Even since the EU agreed a tentative deal with Mercosur in 2019, the political landscape in Brazil has deteriorated: Brazil’s executive has incited, among other things, an increase in deforestation, which grew by 30 per cent in 2019, an invasion of Indigenous lands and land-grabbing. Rapidly unfolding events indicate that President Jair Bolsonaro views Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples as an impediment to exploiting their forested reserves. The EU must weigh in swiftly and clearly to uphold fundamental principles, using the trade levers at its disposal.
Bolsonaro has long targeted Indigenous Peoples’ constitutionally protected reserves, and the COVID-19 pandemic may add a deadly weapon to his tools.
A permissive stance toward illicit activity on Indigenous lands
In February 2020, Bolsonaro appointed Carlos Lopes Dias, a former missionary with the New Tribes Mission of Brazil (MNTB) to head the isolated peoples department of FUNAI, Brazil’s agency for Indigenous Peoples (FW 252). MNTB has been trying to reach peoples who have no contact with the exterior world in the Vale do Javari, at 8.5 million hectares the second largest demarcated Indigenous land in Brazil – even purchasing a helicopter to do so. This, despite Brazilian Constitutional protections and no-contact policies adopted in the 1980s, despite the importance of these forested reserves for the global climate and despite the fact that bringing disease to these peoples will likely kill them.
The Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari (UNIVAJA) recently sued the MNTB organisation. Ruling in favour of UNIVAJA, a federal court of first instance in the state of Amazonas (16 April 2020) condemned the missionaries in strong terms – authorising police and military force to remove them if necessary. Commendable as the ruling is, it comes from a lower court and can be appealed.
Disturbingly, Dias retains his position in FUNAI. The Federal Public Ministry, an independent institution, is again seeking to suspend Dias’ appointment (a previous attempt failed); it contends that Dias was “at least silent, not to say complicit” regarding the missionaries’ efforts to gain access to Vale do Javari.
Legislative moves to access Indigenous lands
On 15 April, 130 Indigenous leaders complained to the Ministry of Justice about their harassment by missionaries, their fear of FUNAI’s new policies and the fact that “confidential information about the location of isolated Indigenous Peoples may be exposed to fundamentalist groups or even to other interested parties” – parties that may represent mining interests.
These are not idle fears. A proposed law by the federal government (PL 191/2020) sent to the Brazilian National Congress aims to sidestep Constitutional protections for Indigenous lands in order to allow the mining of mineral and hydrocarbon resources and the use of water resources.
But Bolsonaro’s government has found a short-cut: on 28 March the Ministry of Mines and Energy added “mining, processing and commercialization of mineral goods” to Brazil’s “essential services”. Notably mining did not figure among the essential services listed in the 25 March decree on measures to combat COVID-19. Congressional opposition, with the support of National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), is now seeking to repeal the decree.
On 22 April, Bolsonaro’s government tried again: FUNAI issued an Act (Instrução Normativa nº 9/2020) legitimising exploitation of properties embedded in delimited Indigenous reserves pending conclusion of the years-long demarcation process. Within the week (29 April) the Federal Public Ministry, supported by 49 attorneys from 23 states, recommended that FUNAI annul the Act.
In urgent proceedings brought by Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB) and the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a preliminary suspension on 6 May of all judicial processes for repossession inside delimited Indigenous lands given the vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples to the COVID-19 pandemic, pending its final ruling.
Assaults on rights and lands are constantly renewed
The attempts to sweep aside Indigenous Peoples to gain access to and exploit Brazil’s forests and Indigenous reserves keep coming, relentlessly. As APIB states: “We are not just facing a virus. Along with the increase in cases of Indigenous People infected and killed by COVID-19 is the increase in the murders of our leaders and the increase in invasions by loggers, miners, missionaries and land grabbers in our lands.”
Likely none of this matters to Bolsonaro, who reacts with contempt to any ‘outside interference’.
What may matter is a blow to his trade ambitions. A network of Brazilian climate NGOs makes a very strong case for reviewing the premises of the Mercosur trade deal and suspending ratification pending improvement in Brazil’s social and environmental policies. With not just forests and climate but also peoples at stake, the EU cannot sit on the sidelines.