Q&A FUNAI: “The rhetoric alone is enough to have a negative impact”


The president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has been no stranger to controversy when it comes to Brazil’s indigenous peoples. 

His claims that activism among indigenous people and quilombola – communities made up of descendants of runaway slaves – makes agribusiness in the country unviable seems to be fomenting animosity towards these communities. Bolsonaro has pledged that “there is not going to be one centimetre more of land demarcated for indigenous reservations or quilombolas”.

More than that, he has also pledged to open indigenous lands for business. Businesses, congressmen and even some indigenous leaders are mobilising to present legislative proposals to make it easier to exploit indigenous lands, which is currently constrained, though not banned, by the Constitution and a lack of proper regulation.

Bolsonaro has tried to sell his vision of economic development for indigenous peoples to the communities themselves. “Many want to confine you to reservations, as if you belonged to a zoo,” he has said. “You don’t deserve this. You are Brazilians and have every right to exploit your lands.” For Bolsonaro, the conservation of indigenous lands is not justified: “They cannot continue to be preserved for the benefit of who knows who.”

Conservationist and indigenous leaders are not amused. Speaking to Folha de Sao Paulo, Valéria Paye, coordinator at Apib, an association of indigenous peoples, called Bolsonaro’s rhetoric “perverse” and said “it would be something else if we were talking about indigenous autonomy not in the sense of the capitalist use of their lands, but in terms of valuing what is already produced by them.”

At the frontline of this struggle is Funai, the federal agency responsible for advancing indigenous rights, especially the right to land. A senior member of staff at Funai agreed to talk to Earthsight on condition of anonymity. The views expressed below suggest a mixture of apprehension and dismay about the new administration, but also a degree of hope in the country’s political and legal institutions.

Earthsight (ES): What impact could the Bolsonaro presidency have on indigenous communities in Brazil?

Funai: Initially, there can be an attempt to move Funai from the Ministry of Justice to another ministry. That would have an immediate and negative impact. Why? Because that could give indigenous policy an economic focus. During this transition period they are working to make indigenous lands economically viable, to remove the concept of protected area and transform it into a concept of an economically active area.

The new government wants indigenous peoples to be able to lease or sell their lands for economic activity, for example mining and hydroelectric projects, from which they could receive royalties. These changes could mean fewer rights for indigenous peoples and some instability in indigenous policies.

It would be better for us if Funai remained under the Ministry of Justice. The new Justice Minister will be Sérgio Moro. That could be good news because he has a good environmental record. His mother is involved with environmental issues. He will not be willing to stain his reputation and that of his family by being involved with policies that weaken indigenous and environmental protections.

ES: What could be the new administration’s impact on levels of agribusiness-led deforestation in indigenous lands?

Funai: Deforestation has been increasing in the last few years, both outside and inside indigenous lands. New policies by the new government could worsen that further. Indigenous lands are even more protected than conservation units. To change the scope of these areas to an economic focus would change this concept and deforestation levels would tend to rise.

But that will depend on how much political capital the new government is willing to invest in these questions, at least initially. The new government was elected based on a number of promises regarding the economy, public security, social security. 

The question is: what priority would the new government give to environmental issues? Up to what point would the government be willing to burn political capital on these issues, considering they will invest considerable political capital in other issues about the economy, public security…? That could be an advantage for environmental protection, at least initially. The government is probably going to prioritise the economy and public security.

But the rhetoric alone is enough to have a negative impact. There are already real consequences. My theory is that the lowest environmental pressure happened around [President Luis Inácio] Lula’s second term in office. 

That was due to economic growth and to favourable international economic conditions for Brazil. The country could export a lot and agribusinesses and the government did not see the need for unabated deforestation. So deforestation levels could depend to a large extent on economic conditions during the next government. If they are favourable, there could be lower pressures for illegal deforestation.

ES: What could be the future of Funai under the new government, especially in terms of a possible weakening of the organisation?

Funai: Funai has already been considerably weakened. To weaken it further they will have to scrap the organisation. Funai does not have enough resources to do its work in an adequate way. But there is still no talk about ending Funai. That would be a very uncomfortable fight for any government.

ES: What would be the impact of the new government on the demarcation of new reservations, especially considering Bolsonaro has already stated he will not demarcate one single centimetre of new indigenous lands?

Funai: The rhetoric lacks substance. In practice, it is a lot more complicated than that. Funai is the competent body to analyse whether a demand for indigenous land is relevant and to determine the appropriate area. Other stages in this process are carried out by different organs, but they are all within the Executive. Funai has influence over all this process because it belongs to the Executive power. This is what they want to change, to move this to the legislative branch. This would require a change in the Constitution. 

We circle back to the point I referred to earlier, about the new government’s priorities and how much political capital it would be willing to invest in these issues. It would require an enormous effort and immense political capital for a Constitutional change regarding indigenous lands, considering this government has a number of other priorities. 

The new government has an agenda that includes dozens of topics. It is not clear if the indigenous issue is a priority. No government has enough political capital to do everything it wants to do. Even if the President wants to change the Constitution, it does not mean he will be able to do it.

ES: What can civil society and the international community do to support Funai and indigenous peoples in Brazil?

Funai: They can highlight the problems with the current discourse. The rhetoric is detrimental to indigenous and environmental policies. The press, for example, can bring attention to the fact that things are not that simple. Most people do not know the complexities behind these issues. The press can help society understand that the rhetoric is flawed. It would be important to disqualify the discourse coming from the new government.

Other tasks would be to show support [to indigenous communities], investigate, do whatever possible to constrain the new government’s attempts to weaken environmental and indigenous protections. That can generate a backlash against the government’s mistaken policies, it can set limits.

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