Brazil: Government struggles to diffuse indigenous conflicts


Escalating land conflicts between farmers and indigenous tribes lead to crises; Women react to controversial statute; Dilma vetoes automatic renewal of concession in ports bill

Government struggles to diffuse indigenous conflicts

Brazil’s ongoing tensions with indigenous communities reached a peak this week after indigenous groups occupied farms and formed protests and blockades across the country. The protestors claim that the government’s ambitions for development and growth have encroached on their sacred ancestral lands.

President Dilma Rousseff called an emergency meeting with cabinet ministers to assess the situation after the week’s events marked the worst crises the government has ever faced with indigenous tribes.

For nearly two weeks, farms and other lands across the region of Mato Grosso do Sul have been occupied, while hundreds of others marched on the regions’ capital, Campo Grande. In the Rio Grande do Sul state, about 2,000 Kaingang and Guarani Indians blocked roads in protest of the government’s decision to put on hold the granting of ancestral lands to their communities. Meanwhile, last week, a group of Indians in Pará occupied the main construction site of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, thereby paralysing works.

The biggest on-going dispute involves the Belo Monte dam complex on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, which indigenous leaders say will devastate large tracts of their ancestral territories. The government, however, states the Belo Monte project is essential to its plans for staying ahead of a future surge in the nation’s demand for electricity.

Farmers’ and landowners’ representatives have called for a tougher government response to protect their properties from indigenous campaigners. However, indigenous representatives say they are frustrated by the failure of previous proposals to demarcate land. These failed due to the lobbying of influential Brazilian landowners.

President Rousseff’s chief of staff, Gleisi Hoffman, has been accused of aggravating the situation after she announced that the Ministry of Agriculture and Embrapa (Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research) will be reviewing the process of the demarcation of indigenous lands by the Funai, the chief national-level indigenous organization.

Many activists believe it to be yet another attempt by the federal government to devalue anthropological studies conducted by Funai in order to impede and further delay the demarcation of lands. In response, Marta Maria do Amaral Azevedo, resigned from her position as president of Funai.

Women react to controversial statute

The proposal for the Estatuto do Nascimento (Statute of the Unborn Child), approved on Wednesday 5 June by the Committee on Finance and Taxation and supported by the religious bench in congress, has been met with outrage across Brazil. The bill is widely accused of violating the rights of women and encouraging the criminalisation of abortion in cases of rape.

The bill proposes financial assistance to women who are raped and decide not to have abortion, should the rapist not be identified. Because of this, the bill has been nicknamed “Bolsa Estupro,’ or rape grant, after the landmark anti-poverty scheme ‘Bolsa Familia.’ However, if the offender is identified, the bill states that the mother establishes links with the rapist in order to obtain child support, requiring regular contact between the abused woman and the offender.

The proposal still must pass a vote in the constitutional committee on justice and citizenship. Only then will pass to the house of deputies. ‘If approved, the statue determines that the embryo is more important than a woman . . . and more victims will die of illegal abortions,’ says Lola Aronovich, professor at the Federal University of Ceará.

In a statement, the Conselho Nacional dos Direitos das Mulheres (National Council of Women’s Rights), composed of activists and representatives of the federal government, expressed opposition to the proposal. Petitions on the internet have collected thousands of signatures across the country and protests are already set to take place in São Paulo and Porto Alegre next weekend.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil unless the pregnancy puts the life of the woman in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of a rape. According to the federal council of medicine, clandestine abortions are the fifth leading cause of maternal mortality in the country. Over 4 million women resort to clandestine abortions each year.

Dilma vetoes automatic renewal of concession in ports bill

A controversial bill, which was approved by congress on 16 May, is designed to bring considerable reforms in the ports sector. This includes the upgrade of underdeveloped facilities and the reorganisation of the regulatory structure.  By opening the ports up to investors, the government hopes to make Brazil’s congested, costly, and badly-managed ports more efficient and help restore robust growth to the country’s once-booming economy.

The bill forms part of wider government led efforts to improve the country’s aging and over-stretched infrastructure by offering concessions to private companies and investors.

Under the Brazilian Constitution, the president has 15 working days to veto a bill, or parts of a bill, which she considers unconstitutional or contrary to public interest. Rousseff sanctioned the bill with 13 vetoed points covering the automatic renewal and extension of concession contracts provided that the tenant promotes investments for expansion and modernization of ports.

Instead of going to the highest bidder, concessions will now be granted to companies which demonstrate that they can handle higher volumes of cargo at lower tariffs.

In justifying the vetoes, Rousseff argued that the text ‘goes beyond the terms of the leasing agreement.’ She also argued that the vetoes were needed to establish ‘safeguards against the expansion of the industry’ for terminals that are already in operation, preventing increasing competition in the sector.

For Rousseff, an overhaul of 20-year-old port regulations is an essential step to move ahead with a $26 billion public-private investment drive to modernize gateways for Brazil’s crucial commodity exports.

Ports represent 95 percent of Brazil’s foreign commerce and as such are vital for a country that in recent decades became the world’s biggest exporter of coffee, sugar, beef, orange juice and ethanol.