Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: No End to Violence Against Indigenous People

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 30 2005 (IPS) - Killings of indigenous leaders in Brazil that have largely gone unpunished, a rise in suicide rates among the Guaraní ethnic group, and the slow pace at which the official demarcation of indigenous reserves is moving ahead raise concerns about the future of Brazil’s Indians, warns a new Amnesty International report.

The report "Foreigners in Our Own Country", released Wednesday by the London-based human rights watchdog, mentions several cases involving human rights violations, which it says "threaten the survival" of Brazil’s indigenous peoples.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s January 2003 inauguration awakened hopes of change in government policy, because the now-governing leftist Workers Party had pledged to place high priority on coming up with solutions to the problems facing the country’s roughly 400,000 indigenous people and redressing errors of the past.

But the Amnesty report highlights the frustration that has followed, which was expressed in no uncertain terms a month ago by the Catholic Church-affiliated Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI).

The government "finally left aside its misleading discourse in which it depicted itself as an ally of the indigenous cause, to reveal its true face as an instrument of its most powerful and lethal enemies," the CIMI leadership stated in a communiqué.

On Jan. 13, 2003, just two weeks after the Lula administration took office, Marcos Verón, a Guaraní-Kaiowá tribal leader, was beaten to death in front of his family when he resisted being thrown off the land where his people have traditionally lived in the west-central state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the Amnesty report recalls.

Since the government took office, the number of murders of indigenous leaders has grown to 63, according to CIMI.

That amounts to double the annual average in the previous two years, which stood at 14 killings a year, Saulo Feitosa, vice-president of CIMI, told IPS.

In the past, most of the violence targeting indigenous people came from agents of the state, whereas now it mainly comes from the "private sector," he said.

In his view, the attacks have been stepped up because the "retrograde forces imagine that the Indians now have more support from the government" and are thus reacting more aggressively.

But while indigenous people are not enjoying the "supposed benefits" brought by the new government, they are suffering negative effects, as the land conflicts have gotten worse, he said.

Besides the killings, there have been attempts on the lives of indigenous leaders, like the one against Marcos Xukurú, a leader of the Xukurú people in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. Although he survived, the two people with him were killed.

Marcos’ father, Chicao Xukurú, was slain in 1998.

Among the violent incidents cited by the report is a 1988 massacre of 14 members of the Tikuna ethnic group, including six children, on their land in the municipality of Sao Leopoldo in the northern state of Amazonas.

Although the perpetrators were tried and convicted, they got off with light sentences, which were further shortened later.

The invasion of indigenous territories by gold miners, loggers and colonist farmers lie at the core of many of the land disputes in which indigenous people are the targets of violence.

In April of last year, the Cinta Larga community killed 39 miners prospecting for diamonds on indigenous land. The following month, a Cinta Larga was shot to death, in an apparent act of revenge.

But it is the desperate situation of the Guaraní people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul that has most deeply shaken the country in recent months. Large numbers of children are dying of malnutrition, and suicide is becoming alarmingly frequent among the community’s youth.

Between January 2001 and July 2003, the National Health Foundation, a government agency, recorded 132 suicides in the Guaraní population. This figure reflected a sharp rise, given that a total of 305 suicides had been reported in the entire period between 1986 and 1999.

Feitosa maintained the tragedies of chronic hunger and suicide stem from the lack of access to land. Restoring the Guaraní people’s ancestral territory "is crucial for their physical and cultural survival," he said.

The Amnesty report calls on the Brazilian government to "give urgent priority to setting out clear policies and specific strategies for tackling the persistent human rights issues and land problems that affect Brazil’s indigenous population," as it has promised to do in the past.

These should be developed in consultation with the indigenous movement, with special emphasis on a review of the structure, resources and functions of the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency responsible for protecting the country’s aboriginal population.

Other specific recommendations include ending the impunity for acts of violence against indigenous communities, more fully ensuring their protection and safety, and resolving outstanding indigenous land claims.

Feitosa noted that the Amnesty report effectively highlights numerous well-known violations of indigenous rights and proposes useful measures to correct the situation. Some of the cases involve problems that date back many decades, and the situations reported vary considerably, but they all share "a common factor, the inability of the government to solve these problems," he concluded.

In response to the Amnesty report, FUNAI issued a statement saying the government’s policy towards indigenous people is based on "respect for differences and harmony between the ethnic groups" that make up the population of Brazil.

In the Lula administration’s first two years in office, 48 indigenous reserves have been officially demarcated, covering a total of 16.5 million hectares, and another 43, comprising 2.8 million hectares, are awaiting formal approval.

Brazil’s indigenous people now have 480 reserves that have either been formally demarcated or are at some stage of the process. These areas cover 11 percent of the national territory.

FUNAI acknowledges that infant mortality is higher among indigenous people than among the population at large. But the number of indigenous people has also grown at a faster rate than the average national population growth, from around 120,000 native people in 1955 to 430,000 today.

Two Guaraní territories have been officially demarcated since October, which contributed to coming up with solutions to high levels of malnutrition and suicides, says the FUNAI statement.

In addition, the number of primary and secondary schools for teaching the country’s 150,000 indigenous school-age children has expanded.

Furthermore, political participation by indigenous people has increased, with the election of six mayors and more than 100 city councillors from indigenous groups in the 2004 elections, adds FUNAI.

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