The nightmare that indigenous Brazilians feared most in recent years came true last Tuesday night, when the Chamber of Deputies, with a conservative majority, approved by a large majority a bill that in practice makes it very difficult for the State to continue recognizing the indigenous as legitimate owners of the lands they claim. This is an unprecedented blow to the indigenous cause and a considerable setback for the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who came to power promising to resume the demarcation of lands that Jair Bolsonaro paralyzed and even created an unprecedented Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, which is getting closer to becoming merely symbolic.
The law is known in Brazil as the "time frame" because it establishes that indigenous people can only claim the lands on which they were on October 5, 1988, the date on which the current Constitution was approved. In practice, this means that indigenous people who cannot prove that they were in a certain area before 1988 will not get demarcation. The indigenous people allege that this ignores the fact that many communities were expelled from their original territories, something very common, in fact, during the military dictatorship (1964-1985).
The supporters, linked to the powerful agricultural and livestock sector, defend that the law will end legal insecurity and territorial disputes and bring peace to the countryside. For indigenous people and environmentalists it is a death sentence. In addition to establishing this time limit, the law also prevents protected lands already recognized from expanding their extension, authorizes mining and the cultivation of transgenics in their interior and that infrastructure works are carried out without consulting the affected peoples. In addition, the policy of non-contact with indigenous people who remain in voluntary isolation is relaxed.
The 427 indigenous reserves that exist right now in Brazil are equivalent to almost 14% of its territory and are the areas where nature is best preserved, where deforestation rates are lowest. Normally they are green islands in the middle of a sea of latifundia, so the legal demarcation of these lands is also key to fight for the preservation of the Amazon and against climate change. There are dozens of indigenous lands whose processes wait in a drawer until the State definitively recognizes them. The indigenous organizations had high hopes for Lula and hoped that in the first months he would sign the first documents. It did not do so until April, when it recognized six small territories. At that time he promised that at the end of his mandate in 2026 there will be no unmarked reserve, something that he will hardly be able to fulfill.
The law of the "time frame" was being processed for 16 years, and not even during the four years of Bolsonaro, with a like-minded president, managed to move forward. The strength of the right and the ruralist lobby in Parliament (which is even more conservative than in the last legislature) made it possible. Three centrist parties that support Lula and have ministries also voted in favor, contrary to government guidelines. The law still has to go through the Senate, although the indigenous people trust more in the Supreme Court, which will judge the constitutionality of the 'time frame' on June 7. However, the judges have opened and closed the debate on numerous occasions, it is not clear that there will be a final decision on that day.
The advance of this bill is the second major defeat that the deputies impose on Lula in a very short time. Last week, they questioned the design of the ministries organized by the president and withdrew powers from the ministries of Environment and Indigenous Peoples. The first, in the hands of Marina Silva, was left unable to manage the rural environmental registry, a document that is key to fighting deforestation. The Chamber transferred that competence to the Ministry of Management, where it is expected to find a less hostile terrain. The newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples was left without its main attribution, precisely to take care of the demarcation of the lands that is now in question, which will pass to the Ministry of Justice. The government did little to prevent these changes to avoid further antagonizing the House.
The Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sonia Guajajara, did not hide her discontent and expressed "some frustration" with Lula, especially because she believes he could have been more involved. It's a rebuke that some allies are beginning to make in private. The government's difficulties in Congress are palpable, but so far Lula has preferred to prioritize his international agenda instead of facing domestic challenges. According to a tally by the newspaper O Globo, from January until now he has met with 30 foreign leaders (not counting all the South American presidents he received in Brasilia this week), and instead only held meetings with nine allied parliamentarians.
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