Since his inauguration earlier this year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to make headlines with controversial policy reforms. After loosening protection of Indigenous and conservation lands, the BBC reports deforestation in the Amazon is accelerating with an area the size of one soccer field being cleared every minute.
While human rights and environmental groups criticize these moves, members of the parliamentary group Frente Parlamentar da Agropecuária (Parliamentary Agricultural and Livestock Front) see an opportunity for economic development. Known as the bancada ruralista, or the rural caucus, this group of lawmakers represents agri-businesses which prioritize land ownership over conservation areas and environmental regulations. The Brazilian Report notes the group currently has one of the strongest congressional voting blocs, representing about half of the house seats and a third of the senate.
Before his presidency, the New York Times claims Bolsonaro often voted in favor of the conservative agenda of the rural caucus, gathering support leading up to his election. Aligning with caucus plans to reorganize the government, Bolsonaro initially pledged to merge the Ministry of Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture. After taking office, Bolsonaro instead supported the caucus by filling his cabinet with agri-business representatives. According to multiple sources, this included former president of the congressional rural caucus Tereza Cristina Dias as new Minister of Agriculture, rural caucus member Valdir Colatto as Chief of Brazil’s Forest Service, and former legal director of the Brazilian Rural Society Ricardo Salles as the new Minister of Environment.
With support in place, Bolsonaro took only one day to sign Medida Provisória 870 on January 2, 2019. The executive order shifted the capacity to create and regulate Indigenous areas from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to the Ministry of Agriculture. Although the FUNAI held the position for the past 50 years, Reuters reports the new legislation allows the Bolsonaro government to more easily cut existing Indigenous land.
Bolsonaro sees little use for the 436 territories formally designated as autonomous Indigenous lands, claiming “all those reserves stymie our development.” To boost the Brazilian economy, Bolsonaro believes opening formerly protected land to agriculture will increase commercial farming for high-demand products like cattle and soy.
In 2017, federal and state government held approximately 37 percent of Brazil’s territory under protection for both Indigenous groups and environmental conservation, according to the Brazilian research corporation Embrapa. As approximately half of these areas are within the Amazon, Bolsonaro’s reforms pose serious threats to the vulnerable region. Already subject to serious deforestation, the Amazon faced the highest record of illegal deforestation for a single month in May 2019, a 34 percent increase since last year, writes the environmental news platform Mongabay.
For the past 25 years, the Kayapo Project has been working on the ground in the southeastern Amazon—supporting the Kayapo Indigenous people in protecting their 11 million hectares of land. By empowering the Kayapo to manage their own local NGOs and economic operations, the project helps to “support sustainable economic development based on non-timber forest products,” Program Director Barbara Zimmerman tells Food Tank. For example, this involves managing and harvesting food items such as brazil and cumaru nuts, as well as territorial monitoring.
Losing protected land to agri-business could have potentially disastrous impacts. “The Kayapo, as every other Indigenous group in Brazil, would lose their land and, therefore, the basis of their culture and livelihood,” says Zimmerman. “They would become landless poor in Brazil and simply fade into the hopeless uneducated masses of the poor.”
Outcry from the scientific community, previous ministers, and non-governmental organizations is growing. However, Bolsonaro pledged to distance Brazil from the influence of NGOs and therefore gave the government secretary restrictive powers over NGOs. The Guardian reports that Bolsonaro further allowed Environment Minister Salles to suspend all contracts with NGOs for three months and began cutting funding to NGOs.
Although Barbara Zimmerman says there are “no explicit risks to the Kayapo Project yet,” she fears for the future of the project. As a worst-case scenario, Zimmerman points to the government’s current overhaul to the well-known Amazon Fund which relies on both national and international funding—mainly by Norway and Germany.
However, resistance to these reforms is emerging. In April, thousands of Indigenous people marched in Brazil’s capital Brasilia, to protest the increased land grabs and violence of the recent reforms. Zimmerman tells FoodTank about the role the Kayapo played: “the Kayapo are considered to be key participants in Indigenous protests in the capital because they always put on a great show,” says Zimmerman. “They have particularly powerful and organized forms of collective dancing and singing—plus they are strong in the face of threat.”
The visibility of the protest was significant, Zimmerman explains. “[It] drew attention to the diabolical plan of the government to drive Indigenous cultures to extinction and destroy the nature on their lands.”
Though the march set a strong precedent, stakeholders across the globe must join, says Zimmerman. “The most effective measure that could be taken … is to boycott Brazilian agricultural products—especially soy and beef—until the government returns to a policy of environmental protection and Indigenous rights.”
According to Zimmerman, beef and soy—two main Brazilian exports —could be the Achilles heel of the current government. “The only thing that might make this government listen is threats to their exports,” says Zimmerman, “Because those are the people that are driving this; the ruralistas, the big landowners, the big agro guys… they’re really behind this government”.
Zimmerman is not alone. Recently published in the journal Science, an open letter included over 600 scientists from the European Union (EU) and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups proposing stricter standards for Brazilian imports to the EU. However, the BBC reports the recent trade deal between the EU and the South American economic bloc Mercosur (consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay) is doing the opposite.
“It’s a really serious situation for the world.. with extremely dire consequences for everybody,” says Zimmerman, “I don’t even know how much worse things could get… We continue to fight on, and we will, and the Kayapo will.”
Photos courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier.