Eye on the Amazon

Institution Protecting Indigenous Rights in Brazil Under Attack

Brazil’s indigenous movement is leading the struggle to defend FUNAI from political attacks. Photo credit: Gert-Peter Bruch / Planete Amazone

As we bear witness to a sustained assault upon the foundations of our societies, we increasingly turn to critical institutions to uphold the rights and protections that underpin democracy. Yet it is precisely these organizations, which were forged through prolonged, popular rights-based movements, that are most vulnerable to attack.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, a vital institution charged with guaranteeing ecological balance for the public's benefit, is being systematically dismantled by the Trump administration to favor destructive industry. And in Brazil, the country's economic and political rulers – acting under the long shadow of Michel Temer, whose ascension to the presidency deeply undermined democracy – are waging a sustained, insidious campaign to weaken key institutions and dismantle constitutional land rights. The federal agency known as FUNAI, or the National Indigenous Foundation, is a case in point.

FUNAI's duty is to protect and promote the rights of Brazil's native peoples. Among its chief responsibilities is to identify, title, and supervise the country's vast array of indigenous territories, while helping to guarantee culturally appropriate development in native communities. Yet the right to ancestral lands free from industrial activity – 98.5% of which fall within the Amazon's diverse ecosystems – presents an obstacle to the expansion of Brazil's burgeoning agribusiness sector. This powerful lobby has directed its congressional and judicial allies to neutralize FUNAI's efficacy by slashing its budget, compromising its independence, and undermining its ability to comply with its constitutional mandate.

The effect of these regressions have been crippling: FUNAI can no longer maintain field staff in posts critical to the defense of indigenous lands under acute threat of violent invasion. FUNAI's technical staff – essential public servants committed to its mission – are demoralized. And land titling processes have been frozen by the Attorney General's (AGU) "Normative Opinion 001" (Parecer Normativo 001/2017), an erroneous edict that devastates native land rights.

The AGU's legal opinion instructs all federal agencies to abide by a highly contentious and unconstitutional "time frame" (marco temporal) clause, which only recognizes the land claims of indigenous peoples that have continuously occupied their territories since Brazil's 1988 Constitution was enshrined, ignoring common situations in which communities were brutally driven off their lands prior to that date. This clause forces FUNAI employees to disregard 748 cases to demarcate tribal lands that are currently pending before the institution, essentially tying their hands while establishing a dangerous precedent that could see land rights protections stripped on already-titled territories.

Precisely because the AGU's opinion brazenly violates constitutional rights, the office of Brazil's Federal Prosecutor (MPF) demanded it be revoked, claiming it overrides FUNAI's authority to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples, while jeopardizing legal recourse to the detriment of the nation's interests. Furthermore, the MPF argues that by implying that pending indigenous land demarcations be paralyzed and past land-titling processes scrutinized, the AGU's opinion has increased the threat of violence and conflict.

Without meaningful support from advocates within the government, Brazil's indigenous peoples are increasingly forced to fend for themselves, defending their lands and ways of life against powerful and belligerent actors, with often deadly results. This scenario has far-reaching implications: much of Brazilian Amazon's vast, climate-stabilizing forests are still standing thanks to the tireless stewardship of their original inhabitants. Yet under the antagonism of President Temer, indigenous peoples and their advocates are increasingly falling victim to acts of brutal violence and intimidation, which are carried out with impunity. The recent murders of vocal indigenous land defenders and the torching of remote FUNAI observation posts are flashpoints of this grim reality.

In arguing for the immediate revocation of the AGU's opinion, the MPF shows that upholding an unconstitutional legal clause not only unfairly undermines indigenous land rights, but also exposes the Brazilian government to being held accountable internationally. A recent ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights awarding Brazil's Xucuru people $1 million for government-backed land rights violations is one example of global calls for accountability.

International denunciation is an important tool to counter the Brazilian government's complicity in today's escalating human rights crisis. While the voices of earth defenders are brutally silenced and their institutional advocates stripped of authority, the authors of these attacks must be opposed on all levels, including that of global public opinion. Our collective condemnation of these unacceptable rollbacks – from the US to Brazil – is an essential component to robust resistance at this critical moment.

Brazil's indigenous movement, its constituents, and their lands will not be able to resist the intensifying onslaught of increasingly powerful and destructive forces on their own. We must make a stand at their side, demanding not only the enforcement of land rights, but also the defense of critical institutions like FUNAI.

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