Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro made the provocative nomination of Ricardo Lopes Dias to head FUNAI, the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to Indigenous Peoples. This move casts a shadow over the EU’s pursuit of an association agreement with the Mercosur trade bloc, which is absent of enforceable safeguards for human rights.
Dias’ nomination appears threatening. Any contact with outsiders exposes isolated Indigenous Peoples to the risk of disease and violence. Dias – an evangelical pastor – has been connected with the proselytising activities of the New Tribes Mission of Brazil (MNTB), a North American missionary organisation. As head of this department, he will have access to geographical information about more than 100 ‘voluntarily isolated’ peoples.
APIB, the Coalition of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, is joined by other Indigenous organisations and human rights groups in “vehemently rejecting” Dias’ appointment: “There are reports of numerous situations where the forced contact caused by missionary groups, including those linked to the MNTB, had as a rapid consequence a high number of deaths from diseases, socio-cultural disruption and displacement.” APIB further notes that technically competent and experienced staff could have been appointed from within FUNAI.
The former head , Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, was unceremoniously sacked from the post last June, reportedly after resisting pressure to open Indigenous lands for commercial exploitation.
Bolsonaro appears to be threatening Brazil’s policy of respect for Indigenous autonomy and non-assimilation embodied in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, adopted in the wake of Indigenous deaths due to outside contact. He caters to powerful evangelical interests, as he has to agricultural interests.
Enforcement of these Constitutional provisions establishing the right of Indigenous groups to their ancestral lands, and the duty for Brazil to demarcate those lands may also be at risk. Bolsonaro recently introduced a bill to open Indigenous lands to mining and other exploitation. If passed by Congress, Indigenous communities will not have the right to veto mining on their land.
Brazil’s trade partners, and especially EU and Member State authorities reviewing the Mercosur association agreement, must therefore keep Bolsonaro in their sights. The EU cannot make Brazil’s choices, clearly. But the EU can demonstrate the political will to place fundamental human rights before trade. For the Mercosur Free Trade Agreement to go ahead, it must include strong safeguards for human rights and Indigenous land rights as well as the protection of forests, with effective mechanisms for enforcement and consequences when rights are violated.