Brazil's Indigenous People Outraged as Agency Targeted in Conservative-led Cuts

Amid budget cuts and threats from conservative lawmakers, the National Indian Foundation, or Funai, is barely able to protect indigenous people and their land

The Brazilian agency charged with protecting nearly a million indigenous people and their extensive reserves is barely functioning after a debilitating assault from a powerful group of conservative politicians and a cost-cutting government.

The concerted campaign against the National Indian Foundation, known as Funai, could endanger some of Brazil's most vulnerable tribes – and compromise the country's ability to meet international commitments on climate change, said indigenous leaders, campaigners and scientists.

"Without doubt, this is one of the worst crises for the rights of the indigenous people," said a Funai official, speaking anonymously, because other staff members have been subject to disciplinary procedures after making public criticism.

The official compared the atmosphere at the agency to that during Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, which regarded indigenous people as an impediment to progress. "You have to be careful what you say," the official said. "Those who position themselves in the defence of indigenous people are strongly attacked."

The budget for Funai – which is part of the ministry of justice – was almost halved this year to around £14m, forcing it to close dozens of regional offices. Three bases protecting isolated and recently contacted indigenous tribes have been closed, while others are barely functioning.

"It is an organ that doesn't represent anything anymore. It just has money to pay its staff, nothing else," said Sydney Possuelo, a former president of Funai and expert in non-contacted tribes.

But budget cuts are not the only threats. A congressional commission dominated by lawmakers from a powerful agribusiness caucus want to strip the agency of its power to demarcate new reserves, and prosecute some of its staff for alleged crimes, such as contravening the principles of public administration and crimes against the public peace. The panel also recommended allowing indigenous people to practice commercial agriculture on their lands – which cover 13% of Brazilian territory.

Brazil's government is desperately trying to reduce soaring public spending but has yet to tackle the costs of Congress, where 513 deputies in the lower house cost taxpayers £236m last year, according to watchdog Congress in Focus.

The Funai official said its reduced presence has led to more land invasions by land grabbers, loggers and miners in indigenous territories.

"There has been an increases in land conflicts, territorial disputes," the official said, "because they reduce the protection, you reduce the presence of the state."

Brazil has seen a rise in homicides related to rural land disputes this year, 37 people died in the first five months of this year, eight more than the same period in 2016, according the Pastoral Land Commission, a non-profit group linked to the National Conference of Bishops.

UN special rapporteurs on rights of indigenous peoples, human rights defenders and the environment also denounced the surge of killings. "The rights of indigenous peoples and environmental rights are under attack in Brazil," Victoria Tauli Corpuz, John Knox, Michel Forst and José Eguiguren Praeli said in a statement in June

Funai's department for recently contacted and isolated indigenous tribes across the vast Amazon has received just £590,000 this year. That could have deadly consequences, said Beto Marubo, 45, a Marubo Indian who formerly worked for the agency. Marubo lives in the remote Javari valley, where around 80 recently contacted indigenous people live, but local Funai bases have been closed.

"Many Indians who are there in the forest and depend on the protection of the state – they could simply become extinct," he said. "A simple flu could kill them in three days."

Cleber Buzatto, executive-secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council, a not-for-profit group, said Funai is under attack from a caucus of lawmakers allied to Brazil's powerful agribusiness lobby, known as ruralistas.

"It is a process of weakening and strangulation of Funai," Buzatto said.

Allied with pro-gun and evangelical Christian lawmakers, this lobby has increased its influence in Brazil's conservative Congress since last year's impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff and her replacement, her former running mate Michel Temer. Funai's presidents are now chosen by an evangelical Christian party that is part of Temer's coalition.

Ruralista lawmakers dominated the congressional commission which investigated Funai and a government agrarian reform agency called Incra. They produced a report that recommended prosecuting Funai staff, anthropologists, campaigners, prosecutors, "supposed indigenous" people and a former justice minister.

Buzatto was one of those accused of committing "illicit acts" connected to invasions of rural properties and "false anthropological studies". He denies the allegations.

The 3,385-page report alleged that indigenous people had been awarded land where they did not live. It said Funai had become the "operational arm of external interests" and "an amalgam of private interests and ideological objectives". It did not suggest prosecuting any farmers or agribusiness owners, who are often linked to land conflicts.

Nilson Leitão, the congressman who led the inquiry, said that Funai had failed many indigenous people, who lived with "a lack of health attendance, of education, a lack of medicine, they live in a very difficult situation".

The solution, he argued, was to let them join Brazil's growing agribusiness industry. Currently only subsistence farming is allowed on indigenous reserves.

"There are tribes that like to produce, like to harvest," he said. "It is the Indian who has to decide what he wants and what he doesn't want."

Amazon deforestation rose 29% last year. An analysis by the non-government Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) found 64% of 2016's deforestation was on either on land given to small farmers by the government's agrarian reform agency, in turn often overrun by land grabbers or loggers, or on private land. Just 1.3% was on indigenous reserves.

Climate scientists have linked the threat to Brazil's indigenous reserves to other moves to erode environmental protection.

Congress is currently considering a bill which proposes simplifying environmental licensing, and even removing it for some activities, like agriculture. Meanwhile the government wants to free up mining in some Amazon areas where it is prohibited.

"If you put all of this together, it will be very difficult for Brazil to fulfill what it promised in the Paris climate deal," said Tercio Ambrizzi, a professor of climatology at the University of São Paulo.

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