Indigenous People Occupy Brazil's Congress Over Land Rights Bill

[All links lead to Portuguese language pages, except when otherwise noted.]

Hundreds of indigenous people stormed Brazil's lower-house Chamber of Deputies to protest a bill that would hand over authority on territorial claims to the National Congress, a change that some fear would give the political upperhand to the country's ranchers who often spar with the indigenous over land.

Gathered in the capital Brasília for the country's Indigenous April – an annual event organized to celebrate the Day of the Indigenous Brazilian on April 19 – representatives of nearly 76 different ethnicities had arrived at the Chamber of Deputies in the morning of April 16, 2013 to discuss the controversial proposal with legislators. Tired of waiting by the end of the day, between 300 and 700 native Brazilians confronted security guards and burst into the session.

The group demanded the end of a proposed constitutional amendment that would pass the power of making final decisions about indigenous land demarcation from the executive branch to the legislative branch. The interruption was broadcast live by TV Câmara, the Chamber of Deputies’ channel, and was later widely shared on YouTube:

This was not the first time the proposal triggered protests; demonstrations followed after Proposed Amendment number 215/00 was deemed admissible by the Chamber of Deputies constitution commission in March 2012.

Currently, indigenous land demarcation in Brazil is done through studies conducted by the government agency National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) and established by a presidential decree. If approved, amendment 215, which was proposed by congressman Almir Sá from Roraima state, would do away with FUNAI's autonomy to oversee research on territorial claims and would make it more difficult for land occupied by small farmers be designated as indigenous.

In a video posted by journalist Marcel Frota on YouTube, congressman Ivan Valente, from the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), defined the indigenous protest as a way of guaranteeing “constitutional rights”:

Passando pelo Congresso, onde a bancada ruralista tem maioria parlamentar, nunca mais vai passar por aqui (na Câmara) uma demarcação de terras indígenas ou a criação de alguma unidade de conservação. Então, esse ato de resistência dos indígenas é uma advertência à Câmara dos Deputados e ao Congresso Nacional.

If it [the proposed amendment] is passed by Congress, where the rural lobby [en] have a majority, the demarcation of indigenous land and the creation of conservation units will never again be approved [by the Chamber of Deputies]. Therefore, this act of resistance by indigenous people is a warning to the Chamber of Deputies and to the National Congress.

The ruralista bloc, as those who support the rural lobby are known, to which Valente refers is the Agribusiness Parliamentary Front, formed by congressmen and senators who have connections with agribusiness. In a meeting held in February, the Front representatives had already defined the discussion about the indigenous land demarcation as one of their priorities.

Centenas de índios invadiram o plenário da Câmara dos Deputados e tomaram as cadeiras dos parlamentares. Foto de José Cruz, Agência Brasil (CC BY 3.0)

Hundreds of indigenous people invaded a plenary session of the Chamber of Deputies and took the congressmen's seats. Photo by José Cruz, Agência Brasil (CC BY 3.0)

While the indigenous group occupied the Chamber of Deputies, indigenous representatives held a meeting with the president of the Brazilian Supreme Court, Joaquim Barbosa, to discuss the case of the Raposa Serra do Sol [en] reserve. Though FUNAI identified the area as an Indigenous homeland [en] back in 1993, the land hasn't yet been completely handed over because of a series of disputes and deadly conflict between rice farmers and indigenous people. The Supreme Court as a result toughened the demarcation conditions there in 2009.

Later on, the Office of the Solicitor-General proposed an ordinance that would expend the special conditions to all areas of Brazil, but it has not been implemented. On the day that the indigenous groups occupied the Congress, the Front presented a petition calling for it to be put into effect as soon as possible.

The session was closed after Progressive Party congressman Simão Sessim, who was leading the debate, said there were no conditions to carry on. The indigenous people accepted the negotiation and some of their representatives held a meeting with the president of the Chamber of Deputies seeking an agreement.

The next day, in light of the occupation by the indigenous people, besides granting a six-month hold on the formation of a special commission to discuss the proposed amendment, the Chamber of Deputies announced the creation of a work group related to indigenous matters. The group will be formed by ten congressmen, who have already been decided, and by indigenous representatives.

While the indigenous people were satisfied with the agreement, the ruralistas on the other hand were less than pleased. The bloc's congressmen have promised to step up pressure so that the special commission returns to the Chamber's agenda while still in the first semester.

In other words, this conflict is still far from reaching a conclusion, wrote journalist Elaine Tavares on the Brasil de Fato website:

Brasília 18/04/2013 - Índios fazem manifestação em frente ao Palácio do Planalto. Eles protestam contra a PEC 215, que transfere para o Congresso poder de demarcar terras indígenas. Foto de Valter Campanato para Agência Brasil (CC BY 3.0)

Indigenous people protest in front of government palace in Brasília (18/04/2013). Photo by Valter Campanato, Agência Brasil (CC BY 3.0)

Agora é vigiar porque esse não vai ser um debate fácil. Tanto o governo como os grupos de poder que financiam a maioria dos deputados querem poder dispor das terras indígenas que estão cheias de riqueza. Mas, o fato é que a ação do “abril indígena” conseguiu pelo menos colocar em pauta um tema que já vem caminhando desde anos e não recebe a devida atenção nem pela mídia nem pelos deputados. Foi uma vitória, parcial e temporária, mas ainda assim uma vitória. O que prova por a + b que só a ação direta e organizada faz a vida das gentes avançar. E, para aqueles que estão aí, na luta sempre, a cena do apavoramento dos deputados [no momento que os indígenas entraram no Plenário] deixa muito claro que eles sim, têm medo, embora não tenham prurido de destruir sistematicamente o modo de vida dos povos indígenas. A lição do abril indígena é singela: é preciso fazer com essa gente que não leva em conta os desejos das maiorias voltem a ter medo delas. A luta de classes avança por aqui também…

Now it's time to watch, because this is not going to be an easy debate. The government as well as the power groups that finance most of the congressmen want to have the indigenous land [for themselves], which are rich with natural resources. But the fact is that the “Indigenous April” action was at least able to put in the agenda a topic that has been moving forward for many years and had not yet received due attention by the media or by the congressmen. It was a victory, partial and temporary, but still a victory. Which proves as a + b that only direct and organized action can make people's lives move forward. And for those who are out there, always fighting, watching the scene of terrified congressmen [at the moment the indigenous people entered the plenary session] makes it clear that yes, they are scared, although that hasn't stopped them from systematically destroying the indigenous peoples’ way of living. The lesson learned from “Indigenous April” is simple: It is necessary to work so that the people that don't take the majority's wishes into consideration are scared of them again. Class struggle moves forward here as well…


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