Dec 02, 2014

Round-Table at Brazilian National Congress Addresses Appalling Developments for Indigenous Rights in Brazil and Ends in Cross-Party Parliamentary Declaration

On 25 November 2014, UNPO convened a round-table at the Brazilian National Congress in Brasilia on the question of the environment and indigenous rights with the support of the Nando Peretti Foundation. The event was hosted by the office of Brazilian MP Padre Ton, and included MP Sarney Filho as a notable speaker, as well as Erik von Pistohlkors from the EU Delegation to Brazil and Cleber Buzato from CIMI and an indigenous leader of Guajajara. At the end of the debate, MP Erika Kokay and MP Janete Capiberibe were also allotted time for their impassioned interventions.  

The round-table brought together 40 indigenous leaders of Guajajara, Krikati, Canela, Gamela, Crenyê Gavião and Crepun indigenous peoples of Maranhão state, who were all given an opportunity to speak and provide the audience with their own insightful perspectives on the interplay of environmental factors and indigenous human rights in Brazil.

The round-table came at an opportune moment with two contentious developments in Brazil necessitating immediate address, providing the panelists and indigenous leaders a foundation for discussion and the search for ways forward. The first is the appointment of Ms Katia Abreu, currently at the head of the agricultural lobby, as the Minister of Agriculture, and the second, a controversial amendment, which would transfer the decision-making powers over demarcation of indigenous territories to the Brazilian National Congress.

Brazil conference November 2014 - 2

MP Padre Ton warned that the newly elected Parliament is more conservative and less concerned with indigenous issues. He called on indigenous representatives present to come to the National Congress every week, mark their presence and demand for their rights. He spoke critically of the new amendment and the possible appointment of Ms Katia Abreu as the Minister of Agriculture and how this posting could have a detrimental affect on Brazil's indigenous peoples.

MP Padre Ton also mentioned his attendance at the UNPO-organized conference at the European Parliament in Brussels in January 2014. He also explained to the audience which topics were addressed at the advocacy meetings he attended while in Brussels and how important it is to raise the issue of indigenous rights in Brazil on an international level.


UNPO representative, Ms Iva Petkovic, first introduced the UNPO as an organization and its advocacy work on the Awá situation, including some recent positive developments and new causes for concern. In her speech, she spoke about how historical discrimination and the relatively vulnerable political position of unrepresented or underrepresented indigenous groups in relation to structurally more powerful agribusiness, multinational corporations and Government institutions have kept indigenous groups excluded and marginalized from decision-making processes. She pointed to the fact that State power of regulation in the Amazonian region is weak and often comes in conflict with private interests leaving the environment and indigenous rights at their mercy. Despite Brazil having ratified International Labour Convention 169 and adopted constitutional guarantees of indigenous rights, there is an alarming lack of policies to implement and enforce these rights, as seen in the high number of conflicts due to the failure to properly demarcate lands; "to demarcate means to recognize. Without demarcation, without recognition, indigenous rights can be violated and their environment destroyed".  

MP Sarney Filho stated that he has been fighting for sustainable development for more than 30 years and his work on indigenous people did not start now. In his heart-felt statement, he noted that although indigenous peoples remain excluded from society, he can feel the strength of their fight, their struggle. He sided with Padre Ton in his concern over the proposed amendment, and instead called for an amendment, which would require indigenous representation at the Congress; "It is one thing to talk about right, and it is quite another when indigenous people talk about their own rights". Not only will indigenous people be affected by the more conservative and closed Congress, but changes will be felt by all minorities and social groups.


Erik von Pistohlkors spoke about how the EU engages in dialogue in terms of human rights with the Government of Brazil, in particular for example, the Department of Human Rights. According to him, human rights is one of the main subjects that the EU works on in the context of Brazil. He noted that the EU looks for shared values and explained that the EU shares common points with the Brazilian Ministry of Environment. One indigenous leader responded to the statement by saying that at this moment it seems that the EU cares more about indigenous rights than their own Government.


Cleber Buzato (National Secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council – CIMI) as the last panelist looked at the legal aspect of the environmental and human rights problem discussed at the round-table and offered some insights into the proposed amendment and how it would impact indigenous peoples, particularly in terms of their land rights.


