Brazil: Indigenous rights seriously threatened

(São Paulo) – The Brazilian government has adopted policies that seriously threaten the rights of Native indigenous peoples, Human Rights Watch said today, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples.

The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has undermined the government agency responsible for protecting these rights, issued regulations harmful to indigenous peoples and halted recognition of their traditional lands. The government has also weakened the federal environmental protection agencies, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA, its Portuguese acronym) and the Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), leaving Indigenous territories even more vulnerable to encroachment.

“The Brazilian government has transformed an agency responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples into one that puts them at risk,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Government policies and pronouncements against Indigenous rights have encouraged miners, loggers, land grabbers and poachers to encroach on Indigenous territories with impunity, with devastating consequences for Indigenous peoples and the environment. .

During his election campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro lambasted Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI) for protecting indigenous rights and pledged to “fakeOnce in office, he kept that commitment, Human Rights Watch said.

Marcelo Xavier, appointed by President Bolsonaro to chair FUNAI in July 2019, removed experienced career civil servants from leadership positions. He asked the police to open criminal investigations against employees, indigenous leaders and even prosecutors for defending indigenous rights; hampered efforts to protect indigenous territories; and adopted policies that facilitated encroachment.

Xavier did not respond to a request for comment that Human Rights Watch sent to his office.

According to a joint report by United Indigenist (INA), a non-governmental association of FUNAI employees, and the non-profit Institute for Socio-Economic Studies (INESC). Ten others are career civil servants who act as coordinators.

The other regional coordinators are political appointees, including 21 active or retired military or police officers with little or no expertise on Indigenous issues. Xavier himself is a federal policeman. A recent report published a list of candidates for leadership positions allegedly produced by the office of the administrative director of FUNAI which indicated whether the candidates supported the government. The article said the list was used to decide leadership appointments.

Three FUNAI employees and a federal prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that Xavier created a climate of fear and intimidation within the agency.

Federal prosecutors said in a press release that Xavier, in a report, accused several FUNAI employees and members of an indigenous association of crimes “even though he knew they were innocent”. Prosecutors say he did so “as a form of political pressure” to get approval for a power line through Indigenous territory. xavier sent this report to the federal police, calling for their prosecution, and to the Brazilian intelligence agency, ABIN, federal prosecutors said. After a federal prosecutor closed the case, Xavier requested that the prosecutor be criminally investigated. In July 2022, federal prosecutors accused Xavier of knowingly making false accusations of criminal activity. Xavier has not responded publicly.

Ubiratan Cazetta, president of the National Association of Federal Prosecutors, told Human Rights Watch that on several occasions Xavier asked the federal police to investigate federal prosecutors who were defending Indigenous rights and asked the office Internal Affairs of the Federal Prosecutor to conduct disciplinary investigations. “He tried to intimidate the prosecutors,” Cazetta said.

Xavier too asked federal police to investigate APIB, Brazil’s main coalition of indigenous organizations, after criticizing the government. He also called for an investigation of an indigenous leader and for the intelligence agency to “monitor” the activities of the indigenous people to whom the leader belongs.

INA, the association of FUNAI employees, affirms that agency management transferred staff when their reports supported Indigenous claims and, in some cases, asked the agency’s internal affairs office to investigate their conduct. In one case, Xavier requested investigations into an employee who wrote a report, requested by the agency’s legal department, recommending opposing legal action to prevent the demarcation of indigenous territory, a said the employees’ association. Xavier has not publicly responded to the allegations, he said.

The agency’s management has also introduced bureaucratic hurdles that severely hamper the work of staff, several employees told Human Rights Watch. Employees must request permission 15 days in advance to travel to Indigenous territory. making it virtually impossible to respond to emergencies. The agency routinely denies permission to travel to indigenous territories that are being demarcated, an employee said.

Carrying out studies leading to the demarcation of indigenous territory is one of the main tasks of the agency. Under Brazilian law, demarcation clearly establishes which lands belong to indigenous peoples and provides them with secure collective legal rights to those lands. This recognition is extremely important for their cultural and physical survival, Eliana Torelly, federal prosecutor, told Human Rights Watch.

