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BRAZIL: Indigenous Peoples’ Conference at Odds with Government

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 19 2006 (IPS) - The first National Conference of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil made little progress on defining specific policies and was sharply criticised by some leaders, but it opened up new possibilities for dialogue between the government and indigenous peoples.

Some 800 representatives of Brazil’s more than 220 ethnic groups took part in the conference that ended Wednesday in Brasilia. However, its legitimacy was called into question by a motion approved a week earlier by 550 leaders at the “Indigenous April” Camp, also held in the capital.

The conference, which began on Apr. 12, was convened by the National Foundation for Indigenous People (FUNAI), the government agency in charge of indigenous affairs. The motion accused FUNAI of organising the conference solely in the interests of maintaining its own paternalist position as ‘guardian’ over indigenous people.

But the participation of important leaders and members of the country’s numerous indigenous communities led the two largest associations – the Coordenacão das Organizações Indígenas da Amaz- nia Brasileira (COIAB) and the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Nordeste, Minas Gerais e Espírito Santo (APOINME) – to tone down their criticism, and confrontation was avoided.

The conference deliberations have not been rejected out of hand, but will be evaluated at COIAB’s eighth general assembly, which may or may not approve them, the organisation’s general coordinator, Jecinaldo Cabral, told IPS.

The COIAB assembly will take place Apr. 21-25 in the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve, demarcated one year ago after three decades of struggle, in the northern state of Roraima. The venue was chosen because it is “a symbol of the struggle of Amazonian and Brazilian indigenous peoples,” Cabral said.

The main criticism of the “FUNAI Conference” is that it is being held in the last year of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s term, rather than in his first year, 2003, as promised and agreed with the indigenous people’s movement, Cabral emphasised. Instead of a debate that would have set guidelines for his administration, the government has left it to the end, “a deplorable situation, causing division amongst indigenous people,” he said.

In spite of the question as to how representative it was, the conference ended with some “positive gains,” according to Ricardo Verdum, adviser on indigenous and environmental policies at the non-governmental Institute of Socioeconomic Studies.

The conference ratified the creation of a National Indigenous Policy Commission, to discuss policy approaches with wide participation by indigenous representatives. And it was agreed that an indigenous ‘parliament’ will be established as a representative forum of all the peoples, which will be able to enter into dialogue with Brazil’s national legislature.

The conference also wanted FUNAI to be strengthened, and an indigenous person to be made president for the first time in the history of the agency. A proposal to expand FUNAI and raise it to the level of a ministry did not achieve consensus, and is an idea that needs “maturing,” said Verdum, who was present at the debates.

The meeting created a “new space for discussion and interaction among indigenous people,” many of whom are dispersed and not organised, he commented. For example, participants began to discuss forming an organisation of indigenous peoples in the south of the country, he said.

But one decision that was important to the government was not taken: an agreement to support a draft law to regulate mining on indigenous lands. Conference participants decided to postpone the debate for a year, so that their communities can analyse the proposal and suggest additions or amendments.

This was an intelligent move, exercising the “precautionary principle and demanding time,” said Saulo Feitosa, vice president of the Indianist Missionary Council, linked to the Catholic Church. Opening up indigenous lands to extractive mining would only benefit mining companies, which have been lobbying for this for decades, he said.

The proposal to regulate mining has been under debate for two years, following the killing of 29 diamond miners by Cintas Largas Indians, whose land they had invaded. Mining companies are interested in many areas, and the state mining regulator has around 38,000 requests pending for licences to explore on indigenous lands, Feitosa said.

In spite of the questions raised about the way it was organised, the conference ended in a “triumph for indigenous peoples,” showing the government that it cannot base its indigenous policy “on general, uniform principles,” since it is “dealing with separate, specific cultures,” he said.

The differences between indigenous leaders with respect to the conference did not ultimately cause a rift, either, because indigenous peoples “are opposed to divisions” that would accentuate their vulnerability as minorities, and in the final analysis “they are all related to one another,” he remarked.

However, some fundamental questions, such as the security of their land rights, the autonomy they aspire to, and the issue of health care, which is in “a chaotic state,” have remained unresolved, Feitosa added.

The conference was “a new experience” for Brazilian indigenous people, because the system whereby representatives make decisions, as delegates, for the rest of the people is alien to their traditions, which do not recognise such delegation of powers, said Marcos Terena, president of the Inter-Tribal Committee.

The Lula administration made “yet another mistake” in asking a few hundred “delegates” to legitimise a proposal on mining that runs counter to indigenous rights, he argued.

FUNAI has estimated the indigenous population of Brazil at 450,000 people, not counting urban dwellers who described themselves as indigenous in the national census taken by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in 2000. According to the census results, there are 734,000 indigenous people in Brazil, out of a total population of 186 million.

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