By Leonardo Benassatto
XINGU INDIGENOUS PARK, Brazil - Brazilian indigenous tribes and rubber tappers joined forces on Wednesday to oppose steps by Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that they say are destroying the Amazon forest they depend on.
Some 450 members of 47 tribes met for a second day to discuss how to resist Bolsonaro’s moves to weaken public agencies that are meant to protect the environment and native land rights. Bolsonaro has said tribes have too much land and he wants to open up the reservations to commercial mining and agriculture to develop the Amazon and lift indigenous people from poverty.
Protected tribal lands have seen increasing invasions by illegal loggers and miners since Bolsonaro became president last year, leading to a rise in deforestation, fires and deadly clashes on several reservations.
Bolsonaro has vowed to integrate Brazil’s roughly 900,000 indigenous people into the broader economy and society, while tapping the mineral riches and commercial farming potential of their 462 reservations.
Environmentalists say such a move will speed up clearing of the Amazon jungle, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, which is considered vital for slowing global climate change.
Kayapó chief Raoni Metuktire, who called the meeting in his village on the Xingu river, called on Brazil’s Congress to block the president’s policies.
“We are here to defend our land and to tell him to stop talking badly about us,” said Raoni, who became a global reference for his environmental campaigning in the 1980s with musician Sting at his side. He said he would never accept mining on his ancestral lands.
Among those attending the meeting was Angela Mendes, daughter of rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist Chico Mendes who was killed by a rancher in 1988 for his efforts to protect the rainforest.
“United we can resist. They have the power of the state, but we have the force of the waters, the flowers and ancestral land,” she said at a news conference.
The existence of non-indigenous extractivist communities that live off rubber tapping and selling the fruits of the forest is being endangered by deforestation, she warned.
Mendes struck an alliance with Sonia Guajajara, head on the APIB umbrella, Brazil’s largest organization of tribes.
“This is a very grave moment in our history. It looks like a war scenario,” Guajajara said, accusing Bolsonaro of serving the interests of Brazil’s powerful agribusiness and farming sectors that have advanced into the Amazon region.
The rise in violence against Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people due to land conflicts with farmers and illegal mining and logging on reservations threaten the tribes’ future, she said.
Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, run by a police officer appointed by Bolsonaro, said the meeting in the Xingu was a “totally private event” that it could not support because it was not “in line” with government policy.
According to a draft seen by O Globo newspaper, legislation drafted by the government would not just open up reservation to mining, but also to oil and gas exploration, the building of new hydroelectric dams and commercial farms with genetically modified crops currently banned by law on tribal lands.
Indigenous communities would be consulted on economic projects, as stipulated in Brazil’s Constitution, but they would not have the power to veto projects decided by the government, O Globo reported on Saturday.
The Bolsonaro government, which declined to comment on the O Globo report, has said it is attending to tribal leaders seeking economic development who are ignored by high-profile indigenous advocates.