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Brazil: Indigenous rights under serious threat

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(Thus Paulo) The Brazilian government has adopted policies that seriously threaten the rights of Indigenous peoples, Human Rights Watch said today, on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has undermined the government agency charged with protecting these rights, issued regulations that are harmful to indigenous people, and banned the recognition of their traditional lands. The government has also weakened federal environmental protection agencies, the Brazilian Institute of 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 tasked with promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples into one that endangers them, said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. Government policies and statements against indigenous rights have encouraged miners, loggers, land grabbers and poachers to encroach on indigenous territories with impunity, leading to devastating consequences for indigenous people and the environment.

During his 2018 election campaign, Bolsonaro criticized Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI) for defending indigenous rights and vowed to scythe that. Once in office, he has fulfilled this promise, Human Rights Watch said.

Marcelo Xavier, appointed by President Bolsonaro to head FUNAI in July 2019, has removed seasoned public servants from leadership positions. He has asked the police to open criminal investigations against employees, indigenous leaders, and even prosecutors for the protection of indigenous rights; hindered efforts to protect indigenous territories; and adopted policies that eased the encroachment.

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

According to one joint report by United Indigenist (INA), a non-governmental association of FUNAI employees, and the non-profit Institute for Social-Economic Studies (INESC). Another ten are career civil servants who are acting coordinators.

Other regional coordinators are political appointees, including 21 active or retired military or police officers with little or no expertise in indigenous affairs. Xavier himself is a federal police officer. A recent news report published a list of leadership candidates purportedly produced by FUNAI’s administrative director’s office indicating whether the candidates supported the government. The article said the list was used to decide on leadership appointments.

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

Federal prosecutors said in a statement that Xavier, in a report, accused several FUNAI employees and members of an indigenous association of crimes even though he knew they were innocent. According to prosecutors, he did this as a means of political pressure for the approval of a power line through indigenous territory. Xavier sent that report to federal police, calling for their prosecution, and to Brazil’s intelligence agency, ABIN, federal prosecutors said. After a federal prosecutor closed the case, Xavier requested that the prosecutor submit to a criminal investigation. In July 2022, federal prosecutors loaded Xavier 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 has asked the federal police to investigate federal prosecutors who defended indigenous rights and has asked the federal prosecutors’ internal affairs office to conduct disciplinary investigations. He has tried to intimidate prosecutors, Cazetta said.

Xavier too asked federal police will investigate APIB, Brazil’s main coalition of indigenous organizations, after it criticized the government. He also demanded an investigation of an indigenous leader and for the intelligence agency to monitor the activities of the indigenous people to which the leader belongs.

INA, FUNAI employee association, states that agency leadership has transferred staff when their reports support indigenous claims and in some cases asked the agencies’ internal affairs office to investigate their conduct. In one case, Xavier sought investigations into an employee who wrote a report, requested by the agency’s legal department, recommending opposition to a lawsuit seeking to stop the demarcation of an indigenous territory, the employee association said. Xavier has not publicly responded to the allegations, he said.

The agency’s leadership has also presented bureaucratic obstacles that severely hamper the work of staff, several employees told Human Rights Watch. Employees must request permission 15 days in advance to travel to an indigenous territory. making it practically impossible to respond to emergencies. The agency routinely denies permission for travel to indigenous territories that are in the process of demarcation, an employee said.

Conducting studies leading to the demarcation of indigenous territory is one of the main tasks of the agency. Under Brazilian law, demarcation clearly defines what land belongs to indigenous peoples and provides them with secure collective legal rights over that land. This recognition is extremely important to their cultural and physical survival, Eliana Torelli, a federal prosecutor, told Human Rights Watch.

Demarcation is pending for 241 Indigenous territories. During the 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro vowed not to specify even an inch of indigenous territory. As president, he has not granted titles to any indigenous territories. FUNAI’s leadership has effectively halted all processes to identify and demarcate indigenous territories, employees told Human Rights Watch.

In addition, the Bolsonaro administration has sought to erode indigenous rights in law, promoting a bill that would prevent or hinder many indigenous peoples from claiming their traditional lands. The bill would require them to prove they were physically present there on October 5, 1988, the day Brazil’s Constitution was adopted. A case on the matter is pending in 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 land they claim to own within indigenous areas pending demarcation. Such registration could jeopardize the recognition of indigenous rights and fuel disputes over land and the encroachment of indigenous territory. Courts have suspended the regulation in at least 13 states. However, a media investigation showed that people have been registered in their own name 239,000 hectares within the indigenous areas in the last 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 those. Judge Luis Roberto Barroso wrote that the policies could constitute an invitation to occupy areas known to be coveted by land grabbers and land grabbers.

FUNAI’s leadership has practically severed ties with other agencies and civil society organizations with which it had collaborated to protect indigenous territories under previous governments. Torely, the federal prosecutor, said the relationship between FUNAI and the specialized unit on indigenous issues at the Attorney General’s Office, which she heads, has deteriorated to the point where it is now almost non-existent.

A federal police agent, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch that they no longer involve FUNAI in raids to fight environmental crime for fear of alerting criminals. The agent cited the case of a FUNAI regional coordinator, retired from the military, whom federal prosecutors accused for facilitating the illegal raising of cattle within an indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, among other crimes. In a public statementFUNAI said that leasing land within indigenous territory is illegal and that the coordinator will be removed.

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

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

Along with environmental destruction came violence. The indigenous people in the Javar Valley, which has the greatest concentration of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation in the world had cooperated with FUNAI in forest protection until 2019, Beto Marubo, one of the leaders of UNIVAJA, a local association of indigenous peoples, told Human Rights Watch. Because of the weakening of the FUNAIs, they felt they had to start patrolling the forest themselves, he said.

In 2019, FUNAI agent Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was killed 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 been the director of FUNAI’s office for uncontacted people, but was removed after he led a successful operation against illegal mining in the Javari Valley in 2019. Federal prosecutors have loaded three men allegedly involved in illegal fishing with the murders of Bruno Pereira and Phillips.

Other FUNAI agents told Human Rights Watch that they fear for their lives and feel unsupported by the agency’s leadership. There is a real chance that what happened to Bruno and Maxciel will happen to me, an agent said.

As the election campaign approaches, candidates must tell voters how they will ensure that FUNAI again fulfills its mission, how they will protect the rights of indigenous people and how they will dismantle the criminal groups that are destroying the environmental assets of Brazil and are threatening. and attacking forest guards, Canineu said.

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