Eye on the Amazon

Indigenous Rights Under Assault in Brazil

The Xingu River after being dammed

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As massive protests rocked Brazil last month, placing President Dilma Rousseff under intense pressure to create long overdue dialogue with Brazilian civil society groups, she finally granted representatives from Brazil's diverse indigenous peoples an audience. Listening attentively to their concerns, Dilma graciously promised to defend the rights of indigenous peoples before Brazil's National Congress. Yet at the very moment this historic encounter ensued, an attempted congressional coup against indigenous rights was underway: the powerful Ruralista bloc that represents the country's burgeoning agribusiness sector led a charge that placed the constitutional rights of Brazil's native peoples squarely in the line of fire.

Known as the Proposed Law 227 (PLP 227/2012), and put forward for an urgent vote in an attempt to ram the legislation through with stealth, the law would modify Article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution, eliminating the right of indigenous peoples to an exclusive and permanent usufruct to resources on their ancestral territories in cases of "relevant public interest". A liberal application of "relevant public interest" could essentially clear the way for massive farming, dam-building, mining, road building and settlement construction on indigenous lands. By decimating one of the cornerstones of indigenous territorial integrity, the proposed constitutional amendment places the interests of Brazil's big landowners and extractive industry above the human rights of indigenous people.

This move is in tandem with the withering assault against Brazil's indigenous peoples that has unfolded over recent years, exemplified by the Brazilian government's reckless dam-building agenda in the Amazon. The steamrolling of the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River and equally outrageous plans to dam the neighboring Tapajós River, submerging large swaths of indigenous territories and villages, flagrantly disregards Brazil's commitment to the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples as enshrined in International Labor Organization's Convention 169 (ILO 169) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). The Rousseff government has willfully presided over this paradox, so toxic to indigenous rights in Brazil, setting a dangerous precedent for the proposal of a series of sinister new laws.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment 215 (PEC 215) would roll back the demarcation of new indigenous territories by passing the authority to demarcate lands from the Executive to Legislative branch, guaranteeing they would languish in red tape and Ruralista intransigence. PEC 303 from the Office of the Attorney General proposes to veto any expansion of demarcated indigenous territories while authorizing the construction of roads, energy transmission lines, and military installations within their borders when such projects are deemed relevant to "national security", further undermining the value of demarcated, protected areas.

Brazil's enormous mining sector has been avidly eyeing the untapped mineral wealth beneath indigenous lands for decades, without the legal means to bring in their extractive apparatus, which has proven so detrimental to the environment and human rights in the Amazon. Proposed Law (PL) 1610 would change all that. With the stated interest of modernizing Brazil's mining code, PL 1610 would open the floodgates to mining on indigenous territories, ceding license to drill whether or not indigenous residents have been consulted or granted their approval.

Ostensibly to soften the blow on indigenous peoples threatened by industrial mining operations on their ancestral lands, PL 1610 proposes a profit-sharing package, where indigenous communities could benefit from riches extracted from their territories. "Soy King" turned Senator Blairo Maggi – known for his wanton destruction of Amazonian and cerrado forests in Mato Grosso state – recently introduced legislation (PEC 76/2011) to propose a similar benefit-sharing scheme for indigenous peoples affected by dams, asking "How can we justify, for example, that the construction of a hydroelectric dam generates wealth for the country and does not benefit in any way the traditional peoples directly affected [by its construction]?"

A better question might be: How can the Brazilian government justify forcing its native peoples, who were subject to centuries of injustice and genocidal abuse, to continue enduring the brunt of the country's uncontrolled economic expansion against their will?

As threats to their rights and territories have escalated, indigenous peoples have responded with courageous and organized resistance. In May, the Munduruku people of the Tapajós basin mobilized their struggle to preserve the Tapajós free of dams, staging a prolonged occupation of Belo Monte's principal work camp and paralyzing the mega-dam's construction. In an unprecedented move, the government flew the Munduruku from their occupation on the banks of the Xingu River to the halls of power in Brasilia to explain that they had the right to be consulted about the impacts of future dams on their lands, but no say over government policies.

During the annual "Free Land" (Terra Livre) indigenous assembly in April, representatives from Brazilian native communities occupied Brazil's Congress in protest of their growing marginalization and lack of political representation. The action temporarily halted congressional proceedings and secured an agreement with the President of Brazil's House of Representatives Henrique Alves that all legislative proposals that concern indigenous people would need to first be discussed by a commission of parliamentarians and indigenous representatives before passing for a vote.

Yet the rush to pass Proposed Law 227 and shred constitutional protections of indigenous lands and resources flew in the face of this accord. When confronted by indigenous leadership in Brasilia over this betrayal Mr. Alves assured them that the vote would be delayed until at least August. This delay does nothing to stem the tide of political and economic pressures eroding the rights of Brazil's indigenous peoples.

What has become clear is that the Brazilian government, including President Dilma Rousseff herself, is willing to pay lip service to the preservation of indigenous rights while working hard to dismantle them. The tendency to throw Brazil's indigenous citizens under the steamroller of the country's economic juggernaut is not new, but has sadly accelerated egregiously under the so-called Program to Accelerate Growth (PAC), initiated under the Worker's Party President Lula da Silva and held steadfast by Dilma.

While they have various allies in their country and around the world, Brazil's indigenous peoples are the only ones who can put the breaks on this growing assault, resisting the onslaught by affirming their right to live according to their traditions and according to their own free will on their ancestral dominions, nourishing a true Indigenous Spring.

As asserted by Antonio Puruborá in the name of indigenous leaders in the Amazonian state of Rondônia: "We are mindful of the Brazilian government's political genocide, which in the name of progress kills rivers, forests, and human beings. Give us back our sacred lands, which must be demarcated and protected under the law, because it is on them that we will continue to reaffirm our physical and cultural existence."

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