Eye on the Amazon

Rise for the Earth!

Indigenous movement mobilizes against Brazilian congressional bills that would legalize land grabbing and expand extractive industries on Indigenous lands

Photo credit: Kretã Kainkang / Eric Marky / Midia India

This week, thousands of Indigenous people from over 43 Indigenous nations are marching in Brasilia to call attention to the multiple emergencies they face and the Brazilian government’s complete failure to protect and uphold Indigenous rights. Among their demands is the immediate withdrawal of the anti-Indigenous and anti-environment legislative agenda being pushed in the Brazilian Congress right now.

These reforms, represented by a number of bills being discussed at the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, are being pushed chiefly by the extractive industries’ lobby, with the explicit support of the Bolsonaro regime. If approved, the legislation will restrict the demarcation of Indigenous territories, ease restrictions for private sector actors with large environmental impacts, and pardon land grabbing, among other rollbacks. Their approval would certainly have disastrous and lasting impacts on Indigenous territories and livelihoods and the Amazon forest and environment as a whole.

Most of these discussions are not entirely new, and some draw on previous legislative changes. What is new and particularly troublesome at this moment is the extreme and unbalanced content of these proposals. These bills are being presented, processed, and approved rapidly, with no debate involving Indigenous peoples, civil society, the scientific community, and potentially affected populations. Complex processes for environmental licensing and Indigenous land demarcation that have taken years to create are being destroyed by proposals made public the day before they are put to a vote.

All these proposals disregard principles enshrined in the Brazilian Constitution, such as the rights of Indigenous peoples to their traditional lands and violate international commitments, such as the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO169). ILO169 determines that any legislative measures that can potentially impact Indigenous peoples cannot be approved without their free, prior, and informed consent. No wonder that among the package of setbacks being proposed is a bill which enables Brazil to withdraw from ILO169.

These proposals should never have seen the light of day in a democratic society that claims to respect its own constitution. Unfortunately, with the recent elections for the presidencies of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and Bolsonaro allies filling high-level positions, the rush for gold, timber, and land is picking up speed to the detriment of Brazilian society, especially Indigenous and traditional peoples.

Threats to Demarcation and Protection of Indigenous Lands: Bills 490/2007 and 191/2020

Preventing and revising the demarcation process of Indigenous lands in Brazil is one of the priorities of the Bolsonaro administration, fuelled by the agribusiness caucus. Bill 490/2007 is one of many attempts to do so, and it is considered by the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB) a genocide attempt, since for Indigenous people, the right to their ancestral land is essential for the survival of their communities and for the continuation of their ways of life and culture. Bill 490/2007 intends to restrict the demarcation of Indigenous lands based on the so-called "temporal mark doctrine," a pseudo-legal doctrine developed by ruralist sectors which severely reduces Indigenous territorial rights by affirming that Indigenous peoples only have the right to the lands they occupied at the time of the promulgation of the Brazilian Constitution, i.e. October 1988. This notoriously unconstitutional doctrine may prevent the further demarcation of any Indigenous lands, and puts many of the territories that have already been recognized at risk. The bill opens demarcated lands for predatory activities, and proposes that the State can take Indigenous territories back if there are significant "alterations of cultural traits" of the communities. It also represents a major risk to Indigenous in voluntary isolation, as it permits the possibility of contact – including by third parties such as religious missionaries – provided there is "public utility."

“The project allows the government to take from Indigenous peoples areas that have been officialized for decades, it opens the Indigenous lands widely to predatory undertakings, and, in practice, will make demarcations unfeasible” said Kretã Kaingang, from the Executive Coordination of APIB. The bill has recently been put in the agenda of one of the internal commissions of the Chamber of Deputies, but due to popular pressure and Indigenous mobilization, has been removed – it is expected to come back in the coming days.

Another project that aims to open Indigenous lands to extractive exploration is Bill 191/2020. Proposed by Bolsonaro and considered one of his priority projects, the bill has not yet been put to discussion, but depending on the will of the Chamber president Arthur Lira, this could change soon.

