In Brazil, the “indigenous question“ has come roaring back, with all its force and sinister implications. The Bolsonaro government is putting forward measures that express its colonial vision on the Amazon region and the indigenous territories, in a stark echo of what happened during the period of military dictatorship.
Joênia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman elected to the Chamber of Deputies, has set up a new parliamentary group in the Brazilian Congress, the Joint Parliamentary Front to Defend the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Even in the most conservative and reactionary Parliament of the last 30 years, the indigenous deputy has succeeded in setting up this important joint initiative, with the objective of ensuring the institutional defense of the indigenous peoples of Brazil, who are being directly threatened by Bolsonaro’s policies.
A number of 219 deputies and 29 senators have joined the Front, coming from the parliamentary groups of the PT, PSOL, PC do Brasil, REDE, PSB and PDT. The joint parliamentary group will establish direct relations with representatives of the indigenous peoples, in an effort to counter the offensive being waged against them and to stop all initiatives that endanger the survival of the 300 Brazilian indigenous communities.
Nara Barè, who chairs the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), which represents 180 traditional communities in nine states, was pleased with this new initiative. “In Congress and in the territories, the anti-indigenous policies of the Bolsonaro government must be forcefully fought, together with his plan for the liberalization of mining, the extension of the BR 163 road and the construction of the Porteira Cachoeira power plant in Parà.”
However, a climate of rising hostility toward the native populations is being felt across the country. A few months of a frenzied anti-indigenous campaign have left a deep mark on Brazilian society. Bolsonaro’s slogans explicitly targeting the indigenous peoples have made serious inroads among many social categories. “Brazil for Brazilians,” “The indigenous cannot hinder the development of Brazil,” “We will not give up one inch of land”—these slogans have been heard again and again in TV debates and on social media.
Across the country, the idea that the protection of indigenous territories is an obstacle to the economic development of Brazil is gaining more and more ground. “The interests and welfare of 200 million Brazilians must come before those of the 800,000 indigenous,” goes the more polite formula preferred by the representatives of the agribusiness and mining sectors. In this period of economic crisis, the belief that environmental protection is inseparable from the protection of indigenous peoples has begun to lose its strength in Brazilian society.
The indigenous are now being seen as a “foreign body”—one of the most dramatic consequences of the new Brazilian politics. In this climate, the country is witnessing an increase in anti-indigenous violence and constant intrusions into indigenous territories. According to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), there have been 110 murders of indigenous people across Brazil in 2018. Since the start of 2019, the intrusions have been multiplying, and at least eight protected territories are being particularly targeted, in Parà, Maranhao, Rondonia, Espirito Santo and Rio Grande do Sul.
The measures adopted by Bolsonaro since the first day of his presidency have been aimed at dismantling the institutions and organizations that preserve and guarantee the rights enshrined in the 1988 Constitution.
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice to the new ministry for “Women, the Family and Human Rights,” and the responsibility of drawing up territorial boundaries, which had previously been entrusted to the Foundation, has now been transferred over to the Ministry of Agriculture led by the Ruralist Tereza Cristina.
The protection of indigenous territories has always played a central historical role in the mobilization of indigenous peoples, and now the task of drawing their borders is under the control of a ministry that is explicitly devoted to the interests of the far-right Ruralist caucus, the Bancada Ruralista. As if that wasn’t enough, the Bolsonaro government also appointed former general Ribeiro de Freitas at the head of FUNAI, who held the same post during the Temer administration and then left it to go into the private sector, working for the Canadian mining company Belo Sun Ming.
De Freitas’ appointment marks a blatant conflict of interest that makes the situation even more concerning. Furthermore, a new battleground has opened up between the Bolsonaro government and the indigenous communities because of the latter’s plan to dismantle all federal institutions offering healthcare to the indigenous. The indigenous movement had long fought for an institution set up to look after the health needs of the native populations, which are exposed to numerous diseases and are living in remote and difficult-to-access areas. In 2010, the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI) was set up for this purpose, together with the establishment of 34 healthcare districts based on geographical, epidemiological and ethnic criteria.
Now, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, with ties to the Ruralist lobby and a history of opposition to human rights, has announced the dismantling of this healthcare system and the transfer of all its attributions to the local municipalities.
In the words of Sonia Guajajaras, who leads the Indigenous People Articulation (APIB), “this decision is the result of a bias against indigenous people and lays out the racist vision of the government in full view. It aims at the integration and cultural assimilation of the indigenous peoples—however, the transfer of healthcare to the municipalities means that we will suffer genocide, because the municipalities are not able to handle the particular issues connected to our health.”
Facing the most serious attack on their rights in 30 years, the indigenous communities are preparing to take part in their most important annual event, the Acampamento Terra Livre, which will take place in the capital, Brasilia, on April 24-26. Their representatives will come from the most remote areas of the country, Brasilia, dressed in traditional garb and with the full intention of reasserting their rights. There are so many issues to confront, and indigenous women in particular are fighting front and center.
The environmental movements, the human rights movements and the Landless Workers’ Movement are all committed to the task of building up a path of resistance together with the indigenous communities.