Conservative Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is once again advocating against the welfare of both the climate and the citizens of Brazil by introducing a bill that would open up protected indigenous lands to commercial mining and agricultural development. This move is not surprising. The far-right figure refused aid during the Amazon rainforest fires and spends his free time illegally fishing in wildlife sanctuaries.
Environmental advocates fear the proposed legislation would lead to the deforestation of much of the most densely forested parts of the Amazon rainforests, one of the world’s largest and most important ecosystems, according to Ecowatch. Bolsonaro promised to open the Amazon rainforests to the mining and agricultural industries and to roll back existing environmental protections before his election. In the wake of his presidency, 3,700 square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been burned to the ground. Bolsonaro refused over $20 million in aid to fight the fires unless the French president, Emmanual Macron, apologized for accusing Brazil of colonialism and imperialism.
The cultural impact of this act would be devastating. Geraldo Magalhães, 42, a Ye’kwana indigenous man and deputy chief of Waikás village, told the Guardian: “Somebody should help us. The government doesn’t care, it wants to finish indigenous people off.” Bolsonaro’s bill would override the part of the Brazilian constitution that gives power exclusively to Brazil’s isolated tribes to decide what activities are allowed on their demarcated land. Though the tribes would be compensated for the use of the land by mining and agricultural industries, they would lack veto power for its use in any capacity, according to Ecowatch.
Brazil has over a hundred distinct, isolated indigeonous tribes — more than any other country, according to the Guardian. Bolsonaro’s intention to open indigenous land to mining, if successful, will be a continuation of a very long history of systematically eliminating these tribes’ land and culture. This is ethnic cleansing in its most basic form. Bolsonaro recently appointed a former evangelical missionary, Ricardo Lopes Dias, to lead the government agency for isolated indigenous tribes, FUNAI. This move has been criticised by NGOs and indigenous advocacy groups as a major step towards genocide. This appointment is speculated to be an attempt to appease the powerful Brazilian evangelical lobbyists. In the past, evangelical missionaries visiting isolated tribes have led to their demise through the spread of diseases like measles and the flu. According to the Guardian, “Dias said he decided as a young man to commit himself to the ‘cause’ of evangelizing among indigenous people.” Indigenous advocacy groups consider evangelizing isolated tribes to be cultural genocide, as it erases existing belief systems and cultural practices, often violently.
Bolsonaro believes that the indigenous groups of Brazil make up too much of the country — 13%, according to the Guardian — and that opening up the land to commercial mining for mineral and gemstone deposits would bring great economic opportunity to the country. This attempt to strip sovereignty from these indigenous groups is actually not in the best economic interest of Brazil, according to former head of FUNAI, Marcio Santilli, who claims the legislation will “not promote the economic development of the Indians, but guarantee the exploitation by third parties of their natural resources. It would encourage Indians to live from royalties while watching the dispossession of their lands.”
As an American, this situation feels all too familiar in the wake of the successful development of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline runs through the states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Illinois and bites through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who feared a leak would pollute the reservation’s water. President Trump reversed an Obama-era decision to block a key permit for the pipeline construction after months of protest by environmental and indigenous advocacy groups, according to NPR. Since its construction in 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline has leaked more than 5,000 gallons of oil, according to The Intercept.
The rise of conservative leaders like President Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro is to the detriment of indigenous people and the environment. The dehumanizing implications of these policies are not to be overlooked. Just earlier this year, Bolsonaro has been quoted as saying “Indians are undoubtedly changing … They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us,” according to The Guardian. His bigotry and ignorance are unacceptable.
Bolsonaro does not see indigenous people as human and sees their constitutionally designated land as an economic opportunity, not environmentally valuable nor culturally sacred.