Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has fired the head of the indigenous affairs agency after a push to free reservation lands, including those in the Amazon rainforest, for commercial agriculture and mining. It was confirmed that the head of the National Indigenous Affairs agency (FUNAI), Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, was removed from his position by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights that oversees the agency. The move is broadly seen as an attempt to destabilize the organization and follows Bolsonaro’s pattern of hostility to Indigenous and environmental issues.
Dinaman Tuxá, the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB), predicted that Bolsonaro’s policies would result in an “increase in deforestation and violence against indigenous people” and cited the role of Brazil’s indigenous population as “defenders and protectors of the environment.” Freitas has been reported to have said Bolsonaro was “very poorly advised” and accused Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, the secretary of land affairs in the Ministry of Agriculture of being responsible for his dismissal. It is reported that in a statement to FUNAI staff, he said Nabhan “froths hate” for indigenous people and that Bolsonaro’s government views FUNAI as “an obstacle to national development.” Indigenous land demarcations account for approximately 13 percent of Brazil’s national territory, and they are inhabited and exclusively possessed by indigenous people. Of this area, about 98 percent is in the Amazon, repeatedly cited by environmental scientists as a critical global bulwark against the compounding impacts of climate change.
The significant threat Bolsonaro’s policies pose to the Amazon is already manifesting in the reduced action against illegal deforestation by the government’s environmental agency, IBAMA. This year has seen the lowest rate of fine imposition by IBAMA in 11 years. According to the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, fines for illegal deforestation have been reduced by 34 percent between January and May this year compared to in the same period in 2018. This is despite the recent figures from the National Institute of Spatial Research reflecting that May 2019 saw the highest ever recorded rate of illegal deforestation in the rainforest. It is likely the firing of Freitas will only exacerbate the damage by undermining an organization that has been working to protect the Amazon. It is clear the President is attempting to sideline the indigenous and environmental issues in favour of blatant profiteering.
The President has been described as alt-right and one Washington Post article dubbed him “Brazil’s version of Trump.” When he came into power in 2018, his election promises included ending demarcation of new indigenous lands and reducing the power of environmental agencies to make way for mining and commercial farming. Once elected he announced his intention to assimilate the 800,000 indigenous people who live on reserves and attempted to transfer power over indigenous reserves from FUNAI to Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture. The shift of control was ultimately rejected by the lower house of Congress, with the Ministry widely understood to be beholden to the country’s powerful agribusiness lobby and have a vested interest in prioritizing profits over indigenous peoples and the environment. As well as elevating corporate interests, the President has increasingly quashed political dissent and, like Freitas, the government Secretary was recently sacked due to a failure to ideologically align himself with Bolsonaro. General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz was considered one of the most prominent moderates in the Bolsonaro administration and many had hoped he would be able to somewhat temper the President’s radical disposition.
Under Bolsonaro it is apparent that both environmental and indigenous concerns are being silenced in favour of corporate interests and profits. With a President that is both unconcerned with such issues and seemingly unwilling to indulge disagreement, the prospects for the country seem dire. Activism and more vigorous opposition are essential to preserving the Amazon and indigenous Brazilian culture from the threat posed by the regime before it is too late.