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Can Economic Pressure Curb Jair Bolsonaro's Anti-Indigenous Agenda?

An impending trade deal with the E.U. has instigated further pushback from non-governmental organizations and local activists against any deal with the Brazilian government.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

In a drive to put economic pressure on the Bolsonaro government, more than 340 international and Brazilian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) signed an open letter on June 17th calling for the European Union to immediately break off negotiations with Brazil over a ground-breaking trade deal, due to "worsening human rights and [the] environmental situation" in the Latin American country.

The letter states:

Since the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in January 2019, we have witnessed increased human rights violations, attacks on minorities, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ and other traditional communities. Moreover, the administration continues to threaten the basic democratic functioning of civil society while instigating a fundamental assault on some of the world's most precious and ecologically valuable regions.

The letter comes just days, perhaps hours, before the E.U. is expected to announce the completion of a long-awaited trade deal with Mercosur, South America's trade bloc, which includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

The deal would create one of the biggest free trade blocs in the world, encompassing over 770 million consumers and a combined economic output of $20 billion.

NGOs aren't the only group concerned over the E.U. forging closer ties with Brazil, a country widely accused of human right violations and environmental destruction, especially in the Amazon basin whose rainforests are vital to sequestering carbon and slowing the climate crisis.

In another open letter in early May, 600 European scientists and 300 Indigenous groups called on the E.U. to insist that Brazil respect environmental and human rights standards as a precondition for concluding the Mercosur trade negotiations. The researchers reasoned that the E.U., being Brazil's second largest trade partner, after China, could serve as a strong voice of restraint. Tiago Reis, who is doing a Ph.D. in agricultural supply chains at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, said that Brazil's agricultural sector is banking on the new deal and that "Bolsonaro does listen to the agricultural industry."

However, despite continuing expressions of concern by some members of the European Parliament, it seems unlikely the E.U./Mercosur deal will be halted. Lucas Ferraz, Brazil's foreign trade secretary, told Bloomberg: "We have never been so close. We've advanced more in four months than in 20 years."

During a recent press conference with his Argentine counterpart in Buenos Aires, Bolsonaro, who is a keen advocate of the agreement, enthused: "We are all going to win with this—Argentina, Brazil, and the other countries of this bloc." Barring eleventh-hour hitches, the finalized deal is expected to be announced during a summit of the G20 group of leading economies in Osaka before the end of June.

On June 26th the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, responded to the concerns of the NGOs and the scientists, saying: "Like you, I am worried about the actions taken by the Brazilian president [in relation to deforestation] and, if possible, I will have a clear discussion with him about it at the G20 meeting." But she was not prepared to halt the trade talks: "I don't think the non-conclusion of the agreement with Mercosul will mean that a hectare less forest will be felled in Brazil. On the contrary."

Growing Indigenous Outrage

While it seems very unlikely the talks will be stopped, the chorus of protests has underlined international concern over Bolsonaro's draconian socioenvironmental policies and put increasing pressure for transnational companies to take action. Brazil's Indigenous organizations are speaking out ever more loudly abroad, saying that they have little alternative, as Bolsonaro has closed down all national channels of communication.

APIB (the Articulation of Brazil's Indigenous People), one of Brazil's leading Indigenous organizations, has been at the forefront of resistance. It launched a new strategy when it published a report, entitled "Complicity in the Destruction," in April. The report shows that soy, cattle, and timber companies responsible for illegal deforestation and, in some cases, employing slave labor, are none the less openly negotiating with, and receiving funding from, companies and investors based in all three of Brazil's main trading partners—China, the E.U., and the U.S. The document names 23 importing companies, including giants Bunge, Cargill, and Northwest Hardwoods. Forest losses in the Brazilian Amazon jumped 54 percent in January of 2019 compared to a year ago, while May of 2019 saw a 34 percent increase as compared to May of 2018.

Among the various recommendations made in the report, the APIB demands that "The E.U. must force companies to track the origin of the agricultural products it is importing" and, if those products come from companies violating Brazil's socioenvironmental laws and causing deforestation, that the products and firms must be boycotted.

