The war against Brazil’s indigenous people has begun. Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wasted no time his first two days in office, signing a decree Wednesday that hands over power to designate indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture, a move that could have repercussions for the country’s 690 recognised territories in the Amazon rainforest.
The move came a day after Bolsonaro signed a provisional measure dismantling FUNAI, Brazil’s bureau of indigenous affairs.
The Justice Ministry previously handled the designation of new indigenous lands, reports Al Jazeera, but now Minister Tereza Cristina — who has lobbied on behalf of the industry before — is in charge. Critics worry the more than 100 uncontacted tribes that call the Amazon home will lose the little protection they have under her eye. Particularly at risk are those whose territories have not yet been recognised by the government; their lands are now more likely to be handed over to agricultural and other industry interests. And when indigenous people are evicted from their lands, this doesn’t go down peacefully.
“The theft of indigenous people’s lands could mean genocide and the complete wipeout of tribes,” said Sarah Shenker, a senior researcher at Survival International who’s worked with Brazilian tribes, to Earther.
Bolsonaro ran on a racist, homophobic platform, so his moves come as no surprise. His plan on the campaign trail was to open up the Amazon to extractive industries, and this restructuring of the federal government is the first step.
Now, indigenous tribes across the Latin American country must prepare to fight back. A legal petition against Bolsonaro’s provisional measure was launched Thursday, said Luiz Eloy, who belongs to the Terena people and is a legal adviser for Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB), a national organisation that brings together various tribes across the country.
According to Eloy, Bolsonaro’s provisional measure will give so-called “ruralists” who support the interests of private property owners “the right to say what indigenous land is or is not in Brazil. It’s a blank check for the farmers,” he told Earther via WhatsApp.
Under the 1988 constitution, indigenous territories grant exclusive use of land to indigenous peoples, explained Shenker. Ranchers, however, are constantly contesting new land designations, and with the government on their side, indigenous people may find it harder to have their territories set. And while Bolsonaro’s decree should only impact indigenous lands that haven’t yet been mapped, or that are in the process of formalization, Shenker wouldn’t be surprised to see the president try to open up territories that have already been set, which comprise some 13 per cent of the country’s land.
Without official territorial boundaries to protect the land of they live on, some indigenous people are at risk of extinction, Shenker said. The Guarani people, who live near Brazil’s southwest border, have lost most of their land to large-scale sugar cane, corn, and soy plantations. Now, many are forced to live on the sides of the road in makeshift houses. As a result, suicide rates are high in the population. “They stand to lose a lot from this because they’re still waiting for their lands to be returned to them,” Shenker said.
Then, there’s the uncontacted Kawahiva tribe, whose lands are not yet fully mapped. While FUNAI successfully kicked armed ranchers off their lands just last month, organisers are worried this mission will go unfinished under Bolsonaro, who’s unlikely to complete the designation of the territory.
“Uncontacted tribes are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet,” Shenker told Earther.
This is especially true in Brazil, which has seen the highest number of land and environmental defenders killed since The Guardian began tracking such deaths in 2015. This violence, which often stems from ranchers trying to illegally cut trees, impacts indigenous communities most—who are protecting not only their home but ecosystems that safeguard our planet’s climate. Indigenous people manage nearly a quarter of the carbon stored in the world’s forests, per a 2016 study.
“If you open up and destroy these territories, not only does it spell genocide for the people who live there, but it’s also catastrophic for all of humanity in terms of our fight against climate change,” Shenker said. “By far, the best way to combat climate change is to protect indigenous territories.”
Indigenous tribes have mentioned this in their statements against the presidential decrees. They’re also reminding the world that they exist and won’t stand for governments walking all over them.
“We don’t want to be wiped out by this government’s actions,” reads the statement from the Aruak, Baniwa, and Apurinã indigenous peoples, via Twitter. “We are people, human beings. We have blood like you, Mr. President. We’re ready to defend ourselves.”
And, well, this is just one action from the president. And it’s only his first week. He’s also issued orders targeting the LGBTQ community and the country’s Afro-Brazilian slave descendants, the Quilombolas.
“It’s a genocide of diversity,” said Felipe Milanez, a political ecologist and professor at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, to Earther. “[Bolsonaro] wants to destroy what are not the white Brazilians.”
Milanez hopes that the international community opens its eyes to the war that the federal government has launched on the country’s most marginalized people. APIB has already called for countries to boycott Brazilian agricultural products, he said. Milanez is personally ready to hit the streets and engage in public protests. Things are going to get real in Brazil.
“We all should be scared,” he told Earther. “I have a lot of privilege being a professor and white, but I don’t want anyone to be killed just because they’re Indian or black or gay. It’s brutal, and we should not accept that.”