President Jair Bolsonaro issued an inauguration day executive order late Tuesday to transfer those responsibilities to the Agriculture Ministry. The new agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina, is part of the agribusiness caucus in Brazil’s lower house and an adversary of requests from native communities.
Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain and longtime congressman, said during his presidential campaign that he would stop making what he calls concessions to native Brazilians.
His executive order also affects the lands of “quilombolas,” as descendants of former slaves are known.
“Less than one million people live in those places isolated from the real Brazil,” Bolsonaro tweeted Wednesday. “They are explored and manipulated by nonprofits. Together we will integrate those citizens and give value to all Brazilians.”
The agriculture minister did not mention indigenous tribes in her first speech on the job Wednesday, which she used to criticize those that in her view consider the Latin American nation “a transgressor to be incriminated” when it comes to climate change.
“Unfounded accusations come from all sides, including international organizations,” said Cristina, one of the two women in Bolsonaro’s 22-member Cabinet.
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The Justice Ministry previously handled demarcation of indigenous lands, through the FUNAI agency, which also oversees other initiatives for indigenous communities such as health care, housing and language preservation. Bolsonaro’s order is raising uncertainties about FUNAI by shifting it to a new ministry for family, women and human rights that is headed by an ultraconservative evangelical pastor.
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Critics say Bolsonaro’s plan to open indigenous reservations to commercial activity will destroy native cultures and languages by integrating the tribes into Brazilian society.
Environmentalists say the native peoples are the last custodians of the Amazon, which is the world’s largest rainforest and is vital for climate stability.
Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara said the presidential order aims to dismantle protections for Brazil’s indigenous communities.
“Does anyone still doubt his promises to exclude us during the campaign?” she asked on Twitter.
Dinamã Tuxá, a member of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples, said many isolated communities viewed Bolsonaro’s administration with fear.
“We are very afraid because Bolsonaro is attacking indigenous policies, rolling back environmental protections, authorizing the invasion of indigenous territories and endorsing violence against indigenous peoples,” said Tuxá.
The new president said last year he also wants to annul demarcation decisions made by previous administrations, but legal experts say recent Brazilian Supreme Court rulings could block such move.
Bartolomeu Braz, the president of the national chapter of Aprosoja, a major grain growers association, cheered Wednesday’s move.
“We support the initiative of transferring to the agriculture ministry the responsibility of demarcating indigenous land,” he said.
“The new rules will be interesting to the farmers and the Indians, some of whom are already producing soybeans. The Indians want to be productive too,” he added.
Bolsonaro, a fan of U.S. President Donald Trump, met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday.
Pompeo told him that Trump is “very pleased with the relationship that our two countries are on the precipice of beginning to develop.”
“He’s also confident that it (the relationship between the U.S. and Brazil) will benefit the world and the set of shared values that we believe we can together advance,” Pompeo said before leaving Brasilia for Colombia.
—With files from Reuters