Under assault at home, Indigenous leaders get a violent welcome in Brasília
by Fernanda Wenzel on 24 June 2021
Three Indigenous leaders were reportedly seriously injured after Brazilian police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at protesters in the capital, Brasília
The incident comes as Indigenous groups from across Brazil gather in the capital to protest against violence and invasions that they face on their own lands; the Munduruku people had to have a police escort to travel to Brasília after being attacked by illegal miners in their reserve in Pará state.
The Indigenous protesters are also in the capital to press Congress to halt deliberations of legislation that they call the "bill of death," that would severely undermine Indigenous rights. On the day after the confrontation, it was approved by a congressional commission and will go to a vote in the lower house.
Among other measures, the bill would make it harder to demarcate Indigenous reserves; override Indigenous territorial sovereignty for "public interest" projects; and dismantle the current policy of non-contact with isolated Indigenous people.
It was not easy for Munduruku Indigenous leaders to leave their reserve in Jacareacanga, in northern Pará state, and get to Brazil's federal capital, Brasília, to join a huge protest against ongoing anti-Indigenous measures in the National Congress. And it was not only due to the 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) that separate both cities.
In their first attempt to undertake the journey, on June 10, their bus was reportedly attacked by illegal miners who slashed the vehicle's tires and threatened the driver. "The garimpeiros [illegal miners] knew we were coming to claim for their expulsion from our reserve, so they barred our entourage and threatened us," Ediene Kirixi Munduruku, a female Munduruku leader, told Mongabay in a phone interview.
They finally managed to join more than 800 other Indigenous people from all over the country in Brasília five days later, after the Federal Public Ministry demanded a police escort to protect the convoy. Once in the capital, however, the group faced yet more violence, this time from government security forces.
The confrontation happened on June 22 near the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil's lower house of Congress. That's where a bill that would remove several Indigenous rights, called PL 490, was under deliberation in one of the commissions. The legislative session was suspended due to the confrontation, but was resumed on June 23, when the commission approved the bill. It will now go to a voted before a plenary session of the Chamber of Deputies and, if it passes, to the Senate.
According to APIB, Brazil's largest Indigenous organization, the group was peacefully protesting when it was attacked by both Brasília's Military Police and the Legislative Police. APIB said in a statement three Indigenous protesters suffered serious injuries and were taken to hospital. Ediene Munduruku, who was there with her 4-year-old child, said she had to run to escape from the rubber bullets and stun grenades fired by the authorities. "We are being treated like criminals, but in our reserve the policeman never treats the illegal miners like this," she told Mongabay.
In a statement sent to Mongabay, Brasília's Military Police said the group tried to invade the Chamber and assaulted the police officers, including hitting two of them with arrows. It said this prompted the police's response "without any excess" use of force. The Legislative Police also said in a statement that it did not use violence against the protesters.
The incident marks the latest ordeal faced by Indigenous people in Brazil, who are fending off not just the illegal invasion of their territories by outsiders, but also a political assault through bills seeking to strip them of their rights.
More than 800 Indigenous protesters gathered near the lower house of Congress to denounce bill PL490, which threatens to undermine Indigenous rights. Image courtesy of Leo Otero via Brazil's Indigenous People Articulation (APIB).
According to academics and NGOs, President Jair Bolsonaro's speeches in favor of illegal miners, along with a federal government bill that aims to allow mining inside Indigenous reserves and the rise in the price of gold, encouraged the invasion of Indigenous territories by illegal miners. The problem is far from being limited to the Munduruku. In the Yanomami reserve, in the state of Roraima, an estimated 20,000 illegal miners are encamped inside the traditional territory.
At the same time, the recent change in the leadership of both houses of Congress, which are now more aligned with Bolsonaro, has made the passage of bills that go against Indigenous interests increasingly likely.
According to Indigenous organizations, the most serious change foreseen in PL 490 is the adoption of the so-called marco temporal (temporal mark), a cutoff that means that a reserve may only be demarcated if the Indigenous residents can prove they were on the land no later than Oct. 5, 1988, the date the latest Brazilian Constitution was promulgated.
"Many groups didn't even have any relationship with the state at that time," said Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), which advocates for Indigenous rights. "They don't have a document proving that they were on the land. Other groups were not really on the land because they were expelled by extremely violent processes, including during the military dictatorship."
PL 490 would also allow the federal government to get in touch with uncontacted Indigenous groups, even against their will. "It also opens room for radical religious groups to get in touch with these [Indigenous] people, which is extremely dangerous since they don't have [any] resistance to many diseases, like flu," Batista said. Moreover, the bill would override Indigenous people's exclusivity over the use of the land in the event the government considers there is a relevant public interest in the area.
"It is the bill of death, it completely nulls the rights we conquered with our tears and blood," said Edinho Batista, a leader of the Macuxi Indigenous people and coordinator of the Indigenous Council of Roraima .
On June 22, the Federal Public Ministry released an official statement against bill PL 490, arguing that it contradicts the Brazilian Constitution.
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