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Brazil: “Too much land for a few indigenous people”
Paolo Moiola
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The powerful rural coalition attempts to change laws to strip indigenous peoples of their territories.

In Article 231 the Brazilian Constitution recognizes the indigenous peoples, their social organization, customs, languages, beliefs, traditions, and their original right to the lands they have traditionally occupied. In addition, it is the State’s duty to demarcate the land, protect it and make sure all of its resources are protected. However, these peoples are victims of constant attack from the political and economic powers that seek to displace them from their territories.

The indigenous population in Brazil is 900,000 people of a total of more than 200 million inhabitants, and they belong to 305 ethnic groups. For Carlo Zacquini, Italian missionary of the Order of the Consolata who has lived for 48 years in the state of Roraima, a north-most state, the situation is very serious.

 “A few months after I arrived in Brazil, on May 1, 1965, at the mouth of the Apiau River, I was fortunate to meet some indigenous who were then called Vaiká. Now I know they were the Yanomami from the Yõkositheri village. It was love at first sight. Later on I had various interactions always with the same group, until [later on], I had the opportunity to live among the Yanomami of the Catrimani River. Little by little, as I tried to survive in that place, many times without basic essentials, I learned one of their languages, and I started to investigate their culture.”

Brother Zacquini speaks of the indigenous as if they were his family. And certainly they are, today as yesterday, as they are subject to even more embarrassing attacks than those of the past. These attacks come from representatives of the national Congress who belong to the powerful rural coalition, which attempts to make void the reach of the chapter of the 1988 Constitution that deals with the indigenous peoples.

One of the most recent and controversial cases is the complementary bill 227/2012, presented by Representative Homero Pereira, President of the rural coalition, which is made up of more than 230 senators and representatives. The bill seeks to regulate section 6 of article 231 of the Constitution. In particular, the bill tries to subject indigenous lands to the “higher public interest of the Brazilian State,” annulling the right to its possession and exclusive right of the indigenous peoples. This is a justification for large estates and highways, oil pipelines, hydroelectric centres, railway, mines, and human settlement on indigenous territory.

The constitutional amendment proposal 215/2000 — presented by Representative Almir Sa — seeks to place the demarcation of the indigenous lands, until now guaranteed by the Constitution, under Congressional control, and thus at the hands of the rural coalition.

“A small number of ‘whites’—says Brother Zacquini—has taken control of the enormous stretches of land and dominates the national government through ‘its’ representatives. The vast size of the country, the confusion in land ownership, and the economic power have prevailed over common sense and the law. If a law is favorable to the indigenous peoples then they can  change it, as is happening now. At any rate, it is said, [those] who have created the laws in effect — and thus who can modify them — are not the indigenous.”

Coveted Territories
Officially called the Parliamentary Farming Front, the rural coalition, its powerful sponsors — the National Agricultural Confederation, made up of important agricultural owners, agribusiness and mining groups — and the most influential media outlets, maintain that the 113 million hectares (283 acres) of the Brazilian territory (13.3 percent of the total, according to data from the nongovernmental organization Socio-environmental Institute) at the hands of the indigenous people is too much. “Too much land for a few indigenous people,” they say.

It must be said — among other things — that often this a theoretical possession. A considerable part of the indigenous land is actually subject to constant and prolonged invasions by a variety of actors:  ranchers, miners, merchants of precious wood, and of biodiversity traffickers.

“Why, even in the case of the communities who have obtained recognition for their lands, the government does not promptly and with efficiency intervene against the invaders? In this way [it] reinforces the mentality that invading indigenous lands and destroying nature is not a crime. Incentivized by impunity, the invasions multiply. If the offenders were the indigenous, the forces of order would very quickly act to restrain them, even with violence,” says Zacquini.

The problem is that many times even the State does not respect the indigenous territories. For example, this occurs with the mega-works projects of the Acceleration of Growth Program (PAC). According to the governmental organization National Indian Fund, 201 PAC projects affect indigenous territories. The ones impacting the most are the hydroelectric power plants, particularly Jirau and Santo Antônio on the Madeira River (Rondônia), Teles Pires (Mato Grosso), São Luiz (Pará) on the Tapajós River, and the largest of all, the Belo Monte one on the Xingú River (Pará). Works that devastate the environment and endanger the lives of tens of indigenous peoples also reflect the lack of respect and adherence to the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, to which Brazil is a signatory.

According to article 16 of the Convention, “the peoples concerned shall not be removed from the lands which they occupy. Where the relocation of these peoples is considered necessary as an exceptional measure, such relocation shall take place only with their free and informed consent.” Brazil’s violation of this article is obvious.

“Why, when we think of ‘progress’, we almost never think of the lands of plantation owners, which are often uncultivated, but we always and only think of the indigenous?,” rightly asks Brother Zacquini. The statement is based on clear numbers:  in Brazil, close to 70,000 people own 228 million hectares (570 acres) of unproductive land, according to data from the state agency Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

He concludes: “Therefore, given the continental dimensions of the country, it cannot be said [in good faith] that if the indigenous land is demarcated, the rest of the inhabitants will not have enough land to live, work, and develop all the possible activities. And, aside from that, it must always be remembered that the indigenous peoples do not destroy nature and the territory as do the ‘advanced’ and ‘learned’ non-indigenous.”

Race towards looting
In Roraima, where Brother Zacquini lives, are the Indigenous Territory of the Yanomami and the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Reserve, where various peoples live: Makuxi, Vapichana, and Ingarikó, among others. Both territories have official recognition, but the problems persist.

“There are tens of bills presented by congressmen, many from Roraima, to eliminate or reduce the rights of the indigenous people,” points out the missionary.

On top and underneath the indigenous territories lie coveted natural resources, and many are willing to do anything to have access to them, as is evidenced by bill 1610/96 — presented by Senator Romero Juca — that seeks to allow the exploitation of minerals in indigenous lands.

“Is it necessary to exploit these resources? Doesn’t the destruction of the environment cause more damage than all of the good that these resources could bring? If they were honestly recognized as necessary, wouldn’t these same resources in non-indigenous lands be given priority? Last, in the case of the exploitation of the indigenous lands, the least that should be done is to debate the issue directly with the interested parties and elaborate with them timely programs and activities to prepare the population and make it a participant [and a recipient] of the eventual benefits,” affirms Zacquini.

 “The race towards the looting of non-renewable natural resources does not lead any country to true progress. Usually it serves to make someone rich, leaving future generations to pay for the debt,” concludes the Italian missionary.
—Latinamerica Press.


Yanomami indigenous group oppose proposed constitutional amendment 215/2000 that threatens the process of demarcation of indigenous lands that is protected by the Constitution. (Photo: Carlo Zacquini)
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