Brazilian indigenous peoples and civil society challenge government backsliding on environment and development
Brazil has made significant gradual steps to combat deforestation since the first Earth summit in 1992. Increasing recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights in Amazonia, improved law enforcement and changes in rural credit subsidies (alongside external factors like changing commodity prices) have all helped slow annual Brazilian deforestation by 70% when compared to its peak in the 1990s (though in 2011 the country suffered a 127% rise in deforestation compared to 2010).
Despite these hard won gains secured over the last two decades, indigenous peoples, social movements and NGOs in Brazil warn that greater recognition for forest peoples’ rights and recent progress in tackling deforestation are under threat from powerful landowning agribusiness interests pushing for regressive legal reforms to weaken environmental laws and undermine indigenous peoples’ rights. They highlight that forests are again under major pressure from Federal government policies seeking to force through reductions in the areas of legally protected forests and push ahead with destructive mega dam, road and bio energy projects in the Amazon without respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and without public support.
Others identify a disturbing trend back towards minimal law enforcement in forest areas in the Amazon as colonists, loggers and large farmers occupy indigenous peoples’ lands without sanction (like the case of the Awá people in Eastern Amazonia). Human rights campaigners report that violent land grabbing and illegal logging are increasingly associated with human rights abuses (for example. along the BR364 highway), including numerous killings of outspoken indigenous leaders and local forest defenders. At the same time, community leaders are criminalised for defending their forests and there appears to be a reluctance among government authorities to apply environmental and social norms meant to regulate infrastructure developments, as witnessed in the hasty development of the huge Belo Monte dam that will flood 40,000 Ha of forest and potentially displace 20,000 people.
Environmental and civil society organisations in Brazil are now intensifying their efforts to expose and question these apparent negative shifts in Brazilian policies for environment and development. Since the beginning of the year, environmental groups ran a major campaign to try to persuade President Dilma Rouseff to exercise a total veto of the controversial changes to the Forest Code that could generate large-scale deforestation across the country if approved. In May 2012, the President only vetoed a dozen provisions and refused to reject the retrograde legal proposal. Protest groups complain the minor changes made by the President will still let forest destroyers off the hook and create ambiguities and loopholes in the proposed new forest law that would seriously weaken protections for watershed and riparian forests.
"The government claims that there is no amnesty for people who destroyed the forest illegally, yet the proposed new Forest Code would effectively reward past forest crimes. The government says these changes are meant to benefit small farmers, but they are really for the benefit of large agricultural interests. If this law goes ahead it would be a major step backwards and a softening of environmental regulation in Brazil. We will continue to oppose this harmful legislation" [Malu Ribeiro, SOS Mata Atlantica, June 2012]
Indigenous peoples likewise point to major contradictions in national forest and development policies. They note that while Brazil has set national targets to cut deforestation by 80% by 2020, it has also set aggressive national targets for road building and dam development across the Amazon region.
In a letter sent by Indigenous leaders to President Rouseff in June, indigenous leaders denounce the current “assault” on indigenous peoples’ rights. The leaders highlight that proposals to amend the national constitution tabled by agro-industrial interests threaten to violate indigenous peoples’ rights and could bring the demarcation of Terras Indígenas (TI) to a standstill. In the worst case scenario, these proposed damaging amendments (known as PEC 215) could even allow reductions in legally demarcated indigenous lands, while other proposals (under PL1610) would allow mining within indigenous territories.
Growing discontent with Brazil’s reversion to top-down development policies was voiced in numerous public meetings, protest marches and events outside and inside the Rio+20 summit at the end of June. On 21 June members of the Xikrin, Juruna, Parakaña, Kuruaya and Kayapó peoples occupied the site of the Belo Monte Dam to call for the withdrawal of the project’s environmental license and application of immediate measures to respect the right to free, prior and informed consent in line with ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Meanwhile, protests against Brazil’s controversial Forest Code continued. In one case, a Brazilian government side event was suspended half way through on the evening of 21 June after protesters wore T-shirts with the slogan “Forest Code: the game is not over”, while others had pictures of President Rouseff holding a chain saw. The noisy break up of the meeting could be heard through the corridors of Rio Centro as the contradictions in Brazilian policies were again publicly exposed.
If Brazil is to have credibility in national and global debates on environment and development, it must take concrete actions to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable development by defending indigenous peoples’ rights and territories in the constitution, formulating genuine cross-sectoral policies for forests and putting in place rules and robust enforcement mechanisms to prevent destructive megaprojects.
Pronunciamento dos representantes indígenas no dia mundial do meio ambiente: http://www.cimi.org.br/site/pt-br/?system=news&action=read&id=6326
Declaração dos Povos Indígenas de Altamira 09 de junho de 2012 contra Belo Monte: http://earthpeoples.org/blog/?p=2190
Indigenous leaders call for suspension of construction license for Belo Monte Dam: http://earthpeoples.org/blog/?p=2184
Dia do Índio passa em branco pelas mãos de Dilma Rousseff: http://www.socioambiental.org/nsa/detalhe?id=3532
Concerns over constitutional amendments: http://www.trabalhoindigenista.org.br/noticia.php?id_noticia=121
Survival International’s Campaign with the Awá: http://www.survivalinternational.org/awa
Broken Promises – Bleak Future - Are indigenous peoples and the Amazon paying the price for the world’s appetite for natural resources? – Society for Threatened Peoples, 2012. English: http://assets.gfbv.ch/downloads/endfassung_englisch.pdf German: http://assets.gfbv.ch/downloads/gfbv_bericht_gebrochene_versprechen_dustere_zukunft.pdf Portuguese: http://assets.gfbv.ch/downloads/endfassung_portugiesisch.pdf
Quilombola Lands in Oriximiná: Pressure and Threats – Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo, 2011: http://www.cpisp.org.br/pdf/Ingles.pdf