Brazilian anthropology under attack

One of the most influential groups in the most reactionary congress in Brazilian history is the Rural Lobby (Bancada Ruralista), which represents the interests of large landowners and commercial farmers. In Brazil large landowner means very large indeed, with some families controlling holdings the size of Wales. But even the more modestly endowed members of the lobby are determined to keep Brazil a country where land reform is of marginal significance.

Three categories of people have special rights to claim land in Brazil: indigenous communities, Afrodescendent quilombola communities, and a more diffuse category of other rural inhabitants who can be deemed to have acquired “traditional” rights to the land that they occupy, such as rubber tappers. The rights of these groups are menaced by mining and hydroelectric mega-projects as well as by the strategic role of agribusiness farming not only in feeding huge urban populations but in generating income from exports. It might be argued that the PT governments’ dependence on alliances with the PMDB and other parties not of the left always imposed political constraints on what they could do to foster land reform, although national economic considerations undoubtedly weighed heavily in their posture as well, since agricultural and mineral exports played an important role in making it possible to combine economic growth with redistribution of income before the present crisis.

The Movement of Landless Rural Workers, which mobilises people who cannot make claims on grounds of rights acquired through “traditional occupancy”, including people currently living in cities, is the fourth source of land reform demands. The MST frequently complained that they were getting little in return for the votes that their members gave the PT. Nevertheless, the federal government under Lula did allow a little progress. Dilma Rousseff had a very poor record. She was a firm supporter of the Belo Monte dam project, despite the fact that it caused displacement of indigenous people from their land in an area designated for the protection of their life ways. In her second term she made Kátia Abreu of the PMDB, a leading member of the rural lobby, her Minister of Agriculture. Abreu is a personal friend of the President. She defied her party by refusing to resign as minister and has subsequently strongly attacked the impeachment process. But the appointment of Abreu sent a negative signal, since she advocated relaxing environmental protection laws and could hardly be an advocate for extending land reform. Nevertheless, in April, amongst her final acts before being suspended from office, President Rousseff sought to rebuild her bridges with the social movements that had complained bitterly about her past indifference to land reform issues but did put their members on the streets to protest against the coup, by approving 21 pending land claims in 14 different states.

Under the interim government headed by Michel Temer, the rural lobby in congress has received new guarantees of support. Their aim is to remove authority over land claims decisions from the federal executive branch of government and transfer it to the congress. Under the auspices of this congress, agrarian reform would become a dead letter, and the still lengthy list of pending claims would likely have a negative final outcome. The federal National Institute of Agrarian Reform and Colonisation (INCRA) and FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation) would be incapacitated. An indication of how far Temer was willing to go to appease his ruralista allies was his consideration of a military officer affiliated to the far-right Social Christian Party as the next head of FUNAI. Although he was obliged to abandon this particular proposal after it provoked a storm of protest, one of the tasks of FUNAI is to ensure that what has become a mounting wave of violence and murder against indigenous land claimants does not go unpunished. Under Temer, the landowners behind these attacks seem to be becoming ever bolder, confident that they will enjoy at least the passive complicity of police and judicial authorities.

Brazilian anthropologists are central to the land reform process, since they lend their professional expertise to the process of demarcating territories and writing the reports that evaluate land rights claims in terms of past occupation.  The Brazilian Anthropology Association (ABA) is one of the largest in the world, and has always campaigned actively for indigenous and quilombola rights. This puts them in the firing line, and the rural lobby has been escalating its attacks on anthropologists, individually and collectively, in recent years. But the campaign against anthropology has now reached a new stage following the congress’s creation of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) into the FUNAI and INCRA.

The CPI has now authorised an investigation of the bank accounts of the ABA, along with the personal bank account of its current President, Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima. As the ABA executive, supported by the Executive and Academic Committee of ANPOCS (The Brazilian National Association of Postgraduate Study and Research in Social Sciences), has now publicly declared in letters that have been sent to the President of the Brazilian Supreme Court, Ricardo Lewandowski, this is a clear attempt to criminalise those who defend indigenous and quilombola rights. It would seem ironic that a congress that has so many members accused of corruption should that think the bank accounts of an anthropology association, let alone its President, merit scrutiny, particularly at a time when investigation of the violent deaths of claimants of indigenous and quilombola rights might seem a more urgent task. But it is clear that every possible step is now being taken to cow the anthropological community into submission and undermine the authority of its public advocacy of the land rights of indigenous and Afrodescendent Brazilians.

Here is a translation of part of the ABA letter which accessed to read in full in Portuguese from here.

The acts carried out so far by the CPI reveal an intention to criminalise all activity in defence of human rights in the case of the indigenous and quilombola peoples of the national society, in the face of the repeated and violent threats that constantly hang over them in the contemporary context. An impartial and republican investigation should certainly be finding out about the difficulties that diverse public agencies and civil associations face in providing resources for the defence of these vulnerable and threatened populations, in fulfilment of the dispositions of the Federal Constitution and the international agreements which the Brazilian state has ratified.

ABA, as a scientific association and civil non-profit association, has its action guided by the most perfect openness and transparency, in respect of existing legislation and in fulfilment of the responsibilities imposed on its by its Ethical Code, and has nothing to fear, from the legal point of view, from any parliamentary investigation. But it knows perfectly well how destructive a tendentious political action could be, an action driven by undeclared  interests, opposing the construction of a society that is plural, democratic, and welcoming to difference.

The ANPOCS letter warned of the wider danger presented by the attack on the ABA, remarking that:

A measure of this nature, which evokes dictatorial and McCarthyite practices, is perverse not simply in consequence of the immediate damage it does, but also for the precedent it creates. If it is maintained, it threatens all scientific activity that does not happen to produce results that please certain interest groups, funders of  campaigns and their political representatives.

All anthropologists and social scientists throughout the world should take active steps to support their Brazilian colleagues.