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

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Indigenous People – Victims of Violence and Neglect

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 2 2006 (IPS) - Disputes over land ownership are the main cause of the rise in violent deaths of indigenous people in Brazil, according to the lead author of a report presented at the 10th National Conference on Human Rights, which ended Friday.

“Not all of the murders are directly linked to land conflicts,” but the need for clearly demarcated indigenous territories and disputes over ownership, which generate tension with landowners and miners as well as internal fighting, forms the backdrop to the violence, anthropologist Lucia Helena Rangel, from the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, said in an interview with IPS.

One clear illustration of this is the Kaiowá-Guaraní indigenous community, crowded onto lands in the western state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where children have died of malnutrition and internal tensions are reflected by high homicide and suicide rates, added Rangel, who coordinated the Report on Violence Against Indigenous Peoples, drawn up by the Missionary Indigenous Council (CIMI).

A total of 287 murders of indigenous people have been documented over the past decade in Brazil. But the violence has gotten worse in the last three years – which have coincided with the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – and the annual number of victims has almost doubled, to an average of 41.

This complex panorama, outlined in the CIMI report, was the central focus of a panel on indigenous rights Thursday as part of the National Conference on Human Rights, held in the lower house of Congress in Brasilia, the capital.

During the eight years that president Fernando Henrique Cardoso governed the country, 165 murders of indigenous people were registered – an average of roughly 21 per year. But from 2003 to 2005, the total rose to 122, said the vice president of CIMI, Saulo Feitosa, who was one of the panelists.

The main cause of the deaths are conflicts over land ownership, and the violence will continue to increase if there are no changes to government land policy, said the expert, who called for an acceleration of efforts to demarcate indigenous reserves and greater protection for existing reserves.

Some of the murders occurred in the context of disputes with large landowners or miners, who seize or invade indigenous land. But others are the result of “in-fighting” among the indigenous communities themselves, said Feitosa.

Mercio Gomes, president of the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), the federal agency in charge of indigenous affairs, accused CIMI of inflating the statistics by adding in deaths caused by “car accidents, suicides, or marital disputes,” and murders that have nothing to do with conflicts over land.

“It is difficult to determine whether the number of murders has actually grown, or whether the increase is due to the use of new criteria or more precise documentation of the data” by CIMI in the last few years, said Tim Hill, with Amnesty International – Brazil.

But more important than the comparison of figures from year to year is to recognise that the numbers are “too high,” and that the underlying causes remain in place, he told IPS.

What CIMI is trying to get across is that poverty, linked with the problem of land ownership disputes, “creates conditions among indigenous people that generate more violence, alcoholism, suicides among young people, and child malnutrition,” he said.

The state must ensure that indigenous communities have sufficient land and minimally decent living conditions, said the delegate of the local branch of the London-based Amnesty International.

The leftist Lula administration has completed the demarcation of important indigenous reserves, but it has failed to make progress in others, such as in Mato Grosso do Sul, and the justice system forms part of the problem by “blocking many land demarcation processes,” said Hill.

Part of the violence is due to the high expectations generated by the current government, which took office in January 2003 with promises to improve indigenous policy, that have not been fulfilled, said Rangel.

The government has failed to demonstrate to society and to landowners that it is paying closer attention to indigenous affairs, which has further encouraged violence against indigenous people, she said.

Errors were also committed by previous governments, such as a decree that facilitated legal action, held up demarcation efforts, and subjected indigenous rights recognised by the constitution to long drawn-out court battles, added Rangel.

The panel on indigenous rights was one of the most important events at the National Conference on Human Rights, which was organised by non-governmental organisations, congressional committees and the attorney-general’s office, with the support of the government’s Special Secretariat for Human Rights.

One of Congress’s future priorities will be approval of the Statute on Indigenous Peoples, a law that has long been demanded by indigenous groups and organisations working on their behalf, said Deputy Luiz Greenhalg, chairman of the Human Rights Commission in the Chamber of Deputies.

The panel also discussed the need to effectively establish the Commission on Indigenous Policy, which was approved at a conference sponsored by the government to plan actions with the participation of indigenous people. It also addressed the urgent need to overcome judicial hurdles and complete the pending demarcation of indigenous lands.

Rangel said that another important task is to increase public understanding of indigenous peoples, “with whom society and even FUNAI are unfamiliar.”

There are an estimated 400,000 indigenous people in this country of 180 million.

In addition, the government must promote the recognition of the identity of indigenous peoples, in order to combat “the intolerance, racism and discrimination that they suffer,” she concluded.

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