Agribusiness seizes Brazilian power

It’s open season for Brazil’s oligarchs as they plunder, riding roughshod over the rights of indigenous people and small family farmers. Vanessa Baird writes

‘No,’ says the man behind the large locked and chained gate. ‘There is nobody you can talk to here.’

He seems sad. The whole place seems sad.

We get chatting and, after a while, he lets me into the grounds of the Museu do Indio – Rio de Janeiro’s indigenous museum.

‘If you had come here in March, there would have been people to speak to. But it’s been closed since then,’ he says. ‘It’s supposed to be for repairs, but the repairs have been abandoned.’

After a while he lets slip that staff haven’t been paid either.

It all begins to fall into place. The museum, which exists to educate the city folk about indigenous culture, and to celebrate it, is run by the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) – the government agency for the protection of indigenous people.

But since the coup there is little interest in protecting indigenous people or their rights. Quite the contrary: indigenous people are seen as a nuisance; an obstacle standing in the way of profits and a particular, self-serving notion of progress.

FUNAI has come under sustained attack by the Temer government. In May, its outspoken director, Antonio Costa, was sacked for refusing to appoint to posts friends of ministers who had no interest in indigenous protection. The agency is being starved of funds.

We sit down in a deserted room and Xmaya Kaká Fulni-ô agrees to give an interview.

He comes from Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil; he is an ambassador for his Fulni-ô community and sells its handicrafts.

 ‘Now the landowners can attack us and the government does nothing.’
Xmaya Kaká Fulni-ô: ‘Now the landowners can attack us and the government does nothing.’ Picture: Vanessa Baird

Xmaya is deeply worried about what is happening in the rural areas. The government, he says, is failing in its duty to protect its indigenous citizens. That’s putting it mildly. The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an NGO associated with the Catholic Church, has been monitoring the escalation of violence towards indigenous people and peasants. This year has seen a marked increase in rural killings, 48 in the first seven months of 2017.

In May, 10 peasants were massacred during an attempt to evict them from land to which they had an ancestral claim in Pau D’Arco, in the northern state of Pará. Thirteen police are being investigated in connection with the case.

In another incident, hired guns and ranchers attacked an indigenous camp in Maranhão. Ten Gamela indigenous people were wounded, two suffering deep cuts to their hands. This northeastern state is dominated by powerful landowners led by the Sarney family. One member, José Sarney Filho, is Temer’s environment minister.3

Since Temer’s takeover, agribusiness and ranching interests have intensified their efforts to evict indigenous people from their ancestral lands through intimidation and violence. The Guarani-Kaiowá people have often borne the brunt of such repression – their home state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in southwest Brazil, bordering Paraguay, has the country’s highest rate for murder of indigenous people. It is on the frontline of agribusiness expansion and, after decades of violent territorial disputes with ranchers and soy and sugar cane farmers, the Guarani-Kaiowá people are fighting for recognition of their indigenous land rights.

Local landowners have become emboldened – there are videos online of hired guns driving through Guarani reserves, shooting at unarmed civilians. Last June, a violent attack in a Guarani community left a health-worker dead and six others wounded, including a 12-year-old boy.

A few weeks later, in the northern state of Bahia, Raimundo Mota de Souza Junior, leader of Brazil’s Small Farmers Movement, was killed. He had been a staunch defender of agro-toxin-free farming techniques. He was also a Quilombola – a descendant of Africans who fled enslavement and formed communities in the Brazilian countryside.

Father Paulo César Moreira of the CPT commented: ‘In Brazil there is now licence to kill. Loggers and rural oligarchs are empowered. The reasons? Impunity from crimes against life and the government of Michel Temer.’

There have also been attacks on a facility run by the Landless Workers Movement (MST).

‘It’s like they [the rural oligarchs] think, “right, we’ve got our people in power now. We can do what we like”,’ says Leonardo Sokomoto from the human rights NGO, Repórter Brasil.

Beef, bullets and bible

The bancada ruralista, or agribusiness lobby, is the most powerful single political force in Congress today.

More than that, it appears that some of its protagonists were instrumental in making the coup and reshaping the Brazilian political landscape to suit themselves.

Elsinho Mouco, a publicist for Temer, alleged earlier this year that meat-processing giant, JBS, a key backer of the bancada ruralista, was one of several who helped fund a campaign to bring about a coup against Dilma Rousseff.

Since coming to power, Temer has consistently done the bidding of the rural lobby – part of the Beef, Bullets and Bible caucus. He has attacked indigenous land-right guarantees (assured by Brazil’s 1988 Constitution); has moved to break up conservation areas; and sought to turn over 1.2 million hectares (2.9 million acres) to wealthy land thieves who want to legitimize their land grabs. And he has also acted to weaken environmental licensing laws for projects beneficial to agribusiness.

