Courtesy Oswaldo Braga de Souza/Instituto Socioambiental
Indigenous protesters in Brazil try to enter congress on October 2 as part of the National Indigenous Mobilization organized to draw attention o legislation that threatens Native control over ancestral lands.

Brazil’s Natives Protest Threats to Their Rights From Congress

David Dudenhoefer


Thousands of Indians from dozens of tribes protested across Brazil last week – blockading highways, marching in city centers, and occupying offices – as part of a National Indigenous Mobilization organized to draw attention to legislation that threatens Native control over ancestral lands, and to demand that the government legalize and demarcate all indigenous territories.

Indigenous protesters in ceremonial paint and feathers, some carrying spears or bows and arrows, marched down major streets in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and other cities. The mobilization’s principal focus was Brasilia, the country’s capital, where approximately 1,500 Natives set up camp on the Esplanada dos Ministerios, a long park surrounded by ministries and other government buildings, from where they staged protests and sent delegations to the different branches of government.

The four-day mobilization was coordinated by a national network of Native organizations called the Articulacao dos Povos Indigenas do Brasil (APIB). It preceded the 25th anniversary of the country’s constitution, which was ratified on October 5, 1988. The organizers chose that date to draw attention to a proposed constitutional amendment that threatens the land rights of Brazil’s approximately 900,000 indigenous citizens.

“All of the constitutional rights of indigenous people are threatened, our collective rights to sacred lands and the policies governing natural resources. Today, in the Brazilian government, there are many proposals for bills and constitutional amendments that threaten our rights,” said Francinara Bare, from the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), which helped organize the mobilization. She added that the administration of President Dilma Rousseff has been extremely slow in responding to indigenous petitions for title to their ancestral lands.

Saulo Feitosa, a spokesman for the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), observed that the mobilization served to alert all Brazilians to legislative threats to their constitution. “The constitution protects the rights of all Brazilians, not just indigenous, and it is under attack, principally from economically powerful groups who are interested in indigenous lands, which include agribusiness, mining and oil companies, and also projects by the federal government, such as hydroelectric dams and highways,” he said.

Feitoso explained that Brazil’s Native peoples are struggling to defend their territories against various laws proposed by the ruralista block: members of congress who represent the country’s main agricultural regions, where farmers, ranchers, loggers to landless peasants are encroaching on indigenous lands. The “ruralistas” were responsible for a new forestry code that the congress passed last year, and which many environmentalists blame for the dramatic increase in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the past year.

Last week’s protests focused on a proposed constitutional amendment known as PEC 215, which would transfer responsibility for the demarcation of indigenous lands from the executive branch to the congress, which Native leaders fear would end the creation of indigenous lands. When members of congress tried to move toward a vote on that amendment last April, hundreds of Indians stormed the congress.

RELATED: Brazilian Indigenous Storm Congress Halting Vote on Territorial Rights

That protest resulted in the creation of a committee with Native participation, but the ruralistas, who control about 40 percent of the congress, continued to push for a vote on PEC 215. When hundreds of indigenous protesters tried to storm the congress again October 2, police used pepper spray to push them back, but congressional leader Andre Vargas later met with a delegation of Native leaders and agreed to archive PEC 215. President Rousseff later announced via Twitter that she also opposes the amendment.

Feitoso explained that while this is a victory, there are various other bills in congress that pose comparable threats to indigenous rights and lands. He mentioned one bill called PLP 227 that would significantly weaken the ability of Indians to oppose projects such as mining, oil drilling or hydroelectric dams in their territories.

Feitoso added that the government’s reluctance to respond to Native requests for the demarcation of ancestral lands has forced Indians to occupy those lands, which has often led to violence. According to a CIMI report, 54 Indians were murdered in 2012, most of them as a result of land conflicts, and more than half of them in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Mata Grosso do Sul. Things have hardly improved in 2013. According to the daily Estado de Sao Paulo, 35-year-old Oziel Gabriel, a Terena Indian, was murdered in May in Mata Grosso do Sul. In June, two Guarani-Kaiowa men, 42-year-old Celso Rodrigues and 34-year-old Celso Figueredo, were also murdered in Mata Grosso do Sul.

Feitoso lamented that unless the government resolves the hundreds of requests from indigenous groups for title to ancestral lands, more such violence seems inevitable.