Demarcation is pending for 241 indigenous territories. During the 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro pledged do not designate “one more centimeter” of indigenous territory. As president, he did not grant titles to any indigenous territory. FUNAI management effectively halted all processes to identify and demarcate indigenous territories, employees told Human Rights Watch.

Additionally, the Bolsonaro administration has sought to erode indigenous rights in law, promoting a bill that would prevent or prevent many indigenous peoples from claiming their traditional lands. The bill would require them to prove that they were physically present there on October 5, 1988, the day the Brazilian Constitution was promulgated. A case in this regard is pending before the Supreme Court.

The government has also weakened the protection of indigenous territories whose demarcation is pending.

A regulation issued by FUNAI in 2020 allows individuals to register the land they claim to own inside indigenous areas awaiting demarcation. Such registration could compromise the recognition of indigenous rights and fuel land disputes and encroachment on indigenous territory. Courts have suspended regulations in at least 13 states. However, a media investigation showed that people registered in their name 239,000 hectares inside indigenous areas over the past two years.

In 2021, FUNAI issued policies stating that staff should not carry out activities aimed at protecting undemarcated indigenous territories, but in February, Brazil’s Supreme Court suspended their. Judge Luis Roberto Barroso wrote that the policies “could constitute an invitation to invade areas known to be coveted by land grabbers and loggers”.

The management of FUNAI practically severed ties with other agencies and civil society organizations with which he had cooperated to protect indigenous territories under previous governments. Torelly, the federal prosecutor, said the relationship between FUNAI and the Indigenous Affairs Unit of the Attorney General’s Office, which she heads, has deteriorated to the point that currently “it is almost non-existent.”

A federal police officer, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch that they no longer involve FUNAI in raids to combat environmental crime lest it alert criminals. The agent cited the case of a FUNAI regional coordinator, retired from the military, whom federal prosecutors accused to facilitate the illegal breeding of cattle in an indigenous territory of the State of Mato Grosso, among other offenses. In a public statementFUNAI said leasing land on indigenous territory is illegal and the coordinator would be removed from office.

Indigenous leaders told Human Rights Watch that the paralysis of FUNAI has strengthened criminal groups involved in environmental destruction.

Throughout Brazil, illegal logging, mining, poaching and land grabbing on indigenous lands increase 137% in 2020 compared to 2018, the year before President Bolsonaro took office, according to the latest data from the Indigenous Missionary Council, a non-profit organization. The total area deforested in indigenous territories in the Amazon during President Bolsonaro’s first three years in power was 138% higher than in the previous three years (2016-2018), according at the non-profit Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA).

With the destruction of the environment came violence. The indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, which has the greatest concentration indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation around the world, had collaborated with FUNAI to protect the forest until 2019, Beto Marubo, one of the leaders of UNIVAJA, a local indigenous peoples’ association, told Human Rights Watch . Due to the weakening of FUNAI, they felt they had to start patrolling the forest alone, he said.

In 2019, a FUNAI agent, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, was kill in Tabatinga, execution style. His murder remains unsolved. Bruno Pereira, who was on leave from FUNAI, was killed in 2022, along with journalist Dom Phillips. Pereira had served as the director of FUNAI’s office for uncontacted persons, but was removed from his post after successfully leading an operation against illegal mining in the Javari Valley in 2019. Federal prosecutors have accused three men allegedly involved in illegal fishing with the murders of Bruno Pereira and Phillips.

Other FUNAI agents told Human Rights Watch that they feared for their lives and felt left without support from the agency’s leadership. “There’s a good chance what happened to Bruno and Maxciel will happen to me,” an agent said.

“As the start of the election campaign approaches, the candidates should tell voters how they will ensure that FUNAI fulfills its mission again, how they will protect the rights of indigenous people and how they will dismantle the criminal groups that destroy the both Brazil’s environmental riches and threatening and attacking forest defenders,” Canineu said.

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