A series of policy changes in recent months in Brazil have rolled back environmental protections amid political upheaval and an economic crisis tormenting embattled President Michel Temer.
The changes are the biggest shift in Brazil’s environmental policies since the country adopted a new constitution in 1988 at the end of a military rule, Adriana Ramos from the Social and Environmental Institute (ISA), a Brasilia-based campaign group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Suffering its worst recession, the Brazilian government has launched a series of spending cuts to reduce budget deficits. As part of the effort, he Indigenous affairs agency National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) had witnessed a more than 40 percent cut in its budgets.
The Foundation was established in 1967 in an effort to map Indigenous land and to avoid a repeat of the killings of Amazonian Indians in the 1960s.
Antonio Fernandes Toninho Costa, former president of FUNAI, said the cuts made it difficult for the agency to fulfill its mandate in safeguarding the rights of Brazil’s 900,000 Indigenous people.
Days after Costa’s criticism on the budget cut, he was dismissed as a territorial conflict heated up between Indigenous groups and farmers. Dozens of armed men brutally attacked 13 Indigenous Gamela people over a land conflict in northeastern Brazil earlier this month.
The Brazilian government had appointed an army general, Franklimberg Freitas, as FUNAI’s next president. It is the first time in 25 years that a non-civilian has become head of the agency.
“I’m being removed for being honest and for being a defender of the cause of the Indigenous,” Costa previously said. “The Brazilian government does not comply with what is written in the Constitution related to indigenous populations. The FUNAI has been forgotten by the government.”
The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 defines the right of Indigenous people to their lands as “original rights,” that is before the creation of the nation itself.
During the political turmoil following the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, “ruralista” lobby bloc in the National Congress of Brazil, which represents the interests of agribusinesses and large landholders, has been pushing through a legislation to reverse longstanding protections for the Amazon rainforest.
One of the measures introduced by lawmakers would remove conservation protection from 1.2 million hectares of the Amazon forest – an area larger than Jamaica.
Other proposed measures include relaxing the environmental licensing rules for big infrastructure projects, opening sales of farmland to foreigners, and loosening rules for approving new mining projects. They are expected to be passed by Brazil’s Congress in the coming months.
“Cutting protected areas at a time when deforestation rates are increasing is the opposite of what Brazil needs,” Greenpeace Brazil campaigner Cristiane Mazzetti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Amazon has seen rising deforestation in the last three years due to previous reductions, with a 29 percent increase in deforestation last year. This may impact Indigenous communities as deforestation rates in reserves under tribal control in Brazil were less than one-tenth of the losses seen in other forest areas, according to a study published last year.
Lawmakers are also considering to amend property registration rules. Supporters say the move would make it easier for small farmers and poor Brazilians to own properties, while opponents criticize that it would lead to an increase in “land grabbing.”
“It’s a serious crisis,” a former Brazilian cabinet minister told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the condition of anonymity. “We are backsliding on land use and new demarcation of indigenous peoples’ land.”
According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Brazilian advocacy group, Brazil is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for land rights activists, with 61 killings last year, the highest level since 2003.