Since coming to power, President Jair Bolsonaro has taken controversial steps to undermine environmental and indigenous protections, an approach that has been compared to that of Brazil’s military dictatorship
Recent deforestation spots in the Brazilian Amazon.
Data published by Imazon, a
Brazilian conservation NGO, reveals a 54 per cent increase in deforestation in
the Amazon in January 2019
compared to the same month last year. Forest loss totalled 108 square
kilometres, the equivalent to around 490 football fields per day.
Deforestation in the Brazilian
Amazon has been higher every
month since August 2018 compared to the same month the year before, except for
246 square kilometres were deforested, a 34 per cent increase compared to
December 2017. In November,
deforestation reached 287 square kilometres, a 406 per cent increase compared to
More than two thirds of the
deforestation registered from November to January took place in the states of
Pará and Mato Grosso, part of the Amazon ‘arc of deforestation’ that has
suffered heavy forest loss in recent decades to cattle ranching, grain crops –
especially soy – logging, mining and infrastructure projects.
These increases follow the
highest levels of Amazon deforestation in a decade recorded between August 2017
and July 2018, when 7,900 square kilometres of native forest were lost mostly to
illegal logging and agricultural expansion.
the blame for these decade-high levels of Amazon forest loss on the
federal government and the agribusiness lobby in congress for adopting measures
to undermine protected areas, starve enforcement agencies of resources and give
amnesty to illegal deforesters.
Members of the Karipuna community at the Karipuna indigenous land in the state of Rondonia.
Brazilian President Jair
Bolsonaro came to power in January after promising the
agribusiness lobby to “get the State off the necks of producers” by scaling
back environmental protections and law enforcement, and halting indigenous land
His rhetoric during and after the
2018 presidential elections has been largely hostile to the protections enjoyed
by indigenous peoples and quilombolas – communities of descendants of runaway
slaves – under Brazil’s Constitution and federal law.
“It’s Bolsonaro’s turn”
Many believe that Bolsonaro’s public
discourse of opening up the Amazon for development and agribusiness has had an
impact on events on the ground. According to Climate
Home News, “Bolsonaro added a powerful permissive voice.”
Invasions of indigenous lands by
land grabbers, loggers, farmers and cattle ranchers have allegedly skyrocketed since
Bolsonaro won the elections.
At least 14 indigenous
reservations in the states of Rondonia, Pará, Maranhao, Mato Grosso do Sul,
Pernambuco and Espírito Santo were reportedly under attack during the first two
months of 2019. FUNAI staff and indigenous leaders have claimed that
the current political climate has led to a “free for all” scramble for land.
An indigenous leader told Reporter
Brasil, an investigative news agency, that invaders “send threatening
letters saying that the era of [former President Luis Inácio] Lula has passed
and now it’s Bolsonaro’s turn.”
According to the same leader, who
asked to remain anonymous, “those who were already bent on [invading indigenous
lands] now feel supported.”
Joênia de Carvalho of the Wapishana
tribe, the first indigenous woman elected to the Brazilian congress,
has told The
Guardian that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has had a negative impact. “People
who covet indigenous lands and have a certain dispute with indigenous lands
start to believe this and start to initiate conflicts,” she said.
Upping the game
To be sure, Bolsonaro’s stated
intentions do not mark a sharp break with recent governmental policy. The power
of the agribusiness lobby in congress – known as the Parliamentary Agricultural
Front (FPA) and which has long opposed what it sees as excessive
environmental protections and demarcation of indigenous reservations – has been
on the rise for several years. Michel Temer, the previous president, allied himself
with the FPA to adopt a number of measures that weakened the
status of protected areas, starved environmental
enforcement agencies of funds, and granted amnesties to
Even before that, in 2012 – the
year when deforestation in the Amazon started regaining momentum after years of
decline – congress, led by the agricultural lobby, approved a new, weaker
Forest Code that reduced the
required level of forest reserves in private properties in the biome from 80 to
50 percent provided that the state where the property is located has set aside
at least 65 percent of its territory for protected areas.
A study recently published
Sustainability has found that these changes could result in a net
decrease in protected areas throughout the Brazilian Amazon, endangering
between 6.5 and 15.4 million hectares.
The new Forest Code also granted
amnesty for illegal deforestation carried out before July 2008. Early last
year, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled this
measure to be constitutional, a decision that dismayed conservationists.
Despite several years of
setbacks, the Bolsonaro presidency threatens to herald new lows for
environmental protection in Brazil since the return to democracy in the 1980s.
The new government has shown a
willingness to adopt measures that previous governments had avoided.
