Thousands of representatives of 176 Indigenous peoples are mobilising this week and next in Brasilia against the government of President Jair Bolsonaro and for their right to land and self-determination. A demonstration took place on 6 April in the streets of the Brazilian capital during the Free Land Camp (Acampamento Terra Livre, ATL) meeting, one of the most massive Indigenous mobilisations in the South American country, which has been taking place since 2004.
The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) is organising the 18th ATL from 4 to 14 April. The movement hopes it will be historic, not only because it is being held again after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, but also because it could signal the “last year of the genocidal government.”
At least, this is what is stated in the ATL 2022 manifesto. The text highlights, above all other issues, two main attacks by the Bolsonaro government —a coalition bringing together parties from the centre to the far-right— against Indigenous peoples: a halt to further demarcation of Indigenous lands, and legislation allowing their mining.
Land demarcation under threat
Land demarcation is the process by which FUNAI (the Brazilian government body developing Indigenous-related policies) certifies that a certain territory is occupied by Indigenous peoples and that those lands are necessary for their maintenance, establishes their boundaries, and submits a proposal to the Brazilian presidency for approval. It is therefore the legal procedure recognising a certain territory as Indigenous and, for this very reason, it is one of the movement’s core demands.
The procedure was instituted in the 1988 Constitution. All presidents have since then demarcated Indigenous lands —all but one: Bolsonaro. In the 2018 election campaign that brought him to the presidency, Bolsonaro announced that he would not do so (“There will not be one more inch of Indigenous land”, he said at the time). He has fulfilled his promise and takes pride in that. The Brazilian leader claims that the fact that 14% of Brazilian territory is already demarcated, or in the process of being so, shows that Indigenous peoples already have enough land for them.
It is not only that the Bolsonaro government has not demarcated new Indigenous lands, but it is trying to weaken the legal protection of already existing ones. One tool for that is an attempt to pass a bill, PL 490, originally pushed by Brazil’s powerful agricultural lobby in 2007. PL 490 provides that only lands that were already in the possession of Indigenous peoples prior to the enactment of the 1988 Constitution can be considered as such: this is known in Brazil as the “temporal framework,” a doctrine that has been brought before the courts.
The bill also seeks to forbid the enlargement of previously demarcated lands, and opens the door to their exploitation by outside actors.
Mining on demarcated lands
The other major issue in the ATL manifesto concerns the exploitation of Indigenous lands and, specifically, their exploration for mineral resources and hydroelectric power generation. This is the novelty sought by another bill, PL 191/2020, which was introduced by the Bolsonaro government under urgent procedure two years ago.
According to the government, Brazil needs the bill in order to guarantee its supply of certain compounds, such as potassium chloride, which is used in the manufacture of fertilisers. The government fears that the crisis resulting from the Ukraine war could lead to shortages of this compound and others.
APIB regards such an argument to be nothing but a “political manoeuvre” by the government and the agricultural sector to legalise the violation of the right of Indigenous peoples to protect their lands from exploitation. APIB recalls that, even if the bill were approved, it would take “years” before potash reserves could be exploited, which implies that the idea of the decision being linked to a possible 2022 supply crisis is “false”.
APIB also points out that the bill’s approval would increase deforestation —potash reserves are located in the Amazon— and would violate the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination.
An investigation by O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper shows that most of Brazil’s potash reserves are outside Indigenous lands, undermining the government’s argument for the need to open those ancestral territories to mineral exploration.
Both PL 490/2007 and 191/2020 have passed through stages of their corresponding legislative procedures during Bolsonaro’s presidency. However, the process has been slower than the government would have wished for. This is the case for PL 191, to which former Chamber of Deputies President Rodrigo Maya did not gave priority in 2020.
Maia, however, is no longer in office. New president Arthur Lira has favoured PL 191 reaching the Chamber, where a working group analyses it and then it will be voted on, foreseeably between 12 and 14 April.
The Brazilian attorney general’s office has however warned that PL 191 is “flagrantly unconstitutional.”
An organisational and educational camp
Besides its dimension of protest, the ATL also functions as a meeting and organisational forum for representatives of Indigenous movements living in remote locations throughout the year, as well as a training space for participants. The ATL programme includes sectoral plenaries on issues such as legislation, education, the LGTBI community, or the organisation of Indigenous women within the larger movement and in Brazilian politics.
Although the ATL is the main event in the annual schedule of Indigenous mobilisation in Brazil, it is not the only one. The emergence of the struggle against the so-called temporal framework doctrine led thousands of Indigenous people to organise another camp in Brasilia in September 2021, which became one of the most important gatherings of the movement in recent decades.
“If I am president, there will be no mining on Indigenous lands”
The fact that the APIB’s manifesto has described 2022 as “the last year of the genocidal government” has to do with the holding of presidential and legislative elections in the South American country later in October. Polls are now predicting a solid lead by former president Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva (Workers’ Party, left-wing), who in a tweet said that, if he wins, “there will be no mining on Indigenous lands.”
It remains to be seen how that opposition will be enforced if Lula wins. The first ATL in history, in 2004, took place during Lula’s first term in office. One of the complaints of the Indigenous movement at the time was the insufficient ambition of the Workers’ Party government to guarantee Indigenous rights. The camp was born precisely with the aim of making Indigenous struggles more visible at the national level and to pressure the executive to fulfil Indigenist promises with which the left had come to power for the first time in four decades. In the background of all this remains the structure of a state and of certain sectors of society in which racism against Indigenous people continues to be violently enforced.