Bill 191/2020 aims to establish conditions for industrial and artisanal mining, hydroelectric generation, oil and gas exploration, and large-scale agriculture on Indigenous lands. The proposal, if approved, will lead to increased deforestation, invasions of Indigenous lands, and violence against these peoples. It also contradicts the internationally recognized right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Peoples, by removing any possibility for them to veto harmful activities on their lands.

Indigenous peoples have objected to the bill on numerous occasions. The Munduruku people have opposed it as the "death bill which is bringing division among our people, bringing violence (against those who) fight for the defense of the territory". The Baniwa community affirmed that "it is a mistake to understand that mineral exploration is a solution for the development of Indigenous peoples. Sustainable practices (…) are already a reality for our peoples. So, instead of opening up Indigenous lands to mineral exploration, the State should build (…) instruments to support our sustainable local economic initiatives".

While this bill has not been voted, its impacts are already felt in Indigenous territories throughout the country. State legislatures have been passing similar legislation, while invaders and illegal miners feel emboldened to venture into Indigenous lands, in the hope their illegal activities will be regularized soon. Even large mining companies, such as Anglo American and Vale, have increased their requests for mineral research in Indigenous territories in the past couple of years, in what can be considered a market reserve for the case the legislation is passed.

Environmental Licensing: Bill 3729/2004

Environmental Licensing, one of the main instruments of the Brazilian environmental policy, can be effectively terminated if Bill 3729/2004, already approved by the Chamber of Deputies, is also ratified by the Senate. The proposal is so harmful that it has already been coined the "Anti-Licensing" law. The full text was only made available to the public days before it was sent to plenary discussion, and approved in a rush.

The project exempts 13 types of impactful activities from environmental licensing, including large-scale agriculture and cattle raising. It also allows for "self licensing" through an online process for an array of projects. That is, companies will be able to assess and attest themselves the expected impacts of their activities. If approved, this law could result in the proliferation of environmental disasters.

Thanks to the lobbying of the banking sector, the law exempts banks and other financial institutions from any accountability for the impacts of projects supported by them. This contradicts almost every guideline for responsible banking, including provisions by the World Bank. And shockingly, it excludes from licensing all enterprises that overlap with Indigenous territories that have not yet completed the demarcation process – which represent over 40% of Indigenous lands in Brazil. According to a coalition of Indigenous and quilombola organizations "the consequences of Bill 3729 can cause the physical and cultural extermination of Indigenous peoples, quilombolas, and traditional communities in Brazil".

Land Grabbing: Bills 2633/20 and 510/2021

Bills 510 (currently in the Senate) and 2633 (in the Chamber of Deputies), while different, have the same objective: facilitate land grabbing in Brazil. They both aim to pardon the occupation of public land in Brazil,allowing for the legalization of very recent land occupation. While the official argument is that the laws would help small-scale farmers and squatters struggling to access lands legally, in practice they favor medium and large-size rural properties up to 2,500 hectares in an obvious move to pardon land grabbing. "For those who have been occupying and producing on public land for decades, current legislation is enough" reads a letter from civil society organizations gathered by the Climate Observatory. "To carry out land titling in the Amazon, it is necessary, in the first place, to discourage new invasions. Therefore, it is essential not only to maintain the current law, but to effectively punish those who steal public property," it adds.

Both bills will not combat land grabbing nor deforestation, but increase the risk of normalizing areas of conflict and encouraging the continued invasion of public lands. According to INESC, grabbing of public lands in Brazil represents a third of all deforestation. Both bills await discussion, with Bill 510 appearing on the agenda recently, but dropped after popular pressure.

At this moment, the threats to the Indigenous rights and the environment in Brazil are coming from all sides, including from those who have the obligation to protect them. That's why it is crucial to understand what these bills are proposing, what impacts they will have if approved, and who would be the ones benefiting from them: agribusiness, large corporations, banks, and the politicians connected to them. In the name of greed, they disrespect democracy, the Constitution and threaten the ways of life, culture, and rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples who guard the last reserves of forests and biodiversity. "Rise for the Earth Camp" is a national Indigenous movement in defense of life on this planet. Join it and stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples!

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