interests, and the results of that are clear in the bills they bring before Congress." Activists say that FUNAI, too, has been badly weakened in recent years, with budget cuts, reductions in personnel and a consistently indifferent government that sees no urgency in supporting its work.
Although Brazil is suffering an economic downturn, the slowdown hasn't translated to a decline in deforestation or industrial incursions into the Amazon. Rather, economic difficulties have bolstered justifications for furthering such activities, something Senlle says is a familiar tactic. "Today, there's a widely disseminated discourse of crisis, including in Congress," she explains. "It strikes fear into the general public, turning people against the indigenous population. The idea being that, if we don't produce more soybeans for export, we'll go hungry, and the economy won't hold up."
In fact, industry, agriculture and state enterprise in the Amazon, and the environmental and social consequences they bring, have increased. According to official government data, the rate of deforestation increased by 16 percent between July 2014 and July 2015, totaling 2,251 square miles of lost forest. That adds to the 157,340 square miles lost in the Brazilian Amazon between 1988 and 2014.
As indigenous and conservation movements have warned for years, the scale of deforestation will affect the world in its entirety. At COP21 in Paris, world leaders formally recognized the role of forests in combating climate change. The final agreement does not explicitly stress the importance of preserving traditional territories under the stewardship of the world's indigenous peoples, although REDD+, an existing carbon- offset program proposed by developed countries, would pay forest inhabitants for preserving trees on their lands. The initiative has been widely criticized by indigenous leaders and activists for inadequately respecting indigenous rights, placing restrictions on traditional activities such as fishing and cultivation, and offering "a false solution to climate change," in the words of Ninawa Huni Kui, an indigenous leader from Acre.
"At a time when global warming is under discussion and we're already experiencing the effects of climate change, it's amazing to see that people still don't realize that they too are under attack, that their rights too are being violated, and that they too need to get involved," said Sonia Guajajara in a November speech. "As indigenous peoples, we are defending our territory, our own way of life and the environment. But our struggle is not purely for our own benefit. It also helps to ensure that we all survive."
Claire Rigby is a freelance journalist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she covers news and other stories for publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Vice News, Index on Censorship and Monocle 24 radio.
Índios:Política Indigenista Oficial
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