‘Holding back the sky’: Indigenous peoples’ land rights are under threat in Brazil
Brazil's indigenous chief Raoni Metuktire poses for a photo during an interview before a summit of Amazon rainforest nations at the Igarape Park, in Belem, Para state, Brazil August 5, 2023. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Brazil’s Senate is debating a bill that could strip Indigenous peoples’ land rights unless they can prove they lived there in 1988
Nara Baré is an Indigenous leader of the Baré people of the Brazilian Amazon, director of Nia Tero in Brazil and, formerly, the first female General Coordinator for COIAB (Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon).
In the Brazilian Senate this August, politicians are debating a bill whose logic can only be followed if you know nothing about the past 60 years of Brazilian history.
The proposed legislation, already approved in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies and by one Senate committee, changes the rules for the legal recognition of our lands as official Indigenous territories.
If it passes in the Senate, the bill (PL 2903) would allow Indigenous communities to lay claim to their lands only if they lived there on October 5, 1988, the day Brazil’s “Citizens’ Constitution” was enacted.
Yet for more than two decades before this constitution was adopted, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship. During this period, indigenous peoples were expelled from their lands and at least 8,350 were killed. In 2014, the country’s National Truth Commission reported that Indigenous communities had fled “massacres, dispossession of their lands, forced removals from their territories, deliberate contagion by infectious diseases, arrests, torture and mistreatment.”
Put simply, for the communities expelled from their territories, this new bill would remove the right to reclaim their lands.
This legislative land grab discards the story of so much bloodshed and perpetuates the ecocide against us Indigenous Peoples and nature. It violates the spirit and the law of a constitution that was meant to right terrible wrongs.
Brazil has a new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected last year on a platform of environmental conservation and respect for Indigenous rights. He has sought to reverse the extreme environmental destruction driven by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.
The presidency may have changed hands, but Bolsonaro’s powerful allies remain. Collectively known as ruralistas, Brazil's agribusiness lobby dominates the nation’s legislative branch. They are driving efforts to permanently disenfranchise the Indigenous survivors.
With the annual burning season in the Amazon fast approaching, this should be cause for concern to anyone seeking to stop the deforestation fueling climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemic risk.
Brazilian scientists recently estimated that between 23 million and 55 million hectares of forest would be lost if the rule to limit our land rights becomes law. Without our stewardship, our lands would be deforested and release the equivalent of 5 to 14 years of Brazil’s emissions.
Tragically, we don’t need scientific projections to see this. New data released at the end of June shows that, under the Bolsonaro administration, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to record levels. A growing body of evidence shows that much of the deforestation was caused by fires set intentionally and illegally, increasingly to expand cattle ranching and soy bean farming.
We are holding back the sky that threatens to collapse over everyone's heads, as our great leader Davi Kopenawa, of the Yanomami people, has warned. We see this in North America, with fires in Canada plaguing New York and North American cities—much like Amazon fires blackened the skies of São Paulo several years ago.
But I ask: what will it take for the Global community to realize what is happening? What is missing for them to realize that the sky is about to fall and that in a little while the whole earth will be dark and in flames?
In addition to disrupting the path laid out in the constitution for obtaining recognition of Indigenous territories, the proposed bill could set a precedent for reviewing the land already officially designated as Indigenous territories, and could allow forced contact with people in voluntary isolation.
And yet, we are managers of much of the world's remaining biodiversity, including ecosystems essential to our global climate, freshwater and food security. Our forests are more dense and healthier than forests under other systems of land management.
We see the legislative battle playing out in Brasilia this month as another form of violence —a direct attack on the constitutional protections that guarantee our lives and our existence—although those protections may also be rendered obsolete as the Brazilian Supreme Court is currently considering a case based on the same premise. If the justices rule to uphold the 1988 timeframe in the case before them, they will join the ruralistas in their quest to ignore and erase the bloody history, even though it inspired a Constitution designed to right a terrible wrong.
Whether in Canada, New York, the Amazon or São Paulo, everything is interconnected. We Indigenous peoples maintain the earth in balance, holding up the sky to guarantee the lives of future generations. But time is running out for us, for our children and grandchildren.
If the timeframe bill gets approved, everyone who does business, investments, and agreements with Brazil needs to be held responsible for the worsening of climate change and the destruction of life on the planet.
The earth and sky once gave us all, everyone on the planet, ample shelter. To undo the generations of violence inflicted on us—particularly under the past military dictatorship and the current politicians who continue to embrace racist policies—we simply cannot pretend it never happened. All of us deserve shelter once again.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
- Climate policy
- Indigenous communities
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