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Rights of indigenous populations under serious threat
José Pedro Martins
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Government reduces budget to the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and open protected area to the mining investment.

In accordance with an annual tradition, the Brazilian President Michel Temer opened the General Debate of the 72nd session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly with a speech on Sep. 19. As expected, Temer made reference to “top priority” compromises of Brazil regarding sustainable development, specifically mentioning the efforts to reduce deforestation in the Amazonia, an issue that has generated much international criticism of his government. On the other hand, Temer made no mention of another thorny issue for Brazilian international diplomacy: the serious attacks to the rights of indigenous peoples in the country, and above all in the Amazon, which the president claims to be defending.

The severe criticism to violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil go back a long time, but they intensified in the first half of 2017 following the visit to the country of three UN special rapporteurs and one of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

“The rights of indigenous peoples and environmental rights are under attack in Brazil,” said with one voice the UN special rapporteurs on June 8: Victoria Tauli Corpuz, on the rights of indigenous peoples; Michael Forst, on human rights defenders; and John Knox, on the environment; all in addition to IACHR rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli.

The rapporteurs were very concerned about the proposals for the reform of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), which is under discussion in Temer’s government. The FUNAI is the organization that ensures the rights of indigenous peoples within the Brazilian state.

Another strong concern of the UN rapporteurs had to do with a document of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI), which worked in the Brazilian National Congress on the indigenous issue in the country. The CPI report, approved on May 17, casts doubt on Convention 169 on indigenous peoples of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.

“The report of the CPI also stresses that the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples represents a serious threat to the sovereignty of Brazil, and even encourages the Brazilian government to abandon the ILO Convention 169, on the grounds that it creates conditions for the establishment of non-existent indigenous peoples in order to arbitrarily expand the land demarcation in Brazil,” warned the UN specialists.

It is clear that there is a divergence of opinion taking place now between the international human rights bodies and the Brazilian government — and also the political groups that support it — on the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil. The country had already been questioned during the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights process, which took place between 2016 and 2017. This review is mandatory for the countries that are signatories to international human rights conventions.

Threats, assaults and deaths
The indigenous rights support organizations claim that the native people have been the victims of threats, assaults and deaths due to the multiple interests in their lands: by illegal loggers, miners and big landowners, in particular in the Amazon region where most of the indigenous population in Brazil is located.

The indigenous peoples that live in isolation in the Amazon find themselves in a particularly troubling situation. The General Coordinating Body for Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous (CGIIRC) of the FUNAI estimates that there have been 103 records of isolated indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon, with 26 being confirmed references and 77 still pending studies for their confirmation.

Seven of the 26 bases for the protection of indigenous peoples in isolation have been closed in recent years, increasing the vulnerability to attacks of the natives. The suspicion of a massacre of isolated indigenous peoples, committed in August by illegal miners in the indigenous land of the Javari Valley, state of Amazonas, reached global impact. The complaint was made by the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja), and was presented to the Federal Public Ministry.

A monitoring process carried out by the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), one of the main organizations for the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil, shows the sharp decline of the already reduced budget of the FUNAI in recent years.

In 2013, the budget of the FUNAI reached a maximum of 800 million Brazilean reals (US$255 million), although only a little more than 600 million reals were actually funded. The decreases have been constant since then. In 2016 the budget was reduced to 542 million reals, but only 137 million reals were actually handed over by the government to the FUNAI, as consequence of the many social expenditure cuts made by Temer’s government.

“It is very likely that, if the policy of strangling the FUNAI is not reversed, a serious increase in pressures, violence and massacres against the isolated, newly contacted and integrated indigenous peoples will occur in the short term in territories that should be protected by the state,” told the press Fany Ricardo, coordinator of the monitoring program of the ISA. The ISA also points out that the FUNAI has been the subject of changes of technical, qualified staff, by persons linked to the allied base of Temer’s government in the National Congress.

In a study on the subject, signed by Leandro Mahalem and Roberto Almeida, the ISA indicates that, other peoples are at grave risk in addition to the indigenous people of the Javari Valley: “The Moxi thëpë hatëtëma (Yanomami Indigenous Land), pressured by illegal miners; the Awa (Awá, Araribóia, Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Lands ) in Maranhão, by loggers and landowners; Piripkura and Kawahiva of Rio Pardo (Indigenous Lands of the same name), in the state of Mato Grosso, by loggers and landowners; or the isolated peoples from the  Alto Tarauacá Indigenous Land, on the border between Acre and Peru, by loggers, landowners and drug traffickers.”

The Copper National Reserve and its Associates
The Catholic Church is particularly worried about the attacks on the rights and integrity of the indigenous peoples in Brazil. The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), which brings together the Catholic Bishops of the country, highlighted in a statement issued on Sep. 5 its “vehement repudiation” to the decrees 9.142/2017 and 9.147/2017, promulgated by Temer’s government, “wiping out” the Copper National Reserve and its Associates (RENCA) where mining activity is prohibited or heavily regulated.

RENCA was created in 1984, that is, in the last year of the military government (1964-84), with the purpose of protecting a large area of the Amazon for mineral research purposes and block it to private investment. The 47,000 km² area is located between the states of Pará and Amapá, in the north of the country.

“Without regard to the indigenous peoples and traditional communities, the government´s decision is contrary to the Federal Constitution, in article 231, and puts in evidence the perverse logic of the market that is being adopted in our country to the detriment of life,” protested the President of the CNBB, Cardinal Sergio de la Roca, archbishop of Brasilia.

Decree 9.142/2017 was published on Aug. 22 and it allowed that part of the territory of the RENCA be opened to outside private initiatives for research and mining extraction. There was great repercussion from national and international public opinion, resulting in the government issuing a new decree, decree 9.147/2017, indicating that there would be limitations to the presence of private capital in the area and also that there would be prior consultation with society.

However, indigenous organizations and human rights organizations remain concerned about the practical effects of the opening of the RENCA. Two indigenous areas are crossed by the RENCA: The Waiãpi, in Amapá, and the Rio Paru D’Este, in Pará. There is a lot of fear about the possible effects of the opening of the RENCA on indigenous populations, as well as in the areas of environmental protection within it. There are seven environmental protection units with areas within the RENCA, three of them being of integral protection, where mining should not be allowed, and four of sustainable use, with mining permitted if the so called management plan were present.

In any case, the indigenous issue is at the center of the actions taken by Brazilian and international humanitarian and environmental organizations. The concern is growing in other social sectors, such as in the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), which discussed the issue at its last annual meeting this past July, in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais.

“A series of actions of this government have broken with a policy that was in effect for at least 14 years, strengthening sectors linked to agribusiness and has made indigenous territorial rights more flexible,” said to the press Ricardo Verdum, professor of the Department of Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and member of the Commission on Indigenous Affairs (CAI) of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology (ABA).

Brazil is watchful. The silence of President Temer at the UN on the indigenous issue will have no practical effect, as the clamor will continue. –Latinamerica Press.


Waiãpi Indigenous Area, in Amapá, at risk due to the effects from the opening of protective area to private investment. / FUNAI
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