OP-ED: BRAZIL: Indigenous Land Rights: A Corruption Scandal Victim

Private agribusiness on previously protected indigenous lands has thrown the Temer administration under international law violation investigations. Photo (c) Brasil 247 2017Private agribusiness on previously protected indigenous lands has thrown the Temer administration under international law violation investigations. Photo (c) Brasil 247 2017

By Emily Foecke Munden – International Development Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign PolicyWhile ongoing corruption probes in Brazil have dominated headlines, the laws protecting Brazil’s indigenous peoples have been profoundly weakened with little outcry from the public.  President Michel Temer is increasingly desperate to retain the political support of agribusiness leaders as he comes up against corruption charges from Brazil’s top prosecutor this month.

The president is unlikely willing to risk losing the agribusiness coalition’s support by responding to international pressure to get tough on defending indigenous rights. Pressure must therefore be targeted at Brazil’s agribusiness leaders and lobbyists instead.

Regardless of President Temer’s political fate, the ongoing chaos in Brazil will allow bureaucratic tinkering with the land rights of indigenous peoples to continue unless external pressure is applied.

Agribusiness or Bust

Photo (c) El Pais 2017

The “Bible, Beef and Bullets” caucus—who are backed by Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby. Photo (c) El Pais 2017

A powerful agribusiness coalition closely aligned with President Temer has carried out a series of administrative maneuvers that allow the Brazilian government to affect indigenous peoples’ land without receiving their consent, violating Brazil’s commitments under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The agribusiness coalition is composed of conservative cattle ranchers and landowners in Congress—members of the bancada ruralista caucus and the “Bible, Beef and Bullets” caucus—who are backed by Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby.

This coalition is a dominant force in the Brazilian Congress and its members are opposed to indigenous land rights. They have been carrying out their agenda of weakening those rights through a chain of bureaucratic maneuvers executed by a Congressional Investigative Commission that President Temer formed to focus on Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and controlled by the agribusiness coalition.

Most of the maneuvers have been focused on FUNAI, a nonpolitical agency run by anthropologists that protects indigenous peoples by demarcating and guaranteeing their land. The agency is crucial in defending the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil, a vulnerable group that disproportionately faces violence, discrimination, exclusion, and poverty.

Conflicts of Interest Abound

Photo (c) Huff Post Brasil 2015

In January 2017, a federal decree was issued that removed decision-making power regarding the recognition of indigenous territory from FUNAI to the Ministry of Justice, which is led by political appointees. Photo (c) Huff Post Brasil 2015

First, the agribusiness coalition worked to weaken FUNAI in the immediate term. FUNAI’s budget was halved for this year, meaning the agency only has money to pay its staff. This has led to severely reduced state presence on indigenous lands. Eighty FUNAI staff have also been threatened with prosecution for crimes the Congressional Investigative Commission alleges they have committed, such as disturbing the peace. Next, the coalition has weakened FUNAI in the long term by transforming FUNAI into a political agency that can be controlled by agribusiness-dominated Congress.

In January 2017, a federal decree was issued that removed decision-making power regarding the recognition of indigenous territory from FUNAI to the Ministry of Justice, which is led by political appointees. An accompanying proposed bill from the Congressional Investigative Commission would require all past land demarcations that have transferred land to indigenous peoples to be reopened and ratified by Congress.

This has already yielded progress towards the agribusiness coalition’s goals: on July 19, President Temer announced that he had approved the Attorney General’s recommendation that the federal government use new criteria in determining the boundaries of indigenous land. Finally, FUNAI’s former leader was removed on May 5, and it was announced that the agency’s future leaders will now be chosen by Congress.

Blood and Bills

Photo (c) HLN 2012

Brazil has seen more deaths related to land disputes in the first half of 2017 than over the same period in 2016, a year that saw the highest number of land activist deaths since 2003. Photo (c) HLN 2012

The consequences of these maneuvers prove them to be more than mere bureaucratic fiddling. For example, the new threat of land grabs and rural displacement risks aggravating rising violence over land disputes. This seems to be happening already: Brazil has seen more deaths related to land disputes in the first half of 2017 than over the same period in 2016, a year that saw the highest number of land activist deaths since 2003.

An increase in private agribusiness activity on previously protected indigenous lands also has serious implications for Brazil’s ability to fulfill its commitments under the Paris climate accord. Past experience has shown that once indigenous reserves are opened to commercial agriculture and logging, deforestation spikes.

Deforestation releases massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and simultaneously limits Brazil’s ability to naturally reduce future carbon emissions. These consequences are serious, and the international community cannot afford to ignore Brazil’s incremental steps towards human rights and climate failures.

Violating International Law?

Photo (c) Survival International 2017

Illegal land grabs are already seen as a threat to the sustainability of Brazil’s agricultural sector and make the Brazilian market less attractive—especially if Brazil is under investigation for violating international law. Photo (c) Survival International 2017

Human rights groups, indigenous rights groups, and climate advocates all oppose the actions of Brazil’s agribusiness coalition and their Congressional Investigative Commission. These groups should view the complainant mechanisms of ILO Convention 169, which is legally binding, as their best chance at blocking further political action from agribusiness leaders.

This effort would be most effective from the other countries that have ratified Convention 169 themselves or from commercial agricultural entities working in Brazil whose supply chain commitments preclude them from purchasing products from companies complicit in illegally grabbing land. The other 21 countries that have ratified Convention 169 should make clear that Brazil is violating its international commitments, do more to “name and shame” the Brazilian Congress, and make clear the consequences of continued violations. Simultaneously, advocates should appeal to international commercial supply chain and agro-trade watchdogs.

Illegal land grabs are already seen as a threat to the sustainability of Brazil’s agricultural sector and make the Brazilian market less attractive—especially if Brazil is under investigation for violating international law. If the agribusiness leaders in Brazilian politics can be convinced that their practices are bad for business, they may be willing to come back to the negotiating table on indigenous land rights.

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About the Author:

Emily Foecke Munden is the International Development Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a Research Assistant with the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. Emily earned her Master of International Affairs in 2016 from the University of California-San Diego, where she concentrated on international development policy.