MAC: Mines and Communities

Brazil: Indigenous rights still denied

Published by MAC on 2008-12-02

Brazil signed up to the International Labor Organisation (ILO)'s Convention 169 in 2004, thus theoretically guaranteeing the right of its Indigenous Peoples' to consultations over use of their territory and resources. However, the government has ignored it over the four years since.

According to Reuters: "Mining, agricultural and timber officials [continue to] say Indians are an obstacle to development."

An ILO ruling this month confirms the necessity for such consultation; but will this be heeded by the Brazilian state - one of only five permament ILO members?

Indians, blacks push for more say in Brazil's agenda


24th November 2008

BRASILIA - Native Indians and communities of slave descendants in Brazil are pushing for a greater say in shaping laws and public works projects, creating a potential minefield for business and government in Latin America's largest economy.

After years of being ignored, the groups' calls for greater power through plebiscites or other means are winning support within the government, Congress and the judiciary.

Rights activists say many hurdles remain but hope that an international ruling on this and a Supreme Court decision on a huge Indian reservation, both due this month, will help their cause.

"Nobody knows how but it's clear we need to consult the Indians," said Sen. Marina Silva, a former environment minister who resigned this year partly due to difficulty she had in slowing plans for big infrastructure projects.

Some of the country's largest projects, from hydroelectric plants to roads, are planned for Indian reserves that make up around 12 percent of Brazil's vast territory.

In 2004, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed into law the International Labor Organization's Convention 169, which recognizes basic rights for native Indians and other tribal peoples, including the right to be consulted on key issues affecting their lives.

But the government never implemented the legislation.

"Nobody asks us when farmers or entrepreneurs chop down our trees," said Pirakuman Yawalapiti, an Indian leader from the Xingu reservation in Mato Grosso state, where the government wants to build a hydroelectric plant.

Unlike other countries in the region, Brazil has never formally consulted its Indians on issues affecting them.

The Indian population dwindled from millions when Europeans began settling Brazil in 1500 to only a few hundred thousand, as many were massacred or died from disease. It has recovered in the last two decades to nearly 1 million.

Remote communities of descendants from runaway slaves, known as Quilombolas, also demand equal consultation rights.

Marcio Meira, head of the government agency for Indian affairs, Funai, said he favored binding plebiscites.

"We should respect a 'no,'" Meira said, when asked whether Indians should have the power to veto the construction of a hydroelectric plant or road.


Activists hope that a ruling this month in favor of such consultations in Brazil by the ILO, of which Brazil is one of only five permanent members, will prompt government action.

"It will be an important moral condemnation," said Biviany Rojas, attorney with the conservation group ISA.

In another important decision, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in coming weeks on the legality of an Indian reservation about the size of Kuwait in Roraima state .

The state governor says the reserve is too big for the about 17,000 Indians inhabiting it. Mining, agricultural and timber officials say Indians are an obstacle to development.

In May, more than 1,000 Indians and environmentalists protested over the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant along the upper Xingu river, which would attract settlers, flood 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) and 16,000 homes, affecting the hunting ground of 10 tribes.

But industry and farming leaders fear that giving Indians and Quilombolas a veto right could paralyze key infrastructure projects and delay economic development.

"It would bring enormous legal uncertainty, condemn huge areas of the country to stagnation," said Leoncio Brito of the National Agriculture Confederation, the biggest farm lobby in the country.

"We can't have a few people hold up progress for many."

Indians and Quilombolas battle farmers, miners, loggers and paper mills in the fields and in court to recover ancestral lands many were forced to leave years ago.

Dozens die in such conflicts each year, according to a Roman Catholic Church land rights watchdog.

Deborah Duprat Pereira, an assistant public prosecutor, said a middle ground would have to found between a veto right and consultation.

"We need to apply common sense. This is all new for a society in transition from hegemony to plurality," Pereira said in reference to the end of 21 years of military rule in 1985.

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