APIB coordinator Sônia Guajajara, who recently undertook a five-nation European tour that also took in the European Parliament, explained: "We are demanding respect for environmental rights and seeking to raise awareness about the origin of many Brazilian products. The government will only start listening to us once we start hurting the economy."

The Battle Over Indigenous Demarcation

For the moment, however, the Bolsonaro administration has turned a deaf ear to the rising tide of Indigenous and international resistance, and is instead pressing forward aggressively with policies long called for by the country's ruralists—the nation's politically powerful agribusiness and mining elites. Under Bolsonaro, the ruralists have been given a dominant role in reshaping Indigenous policy, even if it means taking on some of the country's most powerful institutions, its laws, and even its Constitution.

For example, in his first days as president, Bolsonaro issued a presidential decree (MP 870/2019) removing the Indigenous agency, FUNAI, from the Justice Ministry, transferring it to the far weaker Ministry of the Family, and also handing over the responsibility of demarcating Indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture—a move viewed as a drastic conflict of interest by analysts, seeing as the ministry has long been heavily influenced by ruralists seeking procurement of Indigenous land.

In a decision, vociferously celebrated by the Indigenous movements, Congress voted in May to overrule Bolsonaro, saying that FUNAI should be returned to the Justice Ministry and that it should retain authority for the demarcation of Indigenous land.

Then on June 18th, the president took the nation and the world by surprise as he issued a new, and unprecedented, presidential decree (MP 886/2019) which overruled the May congressional vote.

Analysts said that Bolsonaro's decision to issue a new MP took the conflict to a new level: "The latest presidential decree belittles the power of the legislative and infringes the principle of the separation of powers," said Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer with the Socioenvironmental Institute, an NGO.

"Bolsonaro cannot simply ignore the constitution at will, doing whatever he wants," said federal deputy Joênia Wapichana, president of the Parliamentary Front in Defense of Indigenous Rights.

The courts were also not pleased by Bolsonaro's move. On June 24th Luiz Roberto Barroso, a judge in Brazil's Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF), suspended the second presidential decree (MP 886), returning authority for the demarcation of Indigenous land to FUNAI, and ruling Bolsonaro's measure unconstitutional: "The transfer of the authority for the demarcation of Indigenous land was rejected by the legislative. As a result, this issue cannot be reopened by a new presidential decree." He added: "Moreover, the lack of definition over who will demarcate Indigenous land has been dragging on for six months, and this infringes the right of the Indigenous people, enshrined in the constitution, to have the lands they occupy demarcated."

Emboldened by Barroso's ruling, Davi Alcolumbre, the president of Congress, announced on June 25th that he is removing the section of MP 886/2019 that hands back Indigenous demarcation to the agriculture ministry. This means that the decree will not contain this section when it is analyzed for possible approval by the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate. It also means that Bolsonaro has now been defeated in the courts and in Congress.

Still, the conflict has not ended: Barroso's ruling is provisional and requires the backing of the full STF. Both Barroso and the attorney general have called for an urgent plenary session of the entire STF. If the court backs Barroso, Bolsonaro will have to accept the decision taken by the court of last resort as final, or provoke a major constitutional (and political) crisis by overruling the judiciary.

The administration's conflicts with Indigenous groups doesn't end there. Shortly after Bolsonaro issued his second decree, ally and rightist Luiz Antônio Nabham Garcia, who heads the Secretariat for Land Affairs at the Agriculture Ministry, confirmed that he would not demarcate any more Indigenous reserves, despite the requirement to do so under the 1988 Constitution. Nabham contended, without evidence, that most Indigenous people have little interest in safeguarding ancestral lands, but want to increase agricultural production and be integrated into Brazilian society.

In another move that stirred up more dissension, the Brazilian press reports that Nabham, although he denies it, put pressure on Bolsonaro earlier in June to sack the president of FUNAI, General Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas. Observers note that there was clearly no love lost between the two: While Nabham claims that Franklimberg is "incompetent," Franklimberg accuses Nabham of "salivating hatred of the Indians." Franklimberg has since been fired, and as yet no replacement has been chosen.

