Brazil: Indigenous Rights vs. Neoliberalism

Turner, Terence

When Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century, the indigenous population of what is now Brazil stood by some estimates at around three million. After five hundred years of epidemics, slave...

...The quantitative dimensions of this disaster should not obscure the equally important political and ideological function of the decree as the foundational document of a new, neoliberal approach to indigenous rights that the current Brazilian regime is attempting to put in place of the more progressive perspective embodied by the Federal Constitution of 1988...
...The government and people of Brazil discovered, to their surprise and considerable discomfort, that they had an "Indian problem...
...Before becoming minister, Jobim, a lawyer, had put together a brief on behalf of the governor of the Amazonian state of Path, which argued that the Indian reserves demarcated in that state were unconstitutional, because they had failed to take account of objections from non-Indians whose "interests" were affected...
...Indigenous people have been largely eliminated from the more heavily settled east...
...The growing political influence of the SUMMER 1996 67 Brasil: Indigenous Rights NGOs and more generally of environmentalist and human rights groups coincided with the economic slump of the late 1980s and early 1990s...
...No serious effort was made to meet this goal, but a number of reserves were in fact created...
...By plunging the legal status of indigenous lands into confusion, the decree has created a climate of uncertainty that is already being exploited by the usual array of unscrupulous speculators and invaders who hope to gain a foothold in indigenous territories...
...Lest anyone miss the economic inspiration for this new turn in Brazilian policy, a statement released by the Ministry of Justice says it all: Economic development will determine a flow of capital from east to west, and from south to north [in Brazil] . . . where most indigenous peoples live...
...This has given them the clout they need to gain control over indigenous policy...
...Although this figure amounts to only 2 percent of the national population, territories occupied by indigenous groups cover some 8.5 million square kilometers, or 11 percent of the total area of the country...
...Together with these guarantees, the Constitution declared all titles to indigenous lands by nonindigenous parties to be legally null and void...
...The many legal and constitutional flaws in the new decree have been made the grounds of challenges filed with the Supreme Court of Brazil by several indigenous and pro-indigenous organizations, including the Labor party and COIAB, a coalition of over a hundred indigenous groups with ties to CIMI, the Catholic Church's indigenist missionary council...
...The military regime, politically exhausted and unable to cope with the economic decline, ceded power to a civilian government in 1986...
...Both developments helped to relieve the pressure on the environment and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and other parts of Brazil...
...These economic interests are of the most environmentally and culturally destructive kinds: mining, logging, and ranching...
...After five hundred years of epidemics, slave raiding, land expropriation, and more or less forcible cultural assimilation, there are today only around 250,000 people still classified as "Indians" in Brazil...
...Fernando Henrique Cardoso won the presidential election in 1994 with the support of rightist elements from the northern states opposed to indigenous rights and territorial reserves...
...Even this modest amount of progress, however, aroused intense opposition among conservative politicians, ranchers, and mining and logging entrepreneurs...
...By the mid-twentieth century, Indians and indigenous policy had almost disappeared from popular consciousness and the national political agenda...
...In Brazil, it is mostly in indigenous areas that natural eco68 DISSENT Brazil: Indigenous Rights systems survive relatively intact...
...From colonial times down to the late 1980s, Brazilian policy toward indigenous peoples was frankly assimilationist, based on the twin assumptions that absorption into the Brazilian nation represented evolutionary progress and that social and cultural homogenization was central to the building of a strong Brazilian state...
...The political pressure to repeal or abolish indigenous reserves, or, failing that, simply to invade and exploit their resources by force, was greatly augmented by the discovery of gold in many of these areas and the intensification of mahogany logging in others...
...Indian issues became a rubric under which generic human rights and development-vs.-environment issues could be raised...
...Cardoso's program combines neoliberal economic reforms with cutbacks on government bureaucracy and welfare-state programs...
...Decree 1775 opens up over half the area of Brazil's demarcated indigenous reserves to claims by private or local state development agencies...
