May 18, 2017

Brazil: Indigenous Leaderships Oppose New President of the Indian Foundation

Photo Courtesy of The Sidney Morning Herald


An army general, Franklimberg Freitas, has been appointed as the new president of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), agency dedicated to mapping, and protecting indigenous communities in the country. The designation caused dissatisfaction among indigenous leaderships and activists, who claim that the government has been neglecting its duty towards indigenous communities whilst acting solely in favour of the agribusiness. While many indigenous peoples live precariously and await on the 430 processes still in queue for land demarcation, and while FUNAI has suffered massive budget cuts, tensions between indigenous communities and farmers have escalated. Two weeks ago, more than a dozen people from the Gamela tribe were injured after an attack by farmers in a recently occupied land in the state of Maranhão, northeast region of Brazil


The article below was published by The Sidney Morning Herald:


The Brazilian government has appointed an army general as the new president of FUNAI, the 50-year-old indigenous affairs agency responsible for mapping indigenous land and avoiding a repeat of the killings that brought the plight of Amazonian indians to the rest of the world in the 1960s.

It is the first time in 25 years that a non-civilian has become head of the agency, which is already under pressure from a pro-agribusiness group known as the "ruralist faction" in the country's Congress.

Franklimberg Freitas, 61, is FUNAI's eighth president in five years and already faces strong opposition from indigenous communities and activists.

On his way out, his predecessor, Antonio Costa, urged Brazilians to "wake up" as he protested against the perceived architect of his dismissal, the newly appointed Minister for Justice Osmar Serraglio.

"The Brazilian government does not comply with what is written in the Constitution related to indigenous populations. The FUNAI has been forgotten by the government, not only by this government, but also by previous governments, which has left FUNAI in a chaotic situation," Costa said.

FUNAI, or National Indian Foundation, was established in 1967 to replace the Indian Protection Service, which was tasked with assimilating the indigenous population into the broader white culture. The service was formed by a marshal and was disbanded following international outcry over criminal neglect, persecution and massacre of those in its care.

Since then, the agency has had a motley history, credited with both protection of and violence towards tribes.

"Indigenous peoples need a minister who seeks justice and not a minister who takes sides. That's not the ministerial role. You know very well the side he defends," Costa said of Serraglio's alleged ties to the faction lobbying to weaken environmental laws and expand agricultural and mining operations into indigenous territories.

Costa also said he had been under pressure from congressmen to employ people with no interest or experience in indigenous matters. One of his correspondents, Federal MP for the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul Luis Carlos Heinze, sent a letter to FUNAI earlier this year in an alleged attempt to influence the choice of candidate for a key agency position.

Heinze made headlines in Brazil after he was caught on camera depicting indigenous people, homosexuals and slave descendents as "all that is worthless".

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988, enacted after the end of military rule, defines the right of indigenous people to their lands as "original rights", that is, before the creation of the nation itself.

But in the past decade, precarious indigenous living standards and government's inaction in countering the incursion of agribusiness has pushed tribespeople and farmers against each other. They fear FUNAI's budget cuts and ongoing political instability will put an end to already contested demarcation processes, and have begun autonomous moves to regain territories in several states. Consequently, armed conflicts in disputes over land are becoming more common, with indigenous men over-represented in emergency departments and morgues.

More than a dozen members of a tribe known as the Gamela people were injured two weeks ago after farmers attacked recently occupied land in Maranhao state, north-eastern Brazil, with guns, knives and clubs. Five people needed medical attention for broken bones, cuts and gun-shot wounds, including Aldely Ribeiro whose hands were almost severed in a machete attack. Two other men had surgery to remove bullets from the lungs and head.

The latest violence came two weeks after some 4000 people, mostly indigenous, travelled to the country's capital, Brasilia, to pressure the government for land demarcation to be carried out in accordance with the constitution. Indigenous leaders say the government of President Michel Temer is working to roll back protections in various parts of the Amazon and allowing farmers and other big-money interest to steal their lands.

"We had just peacefully retaken part of our traditional territory as we have been doing gradually since 2015, similar to other tribes in different parts of the country. Suddenly, many farmers heavily armed arrived. They were very angry and outnumbered us so we decided to retrieve. When most of the Gamela had left, my group was attacked," recounts the elder Kumtum Akroa-Gamella, who sustained injuries to his hand and head.

The men accuse a former federal policeman and Maranhao MP Aloisio Mendes of inciting the farmers against them.

Mendes denies the accusation. He blames state and federal governments for not acting following several warnings of escalating violence. Conflicts between farmers and tribespeople have also become common, creating problems for farm labourers who find themselves without homes and jobs once a farm is occupied.

According to indigenous rights advocate Daniel Carvalho, the violent situation in Maranhao is amplified by public figures and local media depicting the Gamela as not native to the area.

This is reflected in statements from both Mendes and the Ministry of Justice. In a statement issued after the machete attack, the minister said federal police would investigate the incident involving farmers and "supposed indigenous people".

Carvalho, a local member of FUNAI, said historical documents and studies proved the existence of the Gamelas in the region. "This type of narrative just demonstrates the level of racism, prejudice and ignorance that exists in our society that fuels the conflicts," Carvalho told Fairfax Media.

Cleber Buzzato is the national secretary of one of the main indigenous rights groups in Brazil, CIMI.

He said that the attacks happened in a context where agribusiness lobbyists have gained more strength after last year's impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff.

"Those forces demonstrate to be even more aggressive, even more violent against slave descendents, peasants and indigenous people who fight for land demarcation," Buzzato said recalling another violent episode where nine rural workers were killed in a dispute with farmers, squatters and loggers.

There are about 450 recognised indigenous territories in Brazil. Another 430 are still in demarcation queues, which can take many years.