Brazil using coronavirus to cover up assaults on Amazon, warn activists

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As the coronavirus pandemic eats its way into the Amazon, raising fears of a genocide of its vulnerable indigenous tribes, the government of the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, and its supporters are dismantling rules shielding protected reserves. Key environment officials have been sacked, and environmentalists and indigenous leaders fear the pandemic is being used as a smokescreen for a new assault on the rainforest.

They say a presidential decree awaiting congressional approval and new rules at the indigenous agency Funai effectively legalise land grabbing in protected forests and indigenous reserves.

“The indigenous peoples are alone and we have to fight against the virus, the loggers and the wildcat miners. We don’t know which is worse,” said Alessandra Munduruku, an indigenous leader from Para state.

Bolsonaro, notorious for racist remarks about indigenous people and a nationalist argument in favour of developing the Amazon, is popular among farmers, wildcat miners, loggers and land grabbers. He said the Yanomami indigenous reserve – Brazil’s largest – was too big and attacked environment agencies for fining people for environmental crimes.

In December 2019 he issued a decree known as MP910, allowing farmers squatting up to 2,500 hectares within government-controlled reserves to legalise it. A previous law in 2017 allowed this for land squatted until 2011; Bolsonaro’s decree extended it until 2018.

Critics called it the “land grabbers decree”. Grabbing land on federal reserves by deforesting it, burning the dead trees and putting cattle on it to consolidate possession is common practice in the Amazon.

“The measure permits titling public areas which were illegally deforested with the objective of obtaining the land,” said Imazon, a non-profit environmentalist group. Federal prosecutors said it would further facilitate land grabbing, in a detailed analysis.

The decree has until 19 May to be approved by Congress. Lawmakers from the agricultural lobby are pushing for a vote before then, in the midst of the pandemic, after proposing changes that will effectively make it even easier and cheaper to legalise squatted land – even if the landowner seeking title has already received a land title under “agrarian reform” schemes and sold it on.

On 22 April, Funai published a new rule to allow land grabbers on indigenous reserves to regularise their land, provided the reserve has not completed the lengthy demarcation process. That process can take decades to complete and requires presidential approval – and Bolsonaro has vowed not to demarcate “one centimetre” more of indigenous land.

The Funai employees’ association said the new rule “turns Funai into a real-estate notary for squatters, land grabbers and land developers in indigenous lands”.

The National Council of Human Rights, an independent federal body, called for the rule be revoked, noting that 237 indigenous reserves had yet to complete the demarcation process and another six were “restricted use” areas with reports of isolated groups who have no immunity to common diseases such as the flu, never mind Covid-19. Landgrabbers could now claim title in all of these.

In a rare move, 49 federal prosecutors across Brazil called for the Funai rule to be annulled for its “unconstitutionality, unconventionality and illegality”.

Daniel Azevedo, one of the prosecutors involved, said it encouraged land grabbers who would expect similar decrees to follow.

“The Amazon works like a stock market. What those in power in the country say really influences people’s behaviour,” he said. “This passes on a message that if you deforest now in 2020 or 2021, you will soon become owner of this area,” he added. “The tendency is the forest will be heavily devastated in the next few years.”

Those defending titles for land grabbers argue they will help regularise the Amazon’s chaotic land ownership situation. Allowing farmers to title land they squatted in the past lets them access credit and improve productivity, reducing their need to expand further into the forest, farmers argue.

Senator Iraja Abreu, who is guiding MP910 through Congress, told the Congress in Focus site that the land grabbers decree was a “good law for 99% of Brazilian families, for Brazilian producers, for people who create jobs”.

Funai said its new rule would “correct unconstitutionalities detected in studies carried out”.

Environmentalists challenged that argument. “The government has a project and it is advancing over the forest, over indigenous peoples, to benefit those who want the forest cut down,” said Mariana Mota, a public policy specialist at Greenpeace Brazil.

Deforestation in Brazil began rising in 2013, after a decade of decline and a year after an overhaul of Brazil’s forest code by the leftist president Dilma Rousseff included an amnesty for people who deforested before 2008. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation has rocketed, reaching 9,800 square kilometres in the year to July 2019.

As controversy over the new rules raged, Brazil’s environment agency Ibama sacked Rene de Oliveira and Hugo Loss, two high-level field specialists, weeks after they coordinated an operation to expel invaders on indigenous reserves in Para state over fears they could spread Covid-19. The operation had featured on the popular television show Fantastico, which has also exposed pro-Bolsonaro land grabbers with political connections. Ibama’s director of protection, Olivaldi Azevedo, had already been sacked.

Environmentalists said reducing protection and encouraging invasions of protected areas risked more violence against those who defend them.

In March an indigenous teacher, Zezico Guajajara, was murdered in Maranhao state, the fifth killing in the area in six months. In April, Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a teacher from the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve in the Amazon state of Rondonia, was murdered. He was one of a group that patrolled the tribe’s reserve, and had been threatened.

“The invaders think they can enter the indigenous reserve because of the government agenda,” said Ivaneide Bandeira, of the non-profit group Kaninde, who has worked with the tribe for decades and knew Ari. “Covid is the cover and the excuse.”

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