Indigenous rights take a hit under cover of pandemic, new report says
by Meghie Rodrigues on 5 March 2021
A new report evaluates the state of human rights among Indigenous peoples in five tropical forest countries: Brazil, Colombia, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia.
One of the key findings is that governments in these countries are prioritizing the expansion of the energy sector, infrastructure, mining and logging, and the development of industrial agriculture close to or inside Indigenous territories, while loosening oversight of land grabbing and illegal deforestation.
Indigenous peoples have had to adapt their resistance and fight to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid having their rights violated even further.
"One of the good things about living here is that it is - or at least it was, before the pandemic - possible to coexist and share ideas, sips of coffee and food bites with the very people you write about and work with." This is how anthropologist Thais Mantovanelli, a researcher at the Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO that defends Indigenous and environmental rights in Brazil, describes her life in Altamira. This municipality in the Amazonian state of Pará is ripe with land ownership conflicts and violence.
Mantovanelli received her doctorate in social anthropology from São Carlos Federal University in 2016, and after having split her time between São Paulo and Pará states for around five years, she moved to Altamira for good in 2017. There, she works with the Mebengokre-Xikrin and Juruna Yudjá peoples, who run an independent monitoring of the effects the Belo Monte dam has had over their territories at the Volta Grande do Xingu region, southeast from Altamira at the margins of the Xingu River.
These tribes have suffered the impact of Belo Monte not only through the violence rates that have skyrocketed in the region, but also because fishing has become more difficult. The flow rate of the Xingu has been throttled down, greatly restraining the piracema, the reproductive season when several fish species migrate to shallow areas and fountainheads to spawn.
Mantovanelli said the Xingu's flow rate in Volta Grande before the dam was built was 25,000 cubic meters per second (m3/s), or about 6.6 million gallons a second, but has since slowed to a fraction of that.
"What [developer] Norte Energia calls 'consensus hydrogram,' defined when they won the auction for the dam's construction in 2010, is a flow rate of 8,000 m3/s for the flooding season and 4,000 m3/s after that," Mantovanelli said.
The plummeting water levels in the Xingu, combined with an increase in illegal logging in the Amazon and meager law enforcement, are an explosive mixture for Volta Grande do Xingu. And it all got worse with the pandemic.
In Brazil and elsewhere
According to a new report, Indigenous rights have been largely disrespected and ignored during the COVID-19 pandemic. Published by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) in partnership with the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School and Middlesex University London's School of Law, the report shows that in tropical forest countries - Brazil, Colombia, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia - impunity for illegal logging and mining has escalated.
FPP and its partners are calling on the private sector and governments to engender better post-COVID-19 recovery plans. "These actors must pay heed to social and environmental standards - without that, the possibility of a sustainable recovery is endangered," said Tom Griffiths, coordinator of the responsible finance program at the FPP.
In Brazil, the situation for Indigenous groups was already alarming under previous governments, but under President Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, the country "is the most blatant case of lack of governance, since the government seems to be actively seeking to eliminate Indigenous peoples," said Cathal Doyle, a researcher at Middlesex University of London, who co-authored the report's global synthesis. "The environment minister's remarks are a sign of how bad things have gone."
In a ministerial meeting in April 2020, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles suggested Brazil should do as much as it could to loosen environmental regulations "while the media was focused solely on the COVID-19 pandemic."
In all the countries observed, Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders have faced increased violence, and local peoples have been largely kept from their right to free, prior and informed consent on decisions that directly affect their lives, such as the Belo Monte dam.
In Indonesia, for instance, a sweeping deregulation package known as the omnibus law on job creation, passed in October 2020, slashes environmental safeguards by, among other actions, simplifying licensing and land acquisition processes. "It clearly weakened the rights and protections of Indigenous and customary communities - for example, their right to challenge an environmental license by a company to clear forests was removed with that law," Griffiths said.
Among the findings in Colombia is the increased danger that Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders face for speaking out. According to Indepaz, an NGO, 110 of these leaders and defenders were murdered in 2020 - 26 more than in 2019.
The situation doesn't seem to be much better in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the report shows that in February 2020 eight Batwa community members were sentenced to prison for resettling on their own lands, in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, after being evicted in 1975. Some received a 15-year sentence and appeals have been delayed several times.
In Peru, the Ministry of Economy and Finance pushed for online consultations on the approval of mining projects in May 2020, making it difficult for Indigenous communities to access the process and get their voice heard.
These and other findings in the report were put together by independent researchers in the field working in each of the countries.
Thais Mantovanelli is the main author of the report's section on Brazil. She said independent monitoring is essential to the policymaking and licensing processes. "We live in a situation in which we are held hostages to the official monitoring performed by the business owners themselves - it doesn't make any sense that you are the judge of your own business's environmental and social impacts," she said.
"It is like a Corinthians fan refereeing a Corinthians soccer match," she added, referring to one of Brazil's most popular sports clubs.
Doyle agreed, saying the report also builds on grassroots monitoring initiatives that highlight Indigenous communities' self-determination. "A concrete example of that is Xingu Mais, a project at the Xingu basin that uses satellite imagery to monitor the impacts of deforestation and massive constructions on native peoples in the region," he said.
The exercise of the right to self-determination also shows in the multiple fronts through which Indigenous peoples are working their defense. According to Dinamam Tuxá, executive coordinator of the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Articulation (APIB), while the Brazilian judiciary is slow to punish land grabbers and invaders, it is making progress on other fronts. "The Supreme Court has intervened with the federal government to ensure an effective COVID emergency plan for Indigenous lands," he said.
"The pandemic has forced us to adapt to new modes of resistance and fight - within the digital realm, in other institutional spaces, seeking interaction with different sectors of civil society," Tuxá said. "We are constantly appealing to the Supreme Court to guarantee our rights and liberate the land demarcation."
One of the legal actions APIB mounted, seeking to guarantee Indigenous peoples' constitutional right to health, especially during the pandemic, was approved by the court in August 2020. The ruling calls for the removal of gold miners from Indigenous lands, with the creation of sanitary barriers and effective inspection.
The fight goes beyond Brazil's borders. "We're seeking help from the U.N., the Organization of American States and the International Court of Justice to intercede with the Brazilian government to guarantee the life of Indigenous peoples," Tuxá said.
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