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Brazil's "genocide decree." (Pres. Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Decree 1775 which allows non-indigenous claims against many indigenous areas)(Environmental Intelligence)

Violent incursions into areas claimed by Brazil's indigenous peoples have reached a new high, according to the Indianist Missionary Council (CIMI), a human rights monitoring group made up of Catholic missionaries. In a June 5 report, CIMI cited attacks in the states of Roraima, Amazonas, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Para as evidence for an upward trend in the violence against indigenous people. CIMI says the violence was fomented by Decree 1775, an executive order issued in January by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The order, which allowed for non-indigenous claims against many indigenous areas, was dubbed the "genocide decree" by indigenous leaders because they believe it undermined the land rights essential for the survival of their cultures.

Most of Brazil's indigenous areas lie within tracts of largely intact rainforest, which contain valuable timber and minerals. Indigenous claims amount to 94 million hectares (232 million acres) - about 17.5 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, or 11 percent of the country's territory as a whole. The government had agreed that by 1993, all indigenous land would be formally "registered" - the final step in a lengthy process known as demarcation, through which the claims are validated. But by the beginning of this year, only about 45 million hectares had been officially recognized as indigenous. Decree 1775 allowed state governments and businesses to contest the jurisdiction of the remaining 49 million hectares. By the decree's April 8 filing deadline, over 530 parties had challenges pending with the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).

The decree's author, Justice Minister Nelson Jobim, argued that the measure was actually working in favor of indigenous peoples. According to Jobim, Brazil's previous demarcation policy, which dates from 1991, was flawed because it did not give competing interests the "right to contest" - a right guaranteed by the country's constitution. By permitting new challenges, he said, the decree protected indigenous areas from being declared unconstitutional.

But many of Brazil's legal experts, including a former Attorney General, find that argument specious. Jobim's critics say that legal channels for contesting boundaries have always existed, and they point out that in 1993, the country's Supreme Court rejected the premise that the previous demarcation policy was unconstitutional. Jobim's opponents have filed two lawsuits alleging that Decree 1775 is itself illegal because it contravenes 'the constitution's provision that "Indians shall have their original rights to the lands they traditionally occupy." One suit is pending before the Supreme Court; the other is before the Federal Court of Brasilia.

It was the rise in violence, rather than constitutional law, that preoccupied many of the native people. In an Indian reserve in Para, for instance, 77 indigenous people and three FUNAI officials were kidnapped, according to Linda Rabben, an anthropologist affiliated with the human rights group Amnesty International. Rabben mentioned the case in a briefing before the Human Rights Caucus of the U.S. Congress in June. Although it is usually impossible to establish a definite connection between the decree and any particular act of violence, such incidents seem to be fueled in part by a common misinterpretation of what the ruling says. Many loggers and miners view the decree as a license to invade indigenous land, and Amnesty reported cases in which trespassers actually cited the decree as a justification for their presence.

Many of Brazil's native cultures are already badly scarred by such encounters. The Yanomami, for instance, were decimated by malaria and tuberculosis when the Amazonian gold rush of the late 1970s broke their isolation. Since 1987, when the gold rush resumed, the Yanomami population has dropped by a quarter. In June of this year, Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa reported that about 3,000 new invaders had built 35 runways in Yanomami territory, for air delivery of mining supplies such as mercury. (Mercury can contaminate water and bioaccumulate in fish; people who consume the fish may suffer nerve damage.) The mining also releases tons of sediment, which interferes with fish breeding and silts up the reservoirs of hydroelectric dams.

Other indigenous peoples are dying not from disease, but from the loss of their cultures. The Guarani and Kaiowa, for instance, have been dispossessed of their traditional forest, and now cluster on remnants of land too small to allow even subsistence farming. Many support themselves by working in low-paying jobs in the nearby city of Dourados. According to FUNAI records, the community of 26,000 is suffering an epidemic of suicides. Between 1992 and 1996, 126 people took their own lives - a six-fold increase in the suicide rate.

Despite the tension that Decree 1775 seemed to unleash, its legacy is unclear. On June 10, FUNAI rejected nearly all the challenges made under the decree, after finding that no claimant had proven that an area in question was not indigenous land. A month later, Justice Minister Jobim upheld the bulk of FUNAI's rejections, thereby reaffirming indigenous land rights in most instances. But Jobim returned eight cases to FUNAI for review, a decision sharply criticized by an umbrella group of Brazil's indigenous peoples and organizations.

Whatever becomes of those eight cases, the underlying politics will remain unresolved. Decree 1775 was widely perceived as a concession to congressmen from the northern Amazonian states, whose votes are crucial for passing President Cardoso's political and economic reforms. Parties dissatisfied with their treatment under the decree are likely to bring new cases to court, and new invasions will probably continue to occur until the government finishes demarcating indigenous areas and begins to prosecute illegal activity on them. Jobim, meanwhile, is reported to be considering a move from the Justice Ministry to a post on the Supreme Court, where his judicial authority would presumably lend weight to his views on indigenous land claims.

Yet the controversy has also reaffirmed the alliances that Brazil's native peoples have built with nations far beyond their forests. Shortly after the decree was announced, the European Parliament censured Brazil, and some U.S. members of congress drafted a critical letter to the World Bank, one of the country's most important creditors. Pressure on Brazil's government to meet its own high standards may continue to be an effective means of protecting the country's indigenous peoples.

For more information on the indigenous situation in Brazil, contact:

Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Program, 450 Sansome Street, Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94111,, (415) 398-4404.

Amanaka'a Amazon Network, 548 Broadway, Room 904, New York, NY 10012, (212) 925-5299.

Brazilian government documents on indigenous issues are available on the homepage of Brazil's embassy in the United States: http://www.brasil.emb.nw.dc.usl.
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Author:O'Meara, Molly
Publication:World Watch
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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