As seasonal rains provide a respite from forest fires and illegal logging, and Brazil’s Congress takes its annual vacation, the country’s indigenous leaders and their allies have a chance to rest from the struggles that marked 2016 and brace themselves for what promises to be another dangerous year.
Brazil is entering its third year of recession, with a shrinking economy and an unemployment rate approaching 12 percent. The resulting discontent led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff last year for budget manipulation. Interim President Michel Temer has pushed a conservative agenda that included a recently approved constitutional amendment that freezes government spending for the next 20 years.
The budgets of government agencies responsible for protecting indigenous communities and the environment had already been slashed, and they are underfunded at a time when the country’s Native peoples face increased threats from illegal loggers and miners, land swindlers and forest fires. But observers say that the greatest threats to Natives may come from the Temer administration and a pro-agribusiness congressional caucus known as the bancada ruralista, which has drafted an array of bills and proposals that threaten the integrity of indigenous territories and could prevent the creation of new ones.
“We are experiencing an erosion of our rights on an almost daily basis,” said Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples. “We’re in a very fragile situation, because for indigenous people, land rights have always been our principal concern.”
Native peoples across Brazil suffered violations of their rights and resources in 2016. In northern Brazil, an estimated 5,000 small-scale gold miners have invaded Yanomami territory, where they spill mercury into rivers that communities rely on for fish and drinking water, and spread malaria to Yanomami villages. In October, Almir Narayamoga Surui, chief of the Paiter Surui Tribe, denounced the invasion of his tribe’s territory in the state of Rondonia by miners and loggers who stole hundreds of truckloads of tropical hardwoods.
In response to comparable threats, Guajajara and Ka’apor Indians in the northeastern state of Maranhõa formed militias in recent years to patrol their forests. While those ‘forest guardians’ have been relatively effective at stopping illegal logging, militia members frequently receive death threats and several have been murdered.
“We indigenous want to protect our forests, we want to patrol them, but we don’t have sufficient resources to do this and it’s very dangerous,” said Guajajara. She complained that the government isn’t even covering the cost of the food, vehicles and fuel that the militias use to patrol their territories. “Illegal logging has steadily increased and has destroyed a lot of forest. So have forest fires,” she added.
A combination of climate change and El Niño resulted in an extreme dry season in 2016, which led to a record number of forest fires that damaged various indigenous territories. Some of those fires may have been started by loggers to divert attention away from illegal operations.
While the Guajajara and Ka’apor have assumed the task of fighting illegal logging, the lack of government progress on legalizing Guarani Kaiowa claims to ancestral territory in the southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul has led various communities to occupy land on ranches or farms. Some of those communities endured police evictions or violence from private security forces in 2016, among them the village of Tey’I Jusu, where hired gunmen killed community health worker Clodiodi Aquilei and injured six others – including a 12-year-old boy – in June.
According to Adriana Ramos, who coordinates the rights and legislation program at the Socio-Environmental Institute, the situation of Native peoples has been deteriorating for years as a result of efforts by ruralista legislators to weaken environmental legislation and open indigenous territories up to agriculture, mining and other activities. Ramos said that the increase in illegal logging and invasion of indigenous lands is partially the result of the revamped forest code of 2012, which granted amnesty for past deforestation, and expectations that the government will weaken other environmental regulations in the future. She explained that her office is monitoring approximately 500 legislative proposals in the country’s congress and executive branch with potential social or environmental impacts.
“The government is continuing a negative process that has been going on for years, and I see no hope for improvement under this administration,” Ramos said. “I think that the number of assassinations of (indigenous) leaders, the deforestation of indigenous land, the number of legislative proposals that threaten indigenous rights, and the paralyzation of legalizing new indigenous territories show that the government is abandoning its responsibility to protect Indigenous Peoples’ constitutional rights.”
Damage to indigenous territories has been part of a larger trend of environmental destruction in Brazil. In 2016, the country’s National Institute for Space Research documented a 29 percent increase in deforestation in the Amazon region from the previous year.
Guajajara observed that rising deforestation and government efforts to loosen environmental regulations make it highly unlikely that Brazil will be able to comply with its commitments under the Paris climate agreement, which the country ratified last September, since forest destruction is responsible for the bulk of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“The backsliding that we are experiencing in Brazil is absurd when you consider that it has been proven that indigenous people preserve and protect the environment,” Guajajara said.
She explained that in addition to defending their territories, indigenous organizations are hoping to get more Natives elected to local and state offices, in order to counterbalance the neglect or threats from the federal government
“We have a lot of fights ahead of us,” she said. “We need to continue our resistance.”