The indigenous leader of Guajajara called the new amendment "a disease for indigenous peoples lives". He said that if the amendment passes, they will not leave in peace in their home. He would like the amendment to be "burned and buried". He argued that indigenous people are peacefully calling for the implementation of article 231 and 232 of the Brazilian Constitution, which guarantee their rights, but are continually under threat. He also brought to life the isses discussed at the round-table by telling the audience about the numerous of examples of indigenous leaders being threatened to death, attacked by loggers, their cell phones destroyed... He also expressed his concern that the Brazilian Parliament has lost two Congressmen in the recent elections who fearless struggled for indigenous rights, including MP Padre Ton. He promised that indigenous peoples will continue to peacefully fight for their rights against the amendment and seek the demarcation of their lands; "the Congressman who proposed the amendment [MP Osmar Serraglio] is never going to sleep well". According to him, as long as the demarcation of indigenous territories is not taking place, indigenous groups will need allies within the Congress.


During her intervention, MP Janete Capiberibe thanked the organizers for the "important round-table at this important time". She expressed her beliefs on the importance of working for indigenous rights, not just in Maranhão, but all over Brazil, saying that the lives and difficulties faced by different indigenous groups are indeed different. She reinforced her position about the topics talked under discussion at the Congress, including the new amendment: "demarcation cannot be done by Congress!".

She explained that the document presented by the deputy Osmar Serraglio on the amendment 215 suggests that: indigenous land already demarcated cannot be expanded, the permanent demarcation of indigenous lands needs to be made by law (this applies a harder process, and gives the Congress, which is mostly in favor of agribusiness, strong decision-making power), ongoing demarcation procedures, contrary to the Constitutional amendment terms, will be reviewed within one year from the date of publication of the amendment. This causes legal uncertainty to the indigenous people.


MP Erika Kokay stated that the year of 2014 was a hard one, but it is ending with "the victory of resistance", which was only possible with the active participation of indigenous communities. She noted how important Padre Ton is for all resistance struggles, and expressed her concern over the amendment: "the murders that are being perpetrated against indigenous peoples are not being recognized! It is a genoceide against the indigenous!". She also asked, "can we be indigenous without our ancestral land?" refering to the need to adequately and quickly demarcate indigenous lands. She also raised the issue of how strong economic power is in the Brazilian Government, marginalizing indigenous issue as a consequence.


During the discussion, indigenous leaders talked about the dangers faced by their communities, particularly the lack of enforced rights guaranteed in the Constitution, the most problematic of which, is the lack of demarcation. Indigenous leader Arthur Guajejere asked, "if the situation is like this before the amendment has passed, how will it be after its adoption? They also contributed to the discussion by voicing their criticism against the powerful Brazilian agribusiness. Another indigenous leader remarked that many Brazilian voters actually do not know their opinion about indigenous rights. In unison, they claimed that their biggest concern regarding the appointment of Ms Katia Abreu, is that she will most likely terminante FUNAI, an agency they consider imporant for them, because it is too dangerous to live on non-indigenous land.


UNPO representative concluded by saying "You have a friend in Brussels". 

The timely round-table proved to be a success with moving speeches and a high turnout of Congressmen and Congresswomen, their assistants and political advisors, students, professors, and representatives of other NGOs, such as World Wildlife Fund Brazil. Furthermore, it provided an opportunity for all supportive parliamentarians (including MP Janete Rocha Pieta and MP Chico Alencar) to draft and sign a declaration on their joint position regarding the recent developments threatening indigenous peoples of Brazil. 


Below you can find:

- the official, signed round-table declaration in Portuguese and the English translation

- Speech delivered at the round-table by UNPO representative

- Speech delivered by MP Sarney Filho at the round-table (in Portuguese)

- the official invitation to the round-table (in Portuguese)

- the official programme of the round-table in Portuguese and in English.

- UNPO Report on the current situation of the Awá in Brazil (November 2014)

- The Guardian profile of Katia Abreu

- Proposed Amendment by Osmar Serraglio (in Portuguese)