Following his inauguration on Jan. 1, the new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro assigned the task of certifying indigenous lands as protected areas to the Ministry of Agriculture, which originally fell within the jurisdiction of the National Indian Foundation.
Bolsonaro’s executive order gives the government body responsibility of “identification, delimitation, demarcation and registration of lands traditionally occupied by indigenous people.”
The Ministry of Agriculture has a legislative history of expanding and commercializing previously protected environmental areas. The authority to certify these lands once belonged to the National Indian Foundation, which protects the rights of indigenous communities throughout Brazil.
Bolsonaro justified his executive order in a tweet on Jan. 2. “Fewer than a million people live in those isolated areas of Brazil…and they are exploited and manipulated by nongovernmental organizations,” he stated. “Together we’re going to integrate those citizens and take care of all Brazilians.”
According to CNBC, Brazil has a population of about 900,000 indigenous people. These people make up less than one percent of the country’s population, and live on over 250 million acres of protected land. During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised, “If I become president, there will not be one centimeter more of indigenous land.”
A majority of the indigenous lands now overseen by the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture are located in the eastern section of the Amazon rainforest. Commercialization or appropriation of land would provide resources and boost the country’s economy, but could also lead to negative environmental and sociological effects.
“We don’t want to be wiped out by this government’s actions. Our lands play a vital role in maintaining biodiversity,” the Aruak, Baniwa and Apurinã tribes wrote in a letter addressed to the president. “We are people, human beings, we have blood like you do, Mr. President, we’re born, we grow…and then we die on our sacred land, like any person on Earth. We’re ready for dialogue, but we’re also ready to defend ourselves.”
Survival International—a nonprofit organization that works with tribal people around the world to improve living conditions—is currently advocating for the protection of indigenous lands in Brazil. This organization has worked closely with the Guajajara tribe, which protects what remains of the eastern Amazon rainforest they live in. Some statements have estimated up to 80 members of the Guajajara tribe have been killed since 2000.
“The Bolsonaro government is giving the butcher an opportunity to be more violent with those who, throughout history, were its main victims,” stated Marina Silva, Brazil’s former environmental minister and presidential candidate, in a tweet in response to the executive order.