Angering Europe

Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, currently shows no sign of restraining his strident rhetoric and attempts to conduct policy by fiat in one of the world's largest functioning democracies—not only angering the Congress and the courts, but also confronting one of his most important trading partners.

On May 17th, Brazil's environment minister, Ricardo Salles, unilaterally announced an overhaul of the administrative rules for the Amazon Fund—a pool of roughly $87 million provided to Brazil annually by developed nations, especially Norway and Germany, for a variety of programs curbing deforestation. Salles claimed, without offering evidence, to have found irregularities in $1.2 billion in spending over past years by the NGOs, whose deforestation and sustainability projects are monetized by the Fund. He also said that European funders had agreed that changes in the fund's administrative structure are required, eliminating the NGOs.

However, this version of reality is denied by the European nations.

On June 5th the Norwegian and German embassies sent a letter to Salles saying that they had not uncovered any indication of irregularities in the Amazon Fund, and did not favor any alteration in COFA, the committee that administers it. The letter also stated that "Brazilian experience shows that governments alone cannot reduce deforestation" and that efforts to curb deforestation demand "a joint effort between public authorities, companies, NGOs, and local communities."

In the letter, Germany and Norway, which contribute 99 percent of the money going to the Fund, politely rejected a request from Salles, expressed in an earlier letter, that COFA be restructured to give a greater say to the Brazilian government, that money should no longer go to NGOs and other civil bodies, but be used to compensate property owners for land confiscated to reduce deforestation.

Potential for Amazon Conflict Heats Up

It now appears, as critics warned, that Bolsonaro's strongly worded anti-Indigenous rhetoric and pro-agribusiness stance could be catalyzing an intensification in rural confrontations.

In just one example, FUNAI staff have made a formal complaint to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), independent public litigators, against Valmir Climaco, the mayor of Itaituba in Pará state. On May 7th, Climaco instructed local inhabitants at a city hall meeting to receive FUNAI staff "with bullets" when they attempt to demarcate Indigenous land.

Also, on June 11th, the Pará government rushed a bill through its state assembly to speed up the process of issuing land titles to private individuals who have occupied public land. Bruno Kono, president of ITERPA, Pará's land institute, said the state would be fast tracking the evaluation and processing of about 30,000 land title requests, a backlog that was "creating a problem for the development of productive [agricultural] activities." The bill will likely be signed into law by Pará state governor Helder Barbalho.

Socioenvironmental NGOs reacted with alarm. Brenda Brito, a researcher with the not-for-profit organization IMAZON, said that the legislation could easily be manipulated by land thieves: "The bill will facilitate what we call 'speculative land theft.' A person who invades public land with the idea of later selling it at a profit, will benefit, causing endless problems." Particularly vulnerable could be traditional communities, many of which have occupied land for decades but never managed to secure a land title. Under cover of the new state law, traditional communities may find that land thieves have taken out titles to the land they are inhabiting—turning them with a flourish of the pen from land owners into land invaders, leading to eviction.

The MPF has backed a call for Barbalho to send the bill back to the state legislature and for it to be properly debated with civil society. In an unusual move, the influential Folha de S. Paulo newspaper has expressed strong criticism of Barbalho's bill, publishing an editorial on June 25th in which it stated: "The present law determines that requests from individuals for land titles on public land will only be granted if they live permanently on the land and don't own other properties. These conditions have been excluded from Barbalho's bill, which only requires individuals to state their intention to carry out agriculture on the land." This, it said, "may favor land thieves, rewarding those who occupy and fell forest illegally."

All these recent events warn of more conflicts ahead, as the Bolsonaro administration and the ruralists vigorously push their agenda forward, while fierce resistance builds in Indigenous and traditional settlements, among environmentalists and scientists, and with the international community. Unless something shifts soon, Brazil may well be heading for a period of even greater political and economic turbulence.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.