The Violence(s) of Ethnocide in Post-Coup Brazil

This week the Brazilian congress is debating the final report of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) set up to “investigate” the federal agencies responsible for assessing the land rights of indigenous, afro-descendent and other groups that have claims to “traditional” occupation of territories under Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) and National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). Set up to further the interests of the agribusiness (ruralista) lobby and packed with members of this group, the purpose of this CPI is to discredit the agencies under review, smoothing the way for a proposed amendment to the Constitution (PEC 215) that would transfer responsibility for demarcating new lands (and ratifying demarcations already approved) from the federal executive branch of government to the congress, a majority of whose members represent nobody besides the business interests that fund their election campaigns.

The argument of the ruralist lobby is that recognition of the rights of subaltern social groups to land is antithetical to the “rational” and “productive” development of the country’s agriculture, as are current regulations designed to protect the environment. Sacrificing indigenous people and conservation areas alike is presented as a necessary condition for fostering national economic growth by opening up more land to large-scale farming and mining operations free of bureaucratic impediments. This is not a new argument, but it is one that now has a strong chance of becoming state policy under the non-elected government brought to power by the coup against Dilma Rousseff. Advancing the progress of PEC 215 through the Congress is the responsibility of Michel Temer’s new Justice Minister, Osmar Serrraglio, appointed in February this year and maintained in his post despite the fact that he was implicated, only a few weeks later, as a provider of political protection in the adulterated meat scandal (Federal Police operation Carne Fraca). This scandal involved all the leading Brazilian brands in the sector (Seara, Swift, Friboi, Vigor, Sadia and Perdigão) and did considerable damage to Brazilian meat exports. It comes as no surprise that the companies responsible for bribing sanitary inspectors to close their eyes and forget inspections were generous donors to political parties in the 2014 elections, although they were even-handed in their support for politicians from all the major parties, including the PT.

The FUNAI is a dependency of the Ministry of Justice, but its president, appointed under the Temer regime, has just been sacked and replaced by an interim incumbent (who is a military man). The ex-president, Antônio Fernandes Toninho Costa, was not, at first sight, a likely friend of the Brazilian Indian. An evangelical pastor nominated by the exceptionally reactionary Social Christian Party, he not only had a predisposition to promote the sometimes controversial work of fellow evangelicals in indigenous communities, but also appeared to endorse some of Serraglio’s more contentious statements about the need to stop talking about indigenous land rights, “since land doesn’t fill anybody’s belly”, and the need to “modernise” the Indians and insert them into the labour market. Nevertheless, as a dentist by original profession, Costa did have practical experience of working to improve the healthcare of indigenous Brazilians and a commitment to health and educational programs adapted to their specific needs. He was also ethical enough to have resisted pressures from the then government leader in the congress, PSC deputy André Moura, to pack FUNAI with political appointees, and criticised Serraglio’s posture with regard to FUNAI for its evident reflection of a PEC 215 agenda that seemed designed to advance the dispossession and ethnocide of indigenous people. Conflict over the direction of state policy towards indigenous people therefore existed before another dramatic episode of violence towards indigenous people linked to an unresolved territorial dispute provided a further pretext for sacking the FUNAI president. When Serraglio laid the blame for that episode on FUNAI’s lack of timely and efficient action to investigate pending land demarcation issues in conflict situations, Costa responded by pointing out that the Institute’s work was now severely impeded by draconian budget cuts.

The recent episode of violence in question occurred on April 30, in the municipality of Viana in Maranhão. The conflict was between local farmers and indigenous people of the Gamela ethnic group, who had re-occupied an area of land to which they claimed ancestral rights of possession. There were dozens of wounded, but what made headlines was that two Gamela virtually had their hands hacked off by their assailants. It is important to understand exactly what was at stake in this conflict to understand why it took this grotesquely violent form, for this was not a simple confrontation between big farmers and helpless indigenous victims. The  vast majority of people living in this municipality are poor, and many of the non-Indian farmers who participated in the violence were not only relatively poor themselves but anxious about their own land rights. Here, as in many other cases, inside and outside Brazil, the existence of a conflict situation is the historical result of past illegalities and injustices provoked by the actions of more powerful local actors (including judges and politicians profiting from illegal land transactions). The Gamela seem to have a strong claim to being victims of past dispossession from lands that their ancestors had traditionally occupied, but their opponents also had a sense of grievance that was irresponsibly cultivated by local authorities who took no steps whatsoever to avert a conflict that both sides had seen coming for over a year. In fact, they inflamed it. Federal Deputy Aluísio Mendes denounced the Gamela as “pseudo-Indians” on the radio days before the violence, and this served to confirm the prejudices of the non-indigenous residents, who insisted that they did not look like Indians. As anthropologist Caroline Leal pointed out in an interview with El País Brasil, the Gamela are indeed, like many others in Brasil, the descendants of indigenous people who mixed with other local groups, including members of rural black communities.  In different historical circumstances, they had preferred invisibility and linguistic and cultural accommodation to assertion of a “different” identity. But the fact that the Gamela do not conform to Brazilian stereotypes of painted and feathered Indians does not erase either their right to historical memory or their constitutional right to reclaim their lands.

