Ancestral claims and modern interests
Feb 2nd 2006 | KRUKUTU, SÃO PAULO
From The Economist print edition
Ancestral claims and modern interests
IF YOU crave tranquillity in São Paulo, South America's biggest city, escape to its leafiest neighbourhood, Krukutu. Few cars venture up the rutted track leading to the village, set in a patch of unspoilt/ Mata Atlântica/ (Atlantic rainforest) near a reservoir. The only industry is bead necklaces, animal figurines and other handicrafts fashioned by the 170 or so Guarani Indians who constitute Krukutu's population.
The calm will now be shattered, they fear, by the construction of a ring road intended to draw traffic away from the chaotic city and speed goods to and from Santos, Brazil's biggest port. Although the road will be 8km (5 miles) away from the village, it could draw São Paulo's urban sprawl to Krukutu, levelling forest, worries Olívio Jekupé, president of the village council. To prevent that, he wants the village's land expanded 20-fold, to 500 hectares (1,235 acres).
Tension over the ring road is one of the milder battles between indigenous groups and economic interests that are erupting across Brazil. Successive governments have set aside 12.5% of the national territory for 450,000 Indians, who make up just 0.25% of the total population. Farmers, ranchers and other land users have long grumbled about this. On January 11th Mércio Gomes, the president of Funai, the federal agency dealing with Indian affairs, appeared to side with them. ?It's a lot of land,? he observed in an interview. The Supreme Court ?will have to set a limit.?
This provoked fury among defenders of Indian rights, including Sydney Possuelo, a senior official at Funai and a living legend who spent decades probing the Amazon rainforest for ?uncontacted? tribes. Mr Gomes spoke the language of Indians' enemies, he said. Mr Possuelo was promptly sacked. Funai says that Mr Gomes was misunderstood, and that Mr Possuelo was sacked because his individualist approach was incompatible with new policies for isolated peoples.
The furore will die down, but strife over Indian lands will not. Discarding the traditional notion that Indians should melt into society, Brazil's 1988 constitution recognised their right to reclaim their original lands and to preserve their way of life. More than most countries, Brazil has kept its promise. Partly because their land is more secure, Brazil's Indian population has staged a spectacular recovery in the past 30 years, after centuries of decline.
Yet 98.6% of the land awarded to indigenous peoples is in the sparsely populated Amazon, which is home to only 60% of Indians, notes Márcio Santilli of the Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO. The other 40% are crammed into reserves dotted across the crowded south and north-east (see map). Many are too cramped for hunting and farming and are hemmed in by pushy neighbours. In Krukutu, hardly the most claustrophobic, smallholders have driven away the animals, claims Mr Jekupé.
Hence the land wars. Last month 500 Indians invaded eight farms in the north-eastern state of Bahia, which they claim occupy traditional lands. Federal police injured 12 Indians while uprooting two villages from a eucalyptus forest operated by Aracruz, a paper company. The Conselho Indigenista Missionário, a church-linked group, says 38 Indians were murdered in 2005, a ten-year high.
Half died fighting among themselves, said Mr Gomes. Funai still wants to create more reserves, but the courts are starting to object. Last year the president of the Supreme Court suspended a reserve at Marangatu, in the west, leading to the expulsion of 700 Guaranis. It was only the second time that a court challenged a reserve ratified by the government. A draft law would give the Senate a veto over new reserves, which would doom most claims to ancestral lands. The Guaranis of Krukutu may be luckier. With a neighbouring Indian village they are entitled to 9,000 hectares, according to a report commissioned by Funai. Thanks to the fuss about the ring road, they may get a bit of that.
The Economist, 02/02/2006
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