In a decree issued hours after his inauguration as Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro moved to undercut Indigenous rights by shifting authority over new reserves to the country’s powerful agriculture ministry, in what The Guardian describes as “a symbolic concession to farming interests at a time when deforestation is rising again.”
“In one of a handful of measures that stand to hurt historically marginalized communities, the incoming government on Tuesday transferred responsibility for certifying Indigenous territories as protected lands to the ministry of agriculture,” the New York Times reports. “The ministry has traditionally championed the interests of industries that want greater access to protected lands.”
Bolsonaro “has compared Indigenous communities living in protected lands to animals in zoos,” the Times notes.
“There will be an increase in deforestation and violence against Indigenous people,” warned Dinaman Tuxá, executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB). “Indigenous people are defenders and protectors of the environment.”
“The dismantling has already begun,” tweeted Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara, who ran in recent national elections as vice-presidential candidate for the Socialism and Freedom party.
Some 436 territories across Brazil have been formally designated as autonomous Indigenous lands, and “the government has yet to fully expel non-Indigenous people” in about half of them, the Times explains. Another 120 Indigenous claims have been under study, but Bolsonaro pledged during last year’s election campaign that communities won’t get “one more centimetre” of protected land.
“Previously, demarcation of Indigenous reserves was controlled by the Indigenous agency FUNAI, which has been moved from the justice ministry to a new ministry of women, family, and human rights controlled by an evangelical pastor,” The Guardian notes. Bolsonaro’s temporary decree, which will expire in 120 days unless it’s ratified by Brazil’s Congress, also mandates a government office to “supervise, coordinate, monitor, and accompany the activities and actions of international organizations and non-governmental organizations in the national territory”.
Bolsonaro, a far-right legislator and former army captain, has frequently criticized domestic and international non-government organizations for “sticking their noses into Brazil,” The Guardian adds. As a candidate, he “appealed to conservative groups, including the powerful agricultural lobby, the military, and Evangelical churches, by promising to boost economic growth by rolling back regulatory burdens and enforcement of environmental protections,” the Times adds. “This right-wing coalition helped him crush the once-dominant Workers Party at the polls, giving him a strong mandate to bring about the changes he promised and elevating his small party to the second-largest in Congress.”
Last Wednesday, he tweeted that “more than 15% of national territory is demarcated as Indigenous land and quilombos,” rural settlements inhabited by the descendants of former slaves. “Less than a million people live in these places, isolated from true Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs. Together we will integrate these citizens.”
In reply, former environment minister Marina Silva tweeted that “Bolsonaro has begun his government in the worst possible way.” Tuxá added that “we will go through another colonization process, this is what they want.”
Leila Sílvia Burger Sotto-Maior, an anthropologist who previously worked at the National Indian Foundation, called Bolsonaro’s decree “a clear affront to the Constitution.”
Brazil “has gradually rolled back protections for Indigenous communities over the past eight years by cutting funding for programs and prioritizing the interests of industries that want greater access to the Amazon,” the Times writes, citing Burger. The new policy “felt like a fatal blow for those who have spent their careers trying to deliver on the vision of a Constitution that sought reparations for Indigenous groups after decades of abuse.”
“There’s fear, there’s pain,” she told the paper. “This feels like defeat, failure.”