'We fight for our right to exist,' indigenous leaders tell Brazil congress

Adriano Machado, REUTERS | Raoni Metuktire, a leader of the Brazilian indigenous ethnic Kayapo people and the Congresswoman Joenia Wapichana attend a meeting at the National Congress in Brasilia on April 25, 2019.

Over 150 indigenous leaders met with lawmakers to discuss land rights and the role of their communities in the protection of the environment Thursday amid protests against the policies of Brazil's new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.


The discussions in the Chamber of Deputies came on the second day of the Free Land Encampment, an annual three-day protest by indigenous groups held in Brazil's capital.

Indigenous leaders from several regions attended the congressional hearing, many of them with traditional feathered headdresses and faces painted red or black. Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and presidential candidate, also attended the meeting.

More than 1,000 indigenous people set up tents on the lawn of the congressional building Wednesday and began demonstrating against President Jair Bolsonaro's vow to encourage the expansion of mining and industrial farming in protected indigenous areas.

'Indigenous people sounding the alarm over danger to rights and forests'

"What is being disputed is the land," said Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous leader and former vice presidential candidate.

Bolsonaro "wants to give the indigenous territories to the United States, to foreigners, to explore our natural resources. We fight not only for our rights, our constitutional rights, but for our right to exist," Guajajara told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.

"Where indigenous lands are demarcated, registered and controlled by the peoples, these territories are preserved and cared for," said Cleber Cesar Buzatto, secretary general of the Indigenous Missionary Council, a rights group linked to the Roman Catholic Church. "In some regions, in some states like Rondonia, Mato Grosso, Maranhao, these lands are like true oases in the middle of farming commodities fields, and of a lot of environmental destruction."

Soon after being sworn in Jan. 1, Bolsonaro transferred the authority for designating indigenous land and granting environmental licenses for businesses on indigenous reserves from the government's indigenous affairs agency to the Agriculture Ministry. He also shifted the indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, from the Justice Ministry to a new ministry for family, women and human rights that is being led by an ultraconservative evangelical pastor.

During an earlier meeting with Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia on Wednesday, Ivan Valente, a lawmaker who is part of an indigenous lobbying group, said the president's changes were "leaving the fox taking over the chicken coop."

Maia responded by saying that he would push to undo the changes when the proposals come up for debate.

Putting FUNAI back under the Justice Ministry "seems to me the most reasonable, the most rational (decision) that guarantees more security for each one of you," Maia said.

Guajajara told a cheering crowd that indigenous leaders will continue to oppose Bolsonaro's plans.

"We are in Brasilia to show that our resistance is strong and that our compromise with our peoples is bigger than any imposition. We are not going to accept these attacks with our arms crossed," Guajajara said.

At a gathering in 2017, police shot tear gas at indigenous protesters who fired back with bows and arrows.

On Thursday, while the lower house commission was discussing the future role of indigenous communities in the protection of the environment, the Senate held a special session to honor the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

This year's protest is to end with a group march Friday.


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