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Thu 31
Bolsonaro raised the issue: do natives own too much land in Brazil?

Bolsonaro raised the issue: do natives own too much land in Brazil?

President-elect said he will not do any demarcations in his government, and that there is an “enormous amount of land” for Indigenous peoples. But is it so? There are arguments in favor of that extension

Fernando Martins

Brazil has 566 indigenous areas, which occupy a territory of 1.17 million square kilometers – equivalent to the states of Mato Grosso and Tocantins put together. According to data from the 2010 Census, the last one made by IBGE, 517.4 thousand out of the 817.9 thousand Brazilian Indians live in these reserves. The scant human presence in such a large area – there is, on average, one Indian in every two square kilometers – turns into a weapon in the discourse of those who believe there is too much land destined for indigenous peoples in Brazil. But is it so? There are arguments in favor of both sides, including those who defend they do indeed occupy large territorial extensions.

And the debate on the need to demarcate indigenous lands tends to get heated throughout the next years, because president-elect Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) recently said that he won’t be doing any demarcation during his government, and may even reduce the size of some reservations.

Damares Alves, future head of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, to which the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) will be subordinated, dismissed Bolsonaro’s statement, and left out in the open in the possibility of not placing obstacles on the delimitations of indigenous territories. “I particularly question some indigenous areas (…) but that is an issue we will have to discuss a lot, and we will do that,” said Damares on December 6. Still, the idea of revising indigenist policies is worrying Indians, as well as entities that support them.


Rescuing a historical debt, and constitutional obligation

Those who defend demarcations usually appeal to the argument of the historical debt as one of the justifications for the creation of areas destined exclusively to indigenous peoples. It is estimated that by 1500, when the Portuguese arrived at South America, there were 3 million Indians in the current Brazilian territory – which then belonged integrally to them. The colonization process and the contact with European civilization led to the extinction of many of these peoples. The indigenous population dropped to around 70 thousand in the 1950s, but eventually increased due to indigenist policies.

The 1988 Constitution, in that sense, kept the tradition of the constitutional texts which, since 1934, have tried to settle this historical debt by ensuring the indigenous people the ownership of their land. Article 231 prescribes the right to the demarcation of the lands which they traditionally have occupied, as well as forcing the Federal Government to do that in five years – a deadline which has not been fulfilled.

The constitutional text is used as a strong argument in favor of the demarcations: they are the State’s obligation. It also ensures that new indigenous territories will only be demarcated if their use by Indians have been proven through detailed studies (those who criticize such demarcations usually see in such studies some form of bias in acknowledging as “indigenous” any community which claims to be one, regardless of whether it is necessarily made up by Indians).

Maintaining the way of life, environmental conservation, social protection

Besides, indigenists argue that large extensions of land are justified so that Indians are able to maintain their traditional way of life – based, above all, on hunting, fishing, gathering fruits and seeds, and subsistence agriculture. These are all activities which require larger territorial extensions.

There is also an ecological justification for the demarcations: the Indians help to preserve the environment – their reservations are among the most well-preserved in the country.

Another argument is that reservations ensure the preservation of cultures which could otherwise be extinct (in the country there are 305 indigenous ethnic groups, which speak 274 languages, according to IBGE). An eventual extinction of one of these cultures could obliterate traditional wisdoms about plants and animals which could be useful in the development of medications, for instance.

There are also those who claim the country will have more social problems if there are no more demarcations of lands occupied by indigenous peoples. Indians who migrate forcibly to cities usually live in a state of misery, and face the drama of alcoholism.


Bolsonaro agrees with several justifications not to increase indigenous lands

On the other side of this debate, there all sorts of reasons to justify arguments of those who oppose increasing indigenous lands. The military sees it as a threat to national sovereignty, especially in the Amazon – where the largest extensions of territory destined to Indians are located. There are also economic issues: the country would allegedly lose opportunities for agricultural and cattle-raising, mineral and hydro-electrical exploitation. There is obviously the pure and simple dispute for land ownership. And there are also questions regarding the current dominating anthropological understanding, which has severe restrictions regarding the assimilations of indigenous communities by Western civilization.

Bolsonaro has already stated that he agrees with many of these arguments. “Regarding the Paris agreement [world climate change agreement], I have been noticing for the past 20 years an external pressure – accepted in Brazil – regarding, for instance, demarcating land for Indians, demarcating lands for environmental reservations, among other agreements which, in my point of view, have been harmful for Brazil. No one wants to treat the Indians badly. But, see, in Bolivia there’s an Indian who is not president [Evo Morales]. Why do we have to keep them enclosed in reservations here in Brazil, as if they were animals in zoos?”, said the president-elect on November 30.

“The Indian is a human being just like us,” said Bolsonaro on the same occasion. “They want what we want, we cannot use the Indian, who is still in an inferior situation compared to us, to demarcate this enormous amount of land, which in my understanding could, according to the UN’s determination, become new countries in the future. Is it justifiable, for instance, to have a Yanomami reservation twice the size of Rio de Janeiro for, perhaps, 9 thousand Indians? That is not justifiable.”

