In Brazil there are approximately 114 indigenous groups that are unaware of the political game in Brasília. In their villages, located in the depths of the Legal Amazon, there has been no news of the approval of Bill 490/2007 by the Chamber’s Committee on Constitution, Justice and Citizenship this Tuesday (the base text was sanctioned last week). They are also unaware of the term “ruralist bench” which, together with the governing base, were responsible for sanctioning the initiative, which represents a setback for the rights of all indigenous peoples in the country. Despite being oblivious to the legislative procedures, for these 114 isolated indigenous groups —who of their own free will have had no contact with society for centuries, but live under pressure from the advance of loggers, miners and agribusiness — the approval of the project could mean its extinction, according to experts heard by EL PAÍS. The text now goes to the House plenary, where it needs to be approved before going to the Senate.
The draft of the project opens a loophole for these isolated peoples, whose total number of individuals is unknown, to be contacted against their will: “In the case of isolated indigenous people, it is up to the State and civil society to respect their freedoms and traditional means. life, and contact should be avoided as much as possible, except to provide medical assistance or to mediate state action of public utility”, says the text, without specifying what this “state action of public utility” would be. Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer at the Instituto Socioambiental, explains the change. “The 1988 Constitution guarantees indigenous uses and customs. Based on this, since the country’s redemocratization, the policy with the isolated has been one of non-contact, as they deliberately choose to remain apart”. According to her, “what the bill is doing is putting an end to this policy, providing for forced contacts, via an abstract and generic concept such as ‘state action in the public interest’, which can encompass anything”.
This unwanted contact by isolated peoples opens the door to their “genocide”, says Batista. Because they live in isolation, they are communities without immunological memory, therefore susceptible to any type of disease. “These are very risky contacts. We have historical reports before the 1988 Constitution of groups that were decimated by flu and epidemics in less than 48 hours after being contacted”, he explains. There is currently a specific sanitary protocol and rules for approaching isolated people — in case there has been accidental contact, or if these indigenous people express a desire for contact. “This approach follows a series of health and anthropological precautions to make this intermediation, with a multidisciplinary team”, explains the lawyer. Any such initiative must go through the Ministry of Health’s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health.
But with the approval of the PL, the contact action can be carried out by “private entities, national or international”, as long as they are contracted by the State to do so. “This can lead to contacts made by institutions without experience in this area. So, in theory, a radical evangelical group interested in the evangelization of these groups or a mining company that wants to exploit their land could be responsible for bringing together isolated Indians”, says Batista. There are already records of evangelical missions working to catechize indigenous people and advance the urbanization project in various parts of the Amazon.
In Peru there is legislation similar to PL 490, which allows private entrepreneurs to make contact with isolated Indians. The result is an extremely high human cost, which is also responsible for the flight of some Peruvian indigenous people to the Brazilian Amazon, mainly in the region of Acre. “Imagine if Eletrobras, responsible for the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, were in charge of approaching people isolated from the meeting. It’s disastrous and unprecedented,” says Carolina Santana, a lawyer at the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated Indigenous Peoples and Recent Contact, who worked for 10 years at Funai. “I don’t see the possibility of a forced contact, without being on their initiative, to bring any benefit to these peoples”, he says.
Finally, the project establishes a legal time frame for the demarcation of indigenous lands. Thus, the original peoples would need to prove that they occupied the claimed region before the date of promulgation of the Federal Constitution of 1988, which would represent a problem for the isolated if they are contacted. “How can an isolated Indian prove this? They have no contact with the national society, how can they attest to their presence in a place before 1988?”, asks Batista.
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The Supreme Court may also bar this project. In the coming weeks, the court will analyze the case of the demarcation of lands by the Xokleng people, in Santa Catarina, which also involves the issue of the time frame and which may have an impact on PL 490 as it has general repercussion validity (that is, it applies to all similar processes). Minister Edson Fachin has already advanced his vote in favor of the Xokleng.
PL 490 is not the first legislation to be processed during the Bolsonaro administration that weakens isolated indigenous peoples. In July 2020, the president signed Law 14,021, which allows, in one of its articles, the permanence of missionaries in the lands of isolated peoples, as long as they are approved by medical teams. “Religious missions that are already in indigenous communities [isoladas] they must be evaluated by the responsible health team and may remain with the approval of the responsible doctor”, says the text. A Direct Action of Unconstitutionality filed by the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil against this legislation is expected to be analyzed by the Supreme Court shortly. The case report is by Minister Luis Roberto Barroso.
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