Bolsonaro’s first act as president was to sign Provisional Measure (MP)
870/2019, granting the Ministry of Agriculture the power to demarcate new
indigenous reservations, a mandate previously belonging to FUNAI – the
indigenous affairs agency – and the Ministry of Justice. He also gave the
Ministry of Agriculture, now headed by former FPA leader Tereza Cristina, the
responsibility for environmental licensing for projects within indigenous and
Deforestation at the Awá Indigenous Reservation in the state of Maranhao.
FUNAI has been moved from the
Ministry of Justice to the newly-created Ministry of Women, Family and Human
Rights Issues. These decisions have been interpreted as an attempt to dismantle
FUNAI. According to Instituto
Socioambiental, a conservation NGO, the measures have “emptied and
shredded” the agency, which for decades has held the responsibility to protect
indigenous rights and the integrity of their lands.
With Tereza Cristina, a prominent
member of the agribusiness lobby, at the head of the Ministry of Agriculture
and in charge of land demarcations, indigenous communities are bracing for even
harder times ahead. A recent report by
the Indigenous Missionary Council, part of the Catholic Church, includes
Cristina in a list of 50 parliamentarians with a clear anti-indigenous rights
Legalising the exploitation of indigenous lands
Unsatisfied with this initial
overhaul of indigenous policy, the federal government wants to go further.
Bolsonaro, Cristina and the FPA are pushing to legalise large-scale agriculture
in indigenous reservations, currently banned by the Constitution. Bolsonaro
is expected to
issue a presidential decree to permit agribusinesses to lease land within
indigenous reservations, bypassing debate in congress and with affected communities.
In February the First National
Meeting of Indigenous Farmers took place, attended by
Tereza Cristina and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles.
Salles, an atypical environment
minister handpicked by Bolsonaro, and Cristina have promoted the
idea that indigenous communities should be able to cultivate genetically
modified soy (federal law prohibits the planting of genetically modified
organisms within indigenous reservations). Salles and Cristina are seeking
changes to legislation that would allow indigenous people to lease their lands
to agribusinesses for the production of industrial-scale commodity crops.
This would make an existing
problem worse. According to FUNAI,
22 indigenous reservations have already lost 3.1 million hectares of forests to
illegal grain and cattle production.
Cristina has vowed to
put an end to “the misery and manipulation of indigenous peoples” and said that
“it is possible to be indigenous, maintain the culture but also produce.”
Indigenous leaders are not
amused. “Indigenous peoples reject the model of [agribusiness commodities]
monoculture, which is not compatible with our reality and our way of life,”
Dinaman Tuxá, coordinator of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of
Brazil (APIB), told Mongabay.
The Ministry of Agriculture
has attempted to
legitimise its proposals by claiming that Ibama – Brazil’s environmental
enforcement agency – and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office set a precedent when they
authorised large-scale soy, corn and bean production on
18,000 hectares of the Utiariti indigenous reservation in Mato Grosso.
Both Ibama and
a federal prosecutor in
Mato Grosso have strongly denied they ever issued such authorisation or that it
is even within their mandates to do so (Ibama has in fact sanctioned the
indigenous community for allowing large-scale farmers, also fined, to exploit
their lands, which are protected areas and belong to the Union).
Difficult battles ahead
Bolsonaro’s government and the
FPA are clearly not without opposition. Immediately after MP870 was signed, the
Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office said they would
likely take legal action against the measure if they found it represented a
setback to established rights.
In January FUNAI staff issued a
public letter criticising
Bolsonaro’s indigenous policies and vowing to oppose them in every way
possible. In a reference to the Ministry of Agriculture’s new powers, they
condemned the idea of “placing rights in the hands of those who have no
interest in guaranteeing them.”
In late February four federal
public prosecutors published a scathing attack on
Bolsonaro’s measures, which were adopted without consultation with indigenous
peoples, FUNAI or the Ministry of Justice, claiming they violated the
Constitution and the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, and
were reminiscent of practices last seen during Brazil’s military dictatorship.
In early March, Deputy Attorney
General Antônio Bigonha issued a statement arguing
that the Provisional Measure was unconstitutional. Bigonha said the 1988
Constitution clearly separated indigenous policy from agribusiness interests, a
principle that the MP violated.
Prosecutor Marco Antônio Delfino has gone further to say that
Bolsonaro’s policies embody a colonial mentality that seeks to integrate
indigenous peoples with “civilised” society as “slave labour” for Brazil’s
ambitious agricultural expansionism.
And Brazil’s Attorney General
Raquel Dodge has warned the
government that “there can be no backsliding on public policies toward the
The stage is set for difficult
battles ahead, pitting conservationists and indigenous peoples on one hand and
agribusiness interests on the other. With less than three months in office,
Bolsonaro has already started to fulfil his pledge to take a hammer to
indigenous and environmental policies. The question remains as to whether his
administration will consolidate its early gains or be plagued by legal
challenges and widespread opposition.