Threat to national sovereignty and public safety

The fear that there is a threat of an eventual dismemberment of the Brazilian territory, creating indigenous countries in the border regions of the Amazon, is echoed by the Armed Forces. The fear is based on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, drafted by the UN and ratified by Brazil in 2007. The document established that indigenous peoples have the right to self-government. For the military, since indigenous peoples are considered nations, and own a territory, with a self-government they could eventually be considered countries. For certain sectors within the Army, Brazil may be forced to recognize, in the future, the independence of these nations due to the pressure of foreign powers looking to exploit the riches of the Amazon.

The argument has been refuted by influent people. Nelson Jobim, former justice of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) and ex-minister of Justice and Defense, has expressed his understanding that there is no possibility of any dismemberment of Brazilian territory, since the Constitution clearly expresses that indigenous lands are an inalienable property of the federal government, which means, legally, that they will still be owned by the government. This detail of the Constitution, by the way, prevents one of Bolsonaro’s ideas, presented during his pre-campaign, from being put into practice (unless there is a constitutional amendment): the proposal that Indians may be able to sell their land.

There are also those who claim that indigenous reservations in frontier areas pose a threat to public safety because they would facilitate organized crime incursions; in other words, Indian territories would be a sort of free territory for criminal activities. That argument is usually refuted with the information that the Decree 4,412 of October 7, 2002, expressively guarantees free transit and acting of the Armed Forces and Federal Police in Indian territories – including the possibility of installing infrastructure apparatus inside these areas. It is true, however, that among indigenists there is criticism towards precisely this possibility of putting Indian communities in a situation of potential conflict against security forces.

Obstacles to economic development

Economic development has also been used as a reason to oppose new demarcations. There is a pressure for opening new areas for agriculture and cattle raising, as well as lumbering, ore extraction and exploiting hydroelectric energy in indigenous reservations. Creating more reservations, in that sense, is seen as an obstacle to economic growth.

Building hydroelectric plants and mining in indigenous lands, however, is not prohibited. Articles 49 and 231 of the Constitutions have established that Congress must authorize such economic activities in Indian reservations, that the indigenous communities must have their say on the matter and, if they accept, they are entitled to part of the profit obtained. Approving such projects, however, is never easy, and there are routine conflicts between the parties involved.

These conflicts, however, do not happen only due to these circumstances. Many times such demarcations oppose Indians and non-Indians who inhabit these areas – some of them squatters and land-grabbers, others mere workers looking for a land to farm in good faith.

One emblematic case was the demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol, an indigenous territory in Roraima. One of the country’s largest reservations, with 17.4 thousand square kilometers (7.8 percent of the state’s territory), underwent an intense legal dispute between Indians and rice farmers who had occupied part of the reservation since the 1970s – and even produced 160 thousand tons of grain per year inside the indigenous territory. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Indians, but the demarcation is still controversial in Roraima: the state is allegedly being “stifled” by the creation of environmental and indigenous reservations so extensive that they occupy over 60 percent of its territory.

Bolsonaro’s transition team is even studying the possibility of revising the size of this reservation. “[Raposa Serra do Sol] is the richest area in the world. You can explore it in a rational way, paying royalties to the Indians and integrating them into society,” said Bolsonaro, without providing any further details.

Integrating Indians into society, so they can reap its benefits

Bolsonaro’s idea of integrating Indians into society is a recurring theme in the president-elect’s discourse, and it symbolizes a new direction in the country’s indigenist policy. The president-elect shares the opinion that Indians must be assimilated into civilization in order to reap its benefits. In order to do that, they should be allowed, for instance, to exploit, economically, their land.

The integration concept prevailed until the mid-20th century, when the concept of gradual assimilation, or even non-assimilation (regarding isolated peoples) became the norm. Damares Alves, future minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, agreed with Bolsonaro and admitted that she might revise the “isolating policy” applied to Indians.

Bolsonaro’s and Damares’ statements led FUNAI’s indigenists to sign an open letter in which they criticize the position of the future government regarding isolated Indians. For the group, keeping them away from civilization is a measure destined to preserve their lives – given the history of the extinction of indigenous peoples after their contact with civilization. The indigenists also defend that FUNAI should remain a subdivision of the Ministry of Justice, as it is today.

The revision of the current indigenist policy, seeking to integrate Indians into society, however, may be questioned in the Courts. The Constitution stipulates, in its article 215, that the State has a role to protect indigenous cultures.



Bolsonaro levantou a discussão: os índios têm muita terra no Brasil?

Presidente eleito afirmou que não fará nenhuma demarcação em seu governo e que há uma “enormidade de terras” para indígenas. Mas será isso mesmo? Há argumentos favoráveis a essa extensão