...Thus it was that rightist politicians and businessmen, in alliance with the military, launched a political and media campaign to roll back the gains made by indigenous peoples...
...The signing of Decree 1775 by President Cardoso on January 8 of this year marked a drastic reversal of policy toward the protection of the human rights of indigenous peoples and the natural environment...
...Therefore, either for humanitarian or economic reasons, the government had to act urgently to address the issue of Indian lands in a permanent way...
...FUNAI is a subdivision of the Ministry of Justice and thus under Jobim's authority...
...fifteen invasions of indigenous areas have been reported since the decree was signed, some of them accompanied by violence...
...Ever since, indigenous issues, together with the environmental questions that rose to prominence at the same time, have played a role in Brazilian domestic political discussion and foreign relations out of all proportion to the demographic proportion of Indians in the national population...
...In that year, sensational reports in the British press about the decline of indigenous populations, inaccurately represented as a concerted policy of governmentsponsored "genocide," set off an international outcry that seriously damaged Brazil's foreign relations...
...Their representative in the Cardoso government is Nelson Jobim, the minister of justice...
...Throughout the three-month period allowed by the decree for the submission of contestations of indigenous lands, the minister and the president assured anxious indigenous representatives that only a handful would actually be submitted, affecting at most only a half-dozen areas...
...Many environmentalist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both foreign and domestic, dedicated themselves not only to defending the ecosystem of the Amazon but also to championing the territorial and human rights of its indigenous inhabitants...
...The decree promotes nonindigenous economic interests over the communal interests of indigenous people...
...To get it through Congress he needs the support of his northern rightist allies...
...As in the United States, most of the larger surviving indigenous groups, and all the large indigenous areas, are located in the west...
...The decree makes the minister of justice and the president the sole arbiters of all challenges to indigenous territorial boundaries, insulating their decisions from independent legal review...
...As minister of justice in the Cardoso government, however, Jobim recycled the same argument as the basis of a new presidential decree...
...During the "economic miracle" of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as military rulers pushed the development of the Amazon, Indian communities that found themselves in the way were roughly shouldered aside by governmentsupported settlers and developers, while the government adopted what amounted to a policy of "benign neglect" toward indigenous groups...
...The decree thus potentially poses as grave a threat to environmental diversity as to cultural diversity...
...Finally, the Constitution called for the demarcation of all indigenous areas as reserves within five years (that is, by the end of 1993...
...Nineteen sixty-eight, however, was a pivotal year in the Amazon as elsewhere...
...In effect, the decree and its accompanying ministerial order make up a legal-administrative mechanism for circumventing the Constitution's guarantees of indigenous land rights...
...Military opinion also harbored paranoid suspicions that environmentalist and indigenous support groups were merely fronts for an international conspiracy to steal the Amazon and its resources from Brazil...
...When the period expired on April 8, however, over a thousand contestations had in fact been submitted, affecting eighty-three areas, a significant proportion of all the indigenous territory in the country...
...q SUMMER 1996 69 70 DISSENT...
...This symbolic importance of indigenous issues, from land rights to cultural self-determination, was reinforced through the new alliance of indigenous activism with environmentalism, the great new cause of the 1970s...
...In those years of repression, "Indian questions" (military censors did not consider them to be political issues) became one of the few topics that could be freely discussed...
...Many in the Brazilian military opposed indigenous reserves on the grounds that they would constitute quasi-independent political states that would pose a threat to national security...
...Indigenous societies and cultures, in this perspective, constituted "ethnic cysts to be excised from the body politic," in the words of a general who headed the national Indian agency (FUNAI) during the military dictatorship of 1964-1986...
...The Supreme Court threw out Jobim's case in 1993...
...The major political expression of this favorable political moment was the new Federal Constitution of 1988, which for the first time recognized many rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to their own cultural identity and to the territories they have traditionally occupied...

Vol. 43 • July 1996 • No. 3


 
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