MAC: Mines and Communities

Indigenous peoples demand veto right over mining, Brazil

Published by MAC on 2009-05-11
Source: Raymond Collit, Reuters (2009-05-04)

BRASILIA - More than 1,000 native Indians from around Brazil set up camp on Monday in front of Congress to push for land, mining and water rights, demands that could threaten government plans for hydroelectric dams.

The activists, who will camp through Friday, plan to propose a new Indian statute -- a set of laws governing Indian life -- that includes a veto right over mining and control over the use of water on their lands. The government has agreed to send the proposal to Congress as a bill.

Under the plan, Indians would have more administrative autonomy and the right to federally funded bilingual education aimed at preserving their culture. The law would reject resource management by environmental authorities where national parks coincide with Indian reserves.

The government is inclined to support an Indian veto right on mining but not on the use of water because it fears the construction of hydroelectric plants would be threatened, said Saulo Feitoso with the Cimi Indian council.

There are nearly 1 million Indians among Brazil's 190 million people and their lands account for 12 percent of its territory. Some inhabit vast lands in the Amazon rainforest, others are cramped on ghetto-like reserves.

At the camp in downtown Brasilia, tattooed Indian leaders with ornate feathered headdresses railed against politicians they said did not represent them.

"The laws in this land are made not by us but for us. We didn't put those politicians in Congress," said Romancil Kreta of the Kaingang peoples.

The makeshift camp of plastic tarps and sparsely clad Indians in Brasilia contrasts with the capital's modernist government buildings and tie-and-coat civil servants.

Indians from deep in the Amazon jungle wore little more than grass skirts and danced to chants and rattles with a spear in hand. Urban Indians wearing jeans and stylish hairdos gyrated to their MP3 players and clicked digital cameras nonstop.

In recent years Indians have defended their land rights more aggressively and sought more political say but many business leaders see them as an obstacle to economic growth.


The current statute dates back to the height of the 1964-85 military regime, which wanted Indians integrated into society and created the National Indian Foundation, or Funai, to represent them. The statute, which has been criticized as paternalistic, also prohibits the sale of alcohol to Indians.

The new demands coincide with a massive government infrastructure plan called PAC by its Portuguese acronym, which foresees hundreds of hydroelectric plants, roads, railways and gas pipelines. Many of them will impact Indian lands. "The PAC destroys our peoples, the Funai is a funeral home for Indians," said Marcus Apurina of the Amazon Indian confederation Coiab.

Critics say President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former union leader, wants economic development over the protection of the environment and of Indian reserves. "Cattle are worth more than children, sugar cane more than a forest," said Anastacio Peralta of the Guarani Kaiowa people in Mato Grosso do Sul state. "This country was founded to exploit the land -- since then, nothing has changed."

In 2008, 60 Indians were murdered, down from 92 the year before, Cimi, a watchdog linked to the Roman Catholic church, said on Monday. But the number of suicides jumped by six to 34 cases as drugs, unemployment and a lack of living space drive many to utter despair.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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