Anthropologists and ethnohistorians have a crucial role to play in reconstructing the processes that shaped the rural societies of colonial and post-colonial Brazil, processes which it is essential to understand in all their complexity (and violence) if justice and appropriate reparation is to be achieved in the present. But it is the task of the state as an arbitrating authority to ensure that justice for descendants of the original inhabitants of Brazil is combined with justice and security for the other poorer Brazilians who might otherwise be victimised by a settlement that did not take their interests into account. This why federal institutions like FUNAI and INCRA need to be preserved and their ability to deal reasonably and efficiently with competing claims and demands needs to be enhanced rather than subverted. The Supreme Court has already weakened some of the provisions of the Constitution that broadened the basis for land claims and rooted them in a more realistic understanding of a history of colonisation and frequent failure of the law to provide certainty and clarity to land tenure because of its frequent subversion by more powerful local actors and a compliant judiciary. The Temer government does include some figures who have a very practical personal understanding of how agrarian property relations can be manipulated. Eliseu Padilha, Temer’s Chief of Staff, is not only a target of the Operation Carwash (Lava Jato) investigation, but has been accused in several different cases of illegal usurpation and trafficking of public lands as well as violation of environmental protection laws. The ruralistas are clearly now seeking to legalise past illegalities. By handing over control to a congress populated by these kinds of figures, PEC 215 really does threaten to put an end to the Indian. The UN is now criticising Brazil for embarking on a profound regression in the area of indigenous rights and non-compliance with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which the country was a signatory.

The violence in Viana will not be the last tragic outcome of the climate that is being cultivated by the ruralista strategy in the congress and the central position of leading figures in this lobby within the federal government. The language of contempt employed by some leading ruralistas has a frightening resonance with elite perspectives in the nineteenth century, when military extermination of rural Brazilians who rejected the order and progress of capitalist development and were considered “degenerated” products of race mixing was the order of the day.

The CPI of FUNAI and INCRA has proposed legal prosecution of all those who stand in the way of the ruralist agenda. The list includes indigenous leaders, NGOs, and anthropologists.  I reproduce verbatim below the English version of a letter protesting against the anti-indigenous policy of the Brazilian government that is to be sent to the Office of the President of Brazil, FUNAI and the Federal Public Ministry. The original deadline for signature was tomorrow, Friday 12, but this has now been extended to Sunday 14 May. International pressure is extremely important in this case. If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, please send an email to, with your full name and institution in the subject line, leaving the body of the email blank.

We, teachers, intellectuals, and members of the academic world, hereby express our vehement repudiation of the anti-indigenous policy of the Brazilian State, and likewise raise our collective voice regarding policies whose dire, genocidal consequences have already been demonstrated in states such as Mato Grosso do Sul, Bahia, and Maranhão.
In the last five years, attacks on indigenous rights have been escalating and clearing a space for the reformulation of indigenous policies, including the challenging and possible removal of hard-won legal achievements.  The constitutional rights of indigenous peoples are held hostage by the political situation in Brazil by means of a potential amendment to the Constitution (PEC 215) that could be presented, voted upon, and approved in the National Congress. This assault on the Constitution is mainly led by the so-called “ruralist” coalition.
Beginning in October 2013 with the imposition of nineteen conditions by the Federal Supreme Court for the demarcation of one specific indigenous territory, Raposa Serra do Sol (which itself was the target of legal battle), judicial attacks gained have grown steadily, as the Supreme Court is the source of jurisprudence. The Court’s actions gave rise to novel legal concepts without basis in the Constitution, which supported both anti-indigenous rhetoric on the one hand, and, more harmfully, the intervention of judicial decisions over indigenous lands, on the other. The most important of these new concepts is the “Temporal Deadline” (marco temporal), which maintains that the Indians would only have right to lands effectively occupied before October 5, 1988, the date of the establishment of Brazil’s current Constitution after the military dictatorship. Although the Federal Supreme Court decided that the conditions of Raposa Serra do