Indigenous People Fight for Their Rights


RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb (IPS) – Land conflicts involving indigenous people have multiplied in Brazil over the last few months, generating greater tension and showing once again that the country’s roughly 400,000 indigenous people still have a long way to go to win respect for their rights.

Hundreds of Tupinambá and Pataxó Indians occupied eight plots of land last week in Itajú de Colonia, in the southern part of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahía, in an attempt to recover property that they claim as their own, but which was rewarded to landowners in judicial decisions.

The indigenous people, who complained that they had been the victims of attacks, threatened to destroy power lines in their bid to reclaim their land.

Slightly farther to the south, in the state of Espíritu Santo, around a dozen Indians were injured two weeks ago in a police operation that destroyed two villages on land that is the focus of a legal dispute with the Aracruz cellulose company.

Similar incidents have been seen in states ranging from the northernmost stretches of Brazil’s Amazon jungle region to the southern state of Santa Catarina, where eight members of the Kaingang indigenous community were thrown into jail in December, accused of property invasion and aggression on a rural estate.

Compounding the problems over land disputes are reports of negligent medical care on the part of the governmental National Health Foundation, which according to the Catholic Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) has already led to the deaths of 10 children this year in the central state of Tocantins.

The vice-president of CIMI, Saulo Feitosa, told IPS that 39 indigenous people were murdered last year in Brazil by the police or landowners’ hired gunmen, or in fights among indigenous people arising from their “being confined in small territories.”

According to the group, a total of 241 members of indigenous communities have been murdered in the past 10 years.

CIMI also documented 136 deaths due to lack of medical attention, 44 due to child malnutrition, and 29 suicides in 2005.

The proliferation throughout the country of land conflicts involving indigenous people is a result of the government’s slow place in demarcating indigenous reserves and ensuring their protection, said Feitosa.

He pointed to cases like the Raposa Serra del Sol reserve in the northern state of Roraima, where the demarcation process has been completed, but non-indigenous illegal occupants have not yet been removed from the territory, which has led to the persistence of legal disputes and physical attacks.

Efforts by the government of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to demarcate the pending areas are moving very slowly, at a rate of only six reserves a year, Feitosa complained.

At this pace, he said, it will take 45 years to demarcate all of the indigenous reserves, even though the president had promised to complete the entire process by the end of his term, in December 2006.

Reflecting the deterioration of relations between indigenous people and the government, five anthropologists resigned from their jobs in the National Foundation for Indigenous People (FUNAI), the government agency in charge of indigenous policies, on Tuesday. They formed part of a 14-member council of advisers.

In their letter of resignation, the anthropologists criticised the “outdated concepts” that orient FUNAI’s actions, such as classifying indigenous groups as “uncultured” or “in the process of integration,” or seeing their “absolutely legitimate grievances” as impertinent.

Indigenous people in this country of 185 million have organised in the last three decades, and have increasingly become a “political force,” said Rubem de Almeida, one of the five anthropologists.

They have developed “specific strategies of struggle against incredibly strong forces,” like landowners, many of whom are members of state or national parliaments, or large companies and corporations, he told IPS.

With the weakening of the state, it has become more and more difficult to resolve land issues, as observed in the rise in deforestation in the Amazon jungle and the growth of the movement of landless rural workers, he added.

That weakening was felt to an even greater degree in FUNAI, which in the past had policing powers, its own health services, and backing from the military, said the anthropologist.

But while there are difficulties on the agrarian reform front, efforts at “ethnodevelopment”, encompassing assistance in education, agriculture and health tailored to indigenous groups in clearly demarcated reserves, can produce good results, said de Almeida.

He pointed to his experience with Guaraní Indians in Dourados, in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where indigenous children died of malnutrition last year.

In that case, a committee made up of representatives of eight government ministries has been successful in bringing about improvements, and in extending the benefits to neighbouring areas as well.

The government programmes involving the Guaraní, in which de Almeida has acted as an adviser, have shown that “it is possible to transform the reality of indigenous communities with few resources,” he said.

But the anthropologist stressed that indigenous people cannot simply wait for mainstream society to become aware of their rights. Solutions, he said, will only come from their own initiative to change their relations with the rest of society.

The five anthropologists resigned in the midst of an outcry by indigenous organisations and indigenous rights groups over statements by FUNAI president Mercio Pereira Gomes, who said the judicial system should set limits to the territorial demands of indigenous groups, who in his view already have too much land.

Major indigenous demonstrations are scheduled for April, to coincide with FUNAI’s National Conference for Indigenous Peoples.

 

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