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Brazil indigenous groups decry Bolsonaro’s escalating attacks

Sao Paulo, Brazil – Brazilian indigenous groups say far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has ramped up land grabs, intimidation and even killings during his short time in office. 

On Wednesday, several indigenous organisations released a grim joint report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, hosted in Bolivia.

The report, obtained by Al Jazeera, details a sharp uptick in attacks on indigenous people since Bolsonaro won the presidency in October 2018 elections. 

In less than three months, the report says, at least 16 attacks on indigenous communities in Brazil were documented. In addition to four homicides, the report recounts stonings, deforesting, threats and arson. 

Cosigning the document presented to the commission were the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB); the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazi (APIB)l; Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of the North East, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo (APOINME); and the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC). 

According to the report, indigenous communities have seen healthcare centres set ablaze, been targeted by farmers with firebombs, and shot at with rubber bullets. Many were injured, and some were killed. 

“For 519 years indigenous people know what violence is,” said Angela Amanakwa Kaxuyana, coordinator at COIAB.

“The difference is that now these attacks are institutionalised, as in the president himself incites hatred,” she told Al Jazeera from Bolivia.

And as attacks ramp up, according to the indigenous groups, Bolsonaro has started dismantling many of the bodies responsible for protecting native land rights, paving the way for more land grabs. 

Prior to Bolsonaro’s ascent to government, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), part of the Ministry of Justice, oversaw indigenous rights issues. 

But after Bolsonaro took office, he divided FUNAI’s responsibilities between the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Agriculture, which now controls land designations. 

‘Opening the door to enemies’

Bolsonaro’s picks to head both ministries sparked yet more controversy.

Bolsonaro chose Damares Alves to lead of the Human Right Ministry. Epoca magazine accused Alves of kidnapping her indigenous adopted child, an allegation Alves denies. 

Heading up the Ministry of Agriculture is Tereza Cristina, who has called for re-appropriating indigenous lands for commercial farming.

Cristina also presides over the the so-called rural bench, one of the most influential parliamentary groups and aligned with agricultural industry’s interests. 

“We considered the new minister might subordinate the rights to indigenous lands to the expansion necessities of the farming industry,” Wednesday’s report reads. 

COAIB coordinator Angela Amanakwa Kaxuyana added, “That’s like opening the door of indigenous lands to our enemies.” 

Al Jazeera’s efforts to obtain Brazilian officials’ response to the report’s allegations revealed how dismembered the new system is under Bolsonaro. 

The Ministry of Justice said the matter is now with the Ministry of Human Rights. The human rights ministry said the request should be filed to FUNAI, which was unavailable for comment.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture said it only deals “with new cases of land designation”, leaving it unclear who handles allegations of land grabs. 

“Unfortunately we are not seeing any action from the responsible authorities [regarding the attacks]”, said Cleber Buzzato, executive secretary at CIMI (Indigenous Missionary Council).

“We consider this change by the Brazilian government very negative, since the agriculture ministry has a history of acting in favor of the agribusiness’s interests,” Buzzato told Al Jazeera. 

“These are organisations with intense anti-indigenous action. In our view, giving responsibility of land designations to this structure means the government will violate the constitution.”

Brazil’s Prosecutor General Raquel Dodge said in a conference in January “there can be no backsliding on public policies toward the indigenous people”.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, also urged Bolsonaro to comply with international agreements signed by Brazil that guarantee protections for native groups.

‘Now it’s okay to kill’

Luiz Eloy Terena, a lawyer from APIB, said Bolsonaro’s ideas are like “saying it is now ok to kill [the indigenous]”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera by telephone from Bolivia, Terena insisted that the indigenous rights groups will “continue to bring the indigenous fight to the international stage”. 

While campaigning, Bolsonaro appealed to a large swath of farmers by promising “to not demarcate another centimetre of indigenous land” for protected status. 

But rights groups insist policies like these threaten the safety of indigenous people and could harm the country’s vast environmental wealth.

As of now, reservation lands untouched by farming constitute 12 percent of Brazilian territory. 

But of the 700 indigenous territories nationwide, at least a third are still waiting for official recognition and protection. With Bolsonaro in office, indigenous people and rights groups fear these lands are at even greater risk. 

Even before Bolsonaro took office, matters were worsening quickly. Between 2017 and 2018, deforestation increased by 124 percent and incursions by 62 percent, according to the CIMI group.

Meanwhile, indigenous communities endured a record-high 110 killings and 128 suicides.