Temer’s choice of agriculture minister was indicative: Blairo Maggi, the billionaire heir of a soy empire, faces investigation on several fronts. His company, Amaggi, was involved in a business endeavour that destroyed 115 square miles of Amazon forest and was allegedly involved in illegal land appropriation and use of slave labour. The company (along with JBS and Bom Futuro Group, whose partners are Maggi’s cousins) also allegedly transferred $5.3 million to cattle rancher AJ Vilela, the leader of a violent gang of Amazon deforesters, charged during the Flying Rivers Operation federal investigation.

Helping himself to a beef dinner in Brasilia, soy billionaire and now agriculture minister, Blairo Maggi.
Helping himself to a beef dinner in Brasilia, soy billionaire and now agriculture minister,
Blairo Maggi. Picture: Adriano Machado / Reuters

Like at least eight others in Temer’s cabinet, Maggi is named in the Operation Car Wash corruption investigation. According to the testimony of Odebrecht construction company executives, Maggi allegedly received $3.6 million in illegal campaign contributions during his 2006 run for governor of Mato Grosso.

‘Maggi is the catalyst of forces that promote agribusiness at any cost,’ says Brazilian agribusiness watchdog, Alceu Castilho, who edits the website De Olho nos Ruralistas.

With 27 other senators, soy-king Maggi presented a constitutional amendment to suspend the demarcation (or boundary-marking) of indigenous lands. This came as a devastating blow to Brazil’s indigenous groups, who had been pursuing the slow legal process for decades.

Then, in July, Temer ordered his administration to paralyze all indigenous land demarcations and approved a proposal that any group not occupying its land when the 1988 Constitution came into force would lose its right to live there. This was a cynical move, as many indigenous people had been expelled from land to which they had a legal claim in the colonial and military eras prior to 1988.

Some 748 pending cases would be halted, and indigenous people would be illegally stripped of their constitutional rights to permanent and exclusive use of their territories. Schemes deemed to be in the ‘national interest’, such as hydroelectric dam and road construction, would be authorized without respecting the indigenous right to consultation.

About 13 per cent of Brazil’s land has been set aside for the country’s 900,000 indigenous people, based on the territories they historically occupied. Overturning this and preventing future demarcations would represent a huge gain for the agribusiness lobby.

Temer got his reward a few days after his announcement. The rural lobby in Congress saved his political skin by voting against Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot’s attempts to send the president to the Supreme Court to face corruption charges. Temer saved his presidency – and himself from potential jail time – for now.

How to resist the land thieves?

At the heart of this story is land theft on a grand scale. And yet a major move to help the thieves steal more easily went virtually unnoticed by both Brazilian and international media. On 12 July – the same day that Lula was sentenced to prison – Temer signed a bill which would make it easier for wealthy land thieves who have illegally occupied and cleared vast areas of public land in the Amazon to legalize their holdings.

The impact of this law will be devastating, and peasants, indigenous groups and the environment will be the biggest losers. It’s also likely to mean the loss of millions of acres of Amazonian rainforest.

Deforestation has been happening at an alarming pace in the Brazilian Amazon – with a 29-per-cent increase in 2016. Norway, a major donor to Brazil’s environmental programme, has warned that its funding will be affected if this trend continues.

In July, some 800 members of the MST occupied farms owned by Temer and others as part of a day of action against the rightwing agrarian reforms and the killing of peasant farmers. They protested under the banner ‘Corrupt People! Give Us Back Our Land’.

In Brasilia earlier this year, indigenous protesters were pushed back by marines and prevented from taking part in a Congress committee session that concerned them. On 9 August, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, indigenous activists were back in Brasilia, protesting outside the Supreme Court.

A week later they won a significant victory when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of two indigenous groups in a land dispute involving the state of Mato Grosso. The Court upheld indigenous land rights and rejected a case brought by the state claiming compensation after land was declared indigenous territory of the Nambikwara and Pareci peoples. A ruling in a third case is expected soon.

Survival International, which has led an international campaign against the assault on indigenous land rights, commented: ‘While the ruling does not end the possibility of further attacks on tribal land rights in Brazil, it is a significant victory against the country’s notorious agribusiness lobby, who have very close ties to the Temer government.’

There is no room for complacency though, and the building of an international network of allies that will put pressure on the Brazilian government is key.

Speaking in Rio’s empty Museu do Indio, Xmaya is convinced that his country’s indigenous people need international support.

‘There is no respect for us here in Brazil. People do not respect our values – to love, to take care of Nature, to look after it, not just to exploit it. They don’t care about us, they don’t see us,’ he says sadly. ‘Temer’s government does not like indigenous people. Under Lula it was better. FUNAI worked, we had healthcare, we had schools. We had demarcation of indigenous land. Now the landowners can attack us and the government does nothing. It says to them, “you can do anything”. It has abandoned us.’

For the fragile environment of the Amazon rainforest, ‘the lungs of the world’, the consequences of Brazil’s current policies are dire. This coup is one that extends far beyond its national boundaries.

It’s not just a coup against Brazilians – but also against the planet.

Header/Thumbnail image: Gregg Newton / Reuters