Global Politics

Brazil's Bolsonaro wants to mine on Indigenous lands — illegally

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Amazon rainforest

Since the Brazilian constitution was rewritten in 1988, Indigenous tribes in the Amazon have been able to reject development. But Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has other ideas.

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Amauri Aguiar/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Brazil, Native tribes have a constitutional right to reject any development on their territory. But the country’s new President Jair Bolsonaro has announced a controversial plan to allow mining on Indigenous land without their consent.

Prior to the 1950s, the interior of the Brazilian Amazon was occupied solely by the Indigenous tribes who have lived there for millennia. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the Brazilian government began a program to encourage people to settle the Amazon and make it commercially productive. The government built a new capital city, Brasilia, at the edge of the rainforest and began exploiting the land, with little thought for the Indigenous tribes living there.

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Then, in 1988, following the collapse of the military dictatorship, a new constitution was written that, for the first time, gave Indigenous tribes legal ownership of their land and the constitutional right to reject any development on their territory. Bolsonaro wants to reverse those rights.

Sue Branford, who writes about the Amazon for Mongabay, says no one is quite clear how he will do this since the constitution clearly says Indigenous people have an “inalienable right” to veto projects on their land.

“It's more likely that Bolsonaro will decide on a presidential decree, which will at least allow him some time to overrule the constitution. He has a big majority in Congress, and the agriculture and mining lobbies in Congress are very strong, so I don't actually think he will have any real long-term problem.”

Sue Branford, journalist, Mongabay

“It will probably be quite difficult for [him] to take the correct route, which is a constitutional amendment that would have to go through Congress,” Branford said. “It's more likely that Bolsonaro will decide on a presidential decree, which will at least allow him some time to overrule the constitution. He has a big majority in Congress, and the agriculture and mining lobbies in Congress are very strong, so I don't actually think he will have any real long-term problem.”

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The Amazon contains vast mineral wealth, Branford says. It has large gold reserves — probably the largest in the world — as well as silver and bauxite. Bolsonaro believes Brazil should exploit this wealth, rather than have it sit unused because “a handful of Indians” want to conserve it, a phrase Bolsonaro has used to describe Indigenous peoples of the Amazon. 

This is widely seen in Brazil as a backward way of thinking, Branford notes. “Particularly now, when we're getting more and more concerned about global warming, there is a growing number of Brazilians who feel that the Amazon forest should be conserved; that if Brazil goes on cutting down the forest, [the country] is going to reach a turning point.”

Scientists have, in fact, warned for many years that when roughly 25% of the forest is felled, the loss will spark a process by which the rich, tropical forest will begin to transform into a savannah. As of now, about nearly 22% of the forest is gone.

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Past experience has taught Indigenous tribes some hard lessons. Once a road is built into the forest to service a mine, for example, other roads begin to branch off it, which inflicts further harm on the ecosystem. In addition, population influx becomes difficult to control once roads have been established.

“[The government] promised that they would control the influx of population, that there would be none of these lateral roads built off the main highway. They made a series of projections about what they thought the environmental damage would be. Ten years later, the damage was off the scale. It was much worse than their worst projection at the time.”

Sue Branford, journalist, Mongabay

“I remember when they were building the BR-163 Highway, which went from Cuiabá to Santarém, a port on the Amazon,” Branford said. “They promised that they would control the influx of population, that there would be none of these lateral roads built off the main highway. They made a series of projections about what they thought the environmental damage would be. Ten years later, the damage was off the scale. It was much worse than their worst projection at the time.”

To make matters worse, Branford adds, Bolsonaro has dismantled FUNAI, the government agency tasked with mapping and protecting indigenous lands, and is in the process of dismantling IBAMA, the environmental agency, Branford explains.

“Loggers and small-time miners can move into Indigenous land and [they] are very much on their own,” she said. “There are really no institutional forces they can turn to to have these invaders evicted from their lands. So, there's been a considerable increase of violence in these areas now.”

Bolsonaro’s plan will still have to go through the courts where it could encounter surprising resistance, Branford says.

“The general prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, who is the most powerful prosecutor in the country, is saying, ‘Hang on, Bolsonaro, we're going to fight this in the courts. We’re not going to let you ride roughshod over our constitution.’”

Sue Branford, journalist, Mongabay

“[T]he judicial system in Brazil, which is widely regarded as reactionary and conservative, is actually now [at] the forefront in organizing opposition to Bolsonaro,” Branford said. “The general prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, who is the most powerful prosecutor in the country, is saying, ‘Hang on, Bolsonaro, we're going to fight this in the courts. We’re not going to let you ride roughshod over our constitution.’”

Bolsonaro also faces pushback from the Federal Public Ministry, an independent group of lawyers within the government that is not part of the official judiciary. It has announced its support for the Indigenous people of the Amazon and says it will do everything it can to stop mining on their lands.

“So, we will see opposition and it will come, rather surprisingly, I think, mainly from the judicial system, who is not at all intimidated by Bolsonaro,” Branford said.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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