On his first day in office Jan. 2, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure (Medida Provisório 870) taking away responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from the indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, and handing it over to the Agriculture Ministry. In the same decree, Bolsonaro shifted authority over regularization of quilombos (lands titled to runaway slave descendants) from the agrarian reform institute, INCRA, to the Agriculture Ministry. The measure greatly weakens FUNAI, taking away its most important function. In practice, key areas of indigenous and quilombo policy will now be in the hands of agribusiness advocates—a long-time demand of the Bancada Ruralista (agribusiness bloc) in Congress.
Ruralist backing significantly helped Bolsonaro in gaining office, and these measures had been widely expected after the president-elect chose federal deputy Tereza Cristina as minister of agriculture. Formerly, Cristina was president of the Parliamentary Agriculture Front (FPA), the main ruralist lobby in the federal legislature.
Bolsonaro appears to be carrying out a promise made in his electoral campaign. In August 2018 he said: "If I'm elected, I'll deliver a blow to FUNAI, a blow to the neck. There's no other way. It’s not useful anymore."
If Bolsonaro continues to follow through with his promises, this could be just the beginning of trouble for indigenous communities. Throughout the campaign, he repeatedly pledged that once in office he would reduce in size—or even abolish—particular indigenous reserves.
A favorite Bolsonaro target has been the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous territory in Roraima state, in the very north of Brazil. It's one of the country’s largest reserves, covering 1.7 million hectares (6,500 square miles), and is inhabited by about 20,000 indigenous people, mainly Macuxi.
Farmers, arriving in the southern part of the region in the 1970s and carrying out large-scale rice cultivation there, were fiercely opposed to giving the indigenous such a large territory. The conflict generated considerable violence. Bolsonaro has aggressively taken the side of the farmers, saying back in 2016: "In 2019 we’re going to rip up Raposa Serra do Sol. We're going to give all the farmers guns." Critics see Bolsonaro's repeated pledge to weaken Brazil's gun laws as green-lighting paramilitary activity by agribusiness interests in the Amazon.
Another large indigenous reserve that Bolsonaro has repeatedly targeted is the Yanomami territory, on Brazil's border with Venezuela. It was officially recognized by the government just before Brazil hosted the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Covering 9.4 million hectares (36,290 square miles), it is one of the most important protected areas on the planet, conserving tremendous biodiversity. It is home to about 30,000 Yanomami.
Leila Sotto-Maior, an indigenous land rights advocate who retired from FUNAI in 2018, said Bolsonaro appointed figures to his transition team who seek to isolate the indigenous population onto small conserved forest "islands," taking away their right to a continuous territory. She said: "This type of demarcation would free up areas for exploitation by foreign capital, whether for hydroelectric power or mining, without the measures needing to be approved by the National Congress. These activities will threaten indigenous land in both Raposa Serra do Sol and the Yanomami [territory]."
Bolsonaro, while a federal deputy, was vehemently opposed to the creation of the Yanomami territory back in 1992. He said in 2017: "I fought with Jarbas Passarinho [the then-Justice Minister who signed the decree]. I fought with him because of the crime of high treason he committed in demarcating the Yanomami reserve. It was a criminal act."
There has been much criticism on social media to Bolsonaro's FUNAI/INCRA executive order. The president, dubbed the "Trump of the Tropics," responded via Twitter: "More than 15% of national territory is demarcated as indigenous and quilombola land. Fewer than one million people, exploited and manipulated by NGOs, live in these isolated places, Together, we will integrate these citizens and give value to all Brazilians."
International environmentalists are also alarmed by Bolsonaro's decree. Indigenous communities have long been recognized as being the best guardians of the Amazon rainforest; the undermining of their territorial rights could lead to greatly increased deforestation.
Working with a mathematical model, researchers from Brazil's prestigious National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the body that monitors Amazon deforestation, simulated what could happen if the new president delivers on his Amazon pledges. They calculated that Bolsonaro's policies could lead to a jump in deforestation from present annual levels of 6,900 square kilometers (2,664 square miles) to 25,600 square kilometers (9,884 square miles) by 2020.
In an editorial published in the journal Science Advances, two prestigious scientists, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, warned last year that the Amazon forest may be close to "a threshold beyond which the region’s tropical rainforest may undergo irreversible changes that transform the landscape into degraded savanna with sparse, shrubby plant cover and low biodiversity."
Recent studies are already showing that the Amazon forest, once an important carbon sink, may now be emitting more carbon than it absorbs. If the forest starts to die, much of the carbon currently stored in its biomass could be released to the atmosphere. Scientists have calculated that the Amazon holds one fifth of the planet's biomass. A shift to savanna in the Amazon basin could cause Brazil's carbon emissions to shoot up exponentially.
Scientists warn that Bolsonaro's proposed Amazon policies, if carried out, could ultimately help dash the world's hopes of achieving the global climate goals agreed to in the 2015 Paris accord—a failure that could have devastating global consequences. (Mongabay, Jan. 2)
Photo: Kayapo women in Brazilian Amazon, via FUNAI