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Brazil sacks head of indigenous agency amid escalating land rights conflict

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)

The Brazilian government has sacked the head of its aboriginal rights agency amid a rise in violent assaults against the country’s indigenous groups.

Antonio Fernandes Toninho Costa was ousted just a few months after becoming head of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), which works to establish and oversee policies concerning the country’s indigenous population.

“Considering the high priority the government gives to indigenous matters, the agency requires a more agile and efficient management, which we didn’t have,” Justice Minister Oscar Serraglio said in a statement, according to the BBC.

But Costa said he was fired “for being honest” and for going against the interests of a powerful lobby in Brazil’s Congress linked to big landowners.

“I refused to employ 20 people who were recommended by the government’s leader in Congress, Andre Moura, but who’ve never seen an indigenous person in their lives,” Costa wrote on WhatsApp to the BBC.

The government has not yet announced a replacement for Costa to head the agency. Costa’s removal comes 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.

The move also comes as human rights organizations warn of an alarming rise in assaults on indigenous groups in Brazil. Late last month, members of indigenous groups clashed with riot police in the capital amid a protest over land rights in the Amazon, which activists say are in jeopardy under the current government.

Some 4,000 people had gathered in front of the Congress building before officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas as 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.

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

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) lag far behind.

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.

The struggle to reclaim native lands is echoed by indigenous people around the world, but the largest share of killings are reported in Latin America. The region claimed 122 of 185 killings of land rights and environmental activists in 2015, according to advocacy organization Global Witness.


About Author

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 or see her latest work at