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The far right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a smokescreen to undo environmental regulations and undermine the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples and traditional Afro-Brazilian communities in the Amazon.
The strategy of the Bolsonaro’s government and its allies in congress is very clear: to take 9.8 million hectares from Indigenous and traditional territories in the Amazon to seize more land for agribusiness.
These actions pose an existential threat to Indigenous Peoples and others living in communities in the Amazon, as the new policies would effectively disintegrate their territories and lead to more deforestation in the coming years.
Turning crime into legal activities
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro’s government has ushered in a rapid process of dismantling of policies that protect Indigenous and traditional communities. There are 305 Indigenous groups in Brazil and 35 per cent of the territories they claim have not been recognized by the government.
On April 22, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the Brazilian government agency that oversees policies relating to Indigenous peoples, introduced new guidelines that would encourage land-grabbing of un-demarcated Indigenous lands.
On May 12, the so-called “ruralist bench,” a group of wealthy landholders with an important presence in congress, failed to approve a measure (MP910) that would have legalized the occupation of Indigenous lands by land-grabbers, usually for the purpose of deforestation, agribusiness or mining.
This temporary victory, the result of public pressure, was overshadowed by the presentation of another proposed bill, with the same intentions, on May 14.
FUNAI and the secretary of land affairs are controlled by two representatives from the ruralist bench. They have openly opposed agrarian reform and the demarcation of Indigenous lands. They also have acknowledged their intentions to undo environmental and Indigenous protections, and are aligned with Bolsonaro who said, “I will not demarcate an extra square centimetre of Indigenous land. Period.”
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles reiterated this position in April, when he advised Bolsonaro and his cabinet to take advantage of the media’s attention on COVID-19. He argued COVID-19 was an opportunity to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, and change “all the rules and simplifying standards” in all the ministries to facilitate agribusiness and mining projects.
Quilombola Afro-Brazilian territories at risk
These measures will also have devastating impacts on the 3,658 territories that are home to Quilombola, descendants of escaped slaves. Only 180 of them have been fully titled.
The plight of the Quilombola under Bolsonaro’s government has received little press. Land conflicts that involved some form of violence, caused by alleged landowners and/or land-grabbers, peaked in 2019. According to data from the Pastoral Land Commission, 13,687 Quilombola families were involved in land conflicts and the lives of 15 leaders were threatened in that year alone. This was the highest number of land conflicts recorded by the commission since 1985.
Our research shows how the Quilombola community of Nova Betel in the municipality of Tomé-Açu, in the Amazonian state of Pará —as well as many Quilombola territories that are not yet demarcated and fully recognized by the Brazilian state— could disappear under Bolsonaro’s government.
Nova Betel contains 1,850 hectares of land, certified in 2016 by Fundação Cultural Palmares (FCP) —the first (and easiest) step on the long path to collective land rights. Despite this, deforestation and land-grabbing have accelerated in Nova Betel since 2007. For example, Biopalma da Amazônia S.A, owned by Vale, one of the world’s largest mining companies, has planted palm oil trees in 75 per cent of Nova Betel’s territory.
Other projects also threaten to take land from the Quilombola community. A pipeline, power transmission line and even a government-proposed railway cut through their territory. Each of these initiatives pushes the Quilombola members towards selling their lands.
Our interviews in May with Quilombola leaders in Nova Betel revealed how employees of the Transmission Company of Energy of Pará S.A (ETEP) pressured eight families to allow a power line to cross through their territory. ETEP offered each family about US$580 as financial compensation, but they refused.
Not only did ETEP violate the Quilombola right to self-determination and prior consultation as enshrined in the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, but it also breached the health protocols introduced by the community during the pandemic, putting at risk the health of isolated and vulnerable Quilombola families.
Quilombola lives matter
The racist discourse of the Bolsonaro government together with the COVID-19 pandemic wreak havoc on Quilombola communities in the Amazon. According to the COVID-19 Observatory in Quilombos, a joint initiative of the National Organization for the Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (CONAQ) and the Socio-Environmental Institute, an independent non-profit civil society organization, the mortality rate among Quilombola is 25.1 per cent, the highest among all social groups within Brazil.
In the states of Pará and Amapá, Quilombola account for 54.9 per cent of COVID-19-verified deaths. The inequality in the fight against COVID-19 caused by historic dynamics of institutional racism will have a devastating impact on Quilombola people if the disease maintains this rate of spread and lethality.
Taking inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, CONAQ launched on May 12 the campaign #Vidas Quilombolas Importam (Quilombola Lives Matter) to condemn the racism against Afro-Brazilians.
Bolsonaro’s government, however, has refused to take urgent measures to safeguard the lives of Quilombola during COVID-19 and to provide protection to their land rights.
Elielson Pereira da Silva is a doctoral student in Desenvolvimento Socioambiental at the Federal University of Pará. Diana Cordoba is Assistant Professor of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University, Ontario.