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The effect of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric on Brazil’s indigenous peoples by Dorothea Hilhorst

Newly elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has immediately started making work of his animosity towards indigenous peoples by transferring the mandate to deal with indigenous land issues to the Ministry of Agriculture that aims to put these lands to commercial use. To justify his policies, Dorothea Hilhorst argues, Bolsonaro uses rhetorical tricks that turn reality upside down.

Immediately after he resumed office on the 1st of January, Bolsolnaro set to turning his hostile attitude towards indigenous peoples into policy. In the prelude to elections, Bolsonaro made no secret of his animosity. One of his quotes was that “[o]ur Amazon is like a child with chickenpox; every dot you see is an indigenous reservation”.

Indigenous people in Brazil have a long history of asserting their right to self-determination. Their territories are in the Amazon, and they can be seen to protect the vast forests against destruction. Bolsonaro, at one occasion, said that “[t]he Indians do not speak our language, they don’t have money, or culture. They are just natives. How they ended up having a 13% of the national territory?” He rhetorically turns the table: instead of recognising that the colonizers of Brazil usurped 87% of indigenous territories, he makes it sound as if indigenous peoples invaded the country.

Bolsonaro’s messages about indigenous peoples are two-layered. Bolsonaro’s tweets about the topic emphasise the need to integrate indigenous peoples into Brazilian society, pointing out that they live in isolated territories rich in natural resources that need to serve economic purposes. He couches this calculating economic attitude in patronising language. The New York Times quoted him saying: “[I]ndigenous people want to rent out the land, they want to be able to do business, they want electricity, a dentist to remove the stumps of teeth from their mouths … indigenous people are human beings like us. They don’t want to be used for political purposes.”

Moving away from international norms

The patronising language with regards to indigenous peoples disregards the internationally agreed-on norms on indigenous rights that Brazil also recognised and ratified. These are in particular international human rights laws and standards: the ILO [International Labor Organization] Convention No. 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both pieces of international law strongly affirm that indigenous peoples have the right to determine whether they would like to be integrated into the dominant society or maintain their own cultures and identities.

Bolsonaro’s war against NGOs

But Bolsonaro (see the above quote) turns this around by claiming that he knows what indigenous people really want, whereas other entities according to him use indigenous peoples for political purposes. So, who would be using indigenous peoples for political purposes? Well, those are the development organisations, or the NGOs, that were another target of Bolsonaro’s miserable campaign slogans. On January 2nd, his second day in office, he issued a temporary decree (to be ratified within 120 days) that mandates the office of the Secretary of Government (a close collaborator to Bolsonaro) to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and accompany the activities and actions of international organizations and non-governmental organizations in the national territory.” In the eyes of the new president, NGOs exploit indigenous peoples for their own political gain. NGOs, in his view, like to keep indigenous people poor and primitive.

Development organisations and social movements have the tide turned against them. When Bob Dylan sang that the times are changing, this was a hopeful statement, signalling an era where the agenda of social movements was going to make the day. Today’s changing times move in an opposite direction, and social movements and NGOs face increasing opposition. The recent vicious campaign against Soros, culminating in a bomb attack on his house, is just one of the many manifestations of this trend, as Soros has been a major financer of organisations that advocate for democracy and human rights. The State of Civil Society Report 2018 of CIVICUS showed that 109 countries further curtailed the space for civil society in 2017. Social movements continue to celebrate successes, but on the whole are increasingly cornered by legal and financial restrictions.

The transfer of land

But back to Brazil, where Bolsonaro plays a blame game and accuses NGOs of exploiting indigenous peoples. At the same time, his actions point out that his economic interest in the exploitation of the 13% of Brazil’s land that is now reserved for indigenous peoples overrides his concern for their dental condition (see quote above) and lifestyles.

In the first week in the office, he issued an executive order placing the power to decide over indigenous lands in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, instead of the specialised government agency FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) that was responsible for indigenous affairs and has the mandate to protect their rights. According to Victoria Tauli Corpuz, quoted by Deutsche Welle, this is a regressive move, because the Agriculture Ministry is the agency that supports the expansion of the areas for the production of crops for export and for cattle ranching.

The protection of indigenous lands is not a concern for indigenous peoples alone. Joan Carling, an indigenous leader that was recently awarded by the United Nations Environmental Agency as a champion of the earth, said in her award video:  “When our lands are being taken away for mining, dams or agribusiness, of course we will defend it. We are trying to protect the environment, not just for ourselves. We are protecting it for humanity”. The Amazon is dubbed as the lungs of the world, and the fight to save it from further destruction is gaining momentum[1]. Let’s hope that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon can continue to resist Bolsonaro. Not just for their sake, but also for the sake of the climate and the quality of life on earth.

[1] For example, an international consortium comprised of indigenous organisations, international NGOs, and universities that includes the ISS was recently awarded 14.8 million euros to strengthen community-based environmental monitoring in Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador. See: https://www.hivos.org/program/all-eyes-on-the-amazon/#all-eyes-on-the-amazon

Image Credit: Agência Brasil

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here