Brazil: Indigenous clash with police amid protest over land rights

An indigenous man looks through tear gas fired by police outside the National Congress during a protest for the demarcation of indigenous lands in Brasilia, Brazil, April 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Members of indigenous groups clashed with police in the Brazilian capital on Tuesday amid a protest over land rights in the Amazon, which activists say is in jeopardy under the current government.

Some 4,000 people gathered in front of the Congress building for what would have been a peaceful protest against the encroachment of their land by loggers and farmers, BBC reported. The protesters have said they plan to camp out all week in front of Congress, claiming the government of President Michel Temer is seeking to roll back protections in parts of the Amazon.

When protesters approached a ramp leading into Congress on Tuesday, police said they had to use force.

“The Indians did not comply with the agreement they made with police” on the accepted boundaries of the protest, according to a police statement. “They were threatening to invade Congress.”

According to Reuters, officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas while tribe members shot arrows in return. Some indigenous people suffered minor injuries, but no casualties have been reported.

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The Brazilian Amazonian region is home to hundreds of indigenous tribes, and dozens of their members are killed in conflicts over land every year. Indigenous people make up the most disadvantaged group in Latin America; World Bank figures indicate that poverty rates in these populations are higher and are decreasing more slowly than in the population as a whole, while human development indicators (education, health, and access to water and sanitation) are lagging far behind.

Many tribes say their communities are increasingly threatened by proposed dams, agricultural plantations and infrastructure projects. Activists have repeatedly blamed such projects for environmental damage and human rights abuses across the region.

Supporters of such projects in the Amazon argue that Brazil needs investment, clean energy and farming to promote economic growth in a country crippled by recession. This need has escalated conflicts over land rights in recent years, according to the former head of Brazilian government’s indigenous agency, Márcio Meira.

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“The Brazilian economy has become increasingly dependent on agribusiness and this has had political repercussions,” Meira said in a recent interview with environmental news site Mongabay. “It is not a question of people being against the Indians because they are Indians or even because they have too much land. The problem is that the Indians have lands these political actors want.”

Some experts say that involving indigenous groups in national planning for big-money projects will be critical for reducing inequality and promoting stronger development. Pope Francis, who recently emerged as an advocate for tribal land rights, said one of the key challenges facing indigenous people will be reconciling the right to economic development while protecting their cultures and territories.

Land rights activists have also pointed to research that says involving tribes in national planning is one of the most cost-effective ways to mitigate industrial damage to fragile ecosystems like that of the Amazon. Doing so, experts say, would help protect resource-rich forests and sequester carbon.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com