How the government’s environmental policy threatens the existence of the Yanomami and Munduruku

The death of children and the attack on leaders, inspired by the dismantling of protection agencies, puts the past, present and future of indigenous peoples at risk

Garimpeiros atacaram a aldeia e incendiaram a casa da liderança Munduruku Maria Leusa Kaba. Foto: Divulgação/Povo Munduruku
Garimpeiros atacaram a aldeia e incendiaram a casa da liderança Munduruku Maria Leusa Kaba. Foto: Divulgação/Povo Munduruku

Unlike Westerners, who think of time linearly (as if it were a straight line from the past towards the future), many indigenous peoples have a circular concept of time. This is the case of the Munduruku, who inhabit regions in the states of Pará, Amazonas and Mato Grosso. As the writer Daniel Munduruku recalls, in his tradition the present and the past are a reality, while the future is a fiction. “Grandparents form this connection between what we are today and what we were yesterday,” he explained in an interview with the CNN Brasil television program Nosso Mundo. “This is the basis of our education; it makes us understand that only through the here and now can we commit to change, to transformation.”

And it is precisely the here and now of indigenous peoples that is continually compromised. Among the most affected tribes are the Munduruku and the Yanomami, which live on Brazil’s largest protected reserve. Most of the attacks are carried out by illegal mining prospectors. In May, two Yanomami children, aged 1 and 5, lost their lives in an attack on the Palimiú community in the state of Roraima. In the same month, the tribal leader Maria Leusa Munduruku, who has received multiple death threats, had her house destroyed after prospectors set fire to her village near Jacareacanga, in Pará, in retaliation for a major police operation against illegal mining. 

“It is unacceptable that despite the presence of the National Security Force in the region, the village of one of our main leaders was raided by armed men with gasoline canisters spreading hatred against us all. We fear for the lives of those who fight tirelessly defending the lives of the Munduruku people and the future of everyone on this planet,” wrote, in a statement, the Munduruku people’s resistance organizations. 

“It is no exaggeration to speak of imminent genocide,” said the lawyer Juliana de Paula Batista, of ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute). “There are also major concerns about prospectors coming into contact with indigenous groups who live in voluntary isolation on Yanomami tribal lands. These groups are extremely vulnerable to any type of disease and contact can be fatal.”

The lack of a pandemic response that includes indigenous peoples, who are among the most vulnerable groups, is one of the main criticisms of the government. “It is important to note that the federal government has the obligation to provide an adequate plan for these peoples,” said the lawyer Júlia Neiva, coordinator of the Defense of Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas. 

Corrosion from within

In addition to the poor management of the health crisis, Neiva draws attention to the slow corrosion of agencies that are supposed to be responsible for protection. “There has been a weakening of institutions such as FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) and SESAI (Special Office for Indigenous Health), which have seen budget cuts, but there has also been a politicization of these agencies. The people at the top, since Bolsonaro has been president, are not qualified, they are not familiar with indigenous issues and they are certainly not there to protect these peoples,” she said. “It is obvious that they are there to serve the interests of the Bolsonaro government, which are not aligned with the protection of indigenous groups.”

According to ISA’s Juliana Batista, as Environment Minister Ricardo Salles himself confirmed when he stressed the need to “push through” regulatory changes to weaken environmental laws, the Bolsonaro government has issued several sub-legal acts that are dismantling rights enshrined in the Constitution. “Among these, I would highlight Normative Instruction No. 9 of FUNAI, which removes Indigenous Lands that have not been officially recognized from SIGEF (Land Management System), facilitating land appropriation by trespassers,” and, she continued, “Normative Instruction No. 1 of FUNAI and IBAMA (the environmental watchdog), which could facilitate the appropriation of natural resources from indigenous lands by non-indigenous people.”

On account of the escalation of conflicts and intimidation, Conectas joined organizations such as APIB (Coalition of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) and various associations and political parties to petition the Supreme Court to immediately require the adoption of measures to protect the life of indigenous groups that inhabit the Yanomami and Munduruku tribal lands and also to remove trespassers, through ADPF Case (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) No. 709.

Furthermore, the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) and the Regional Office for South America of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner have also expressed concern over the acts of violence, urging the State, in a statement, to “comply with its duty to protect the life, the personal integrity, the territories and the natural resources of these peoples”. 

On May 24, Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso accepted the petition by the organizations participating in ADPF 709 and ordered the protection of the territories by the federal government. “Although there could be some doubt about the threat to the aforementioned assets and rights, the elements presented are sufficient to recommend the adoption of measures aimed at the protection of these peoples,” said Justice Barroso in his ruling. “Unfortunately, as he has done repeatedly since the beginning of the case, the justice once again postponed the much-needed ruling to expel the illegal mining prospectors from indigenous lands,” said Neiva. “Another controversial point of the ruling was the revelation that there is a so-called Trespassers Isolation Plan, named by the rapporteur ‘Indigenous Lands Plan 7’, whose passage is under judicial secrecy. This plan, which according to the ruling was submitted by the Federal Police ‘for the purpose of ensuring the success of the operations’, has been developed without any possibility of debate or even participation by the plaintiffs in the case.”

According to the writer Daniel Munduruku’s circular philosophy, honoring the here and now is also a way of honoring what has already passed. By threatening the present and the lives of indigenous peoples, the federal government is putting the past itself and the very foundations of the existence of all Brazilians at risk. According to the writer, “it is important to look at the world from this perspective so that Brazil can look at itself and make this move to return to its origins.”

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