Brazilian commission considers scrapping indigenous rights agency

A Pataxo indigenous woman performs in front of police during the Indigenous Peoples Ritual March outside the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, April 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

A Brazilian congressional commission has recommended dismantling the government’s indigenous rights agency, a move critics warn would threaten the lives of indigenous tribes struggling to maintain control of their native lands.

In Tuesday’s congressional session, the commission presented a report suggesting that the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) be replaced with an agency run by the justice ministry. The commission is also calling for the prosecution of 80 FUNAI officials for backing what it considered illegal land claims by indigenous groups.

Critics have denounced the suggestions, arguing that dismantling FUNAI – which works to protect tribes by guaranteeing their land rights – would enable farmers to usurp more indigenous land in the Amazon rainforest.

“The death of the FUNAI would be a sort of genocide because it has advised us on how to survive,” Francisco, leader of the Kaingang people of southern Brazil, said according to Reuters news agency. “These lawmakers represent the interest of agribusiness, not our interests.”

The commission was established in November to investigate land demarcation disputes and agrarian conflicts, but critics say it was created to attack the rights of indigenous Brazilians. Reuters reported that the author of the commission’s report, congressman Nilson Leitao, said FUNAI had ignored indigenous people’s needs for improved health, education and economic development.

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“There are Indians who want to become miners and producers, and they should have the freedom to decide for themselves. FUNAI has been overprotective and paternalistic,” he told reporters. “The Indians could be living on a big mine while their people die of hunger.”

The report comes after months of escalating land conflicts among farmers, agro-business and indigenous groups in Brazil.

In late April, 4,000 members of indigenous groups gathered in the capital city of Brasilia to protest a government proposal they say would further deteriorate their land rights in the Amazon. When protesters approached a ramp leading into Congress, officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas while tribe members shot arrows in return.

Just a few days later, dozens of armed farmers attacked 13 indigenous Gamela people over a land conflict in northern Brazil, hacking off the hands and feet of at least one of them with machetes.

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Amid escalating violence, the Brazilian government this month fired Antonio Costa, the former head of FUNAI, just months after he took office. The official’s removal came days after he criticized lawmakers for cutting the agency’s budget by more than 40 percent, which he said impeded the agency’s ability to fulfill its obligation to protect land rights for Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people.

Brazil is home to hundreds of indigenous tribes, and dozens of their members are killed in conflicts over land every year. Official statistics indicate that the violence is escalating, with 61 land rights campaigners killed last year – the highest figure recorded in Brazil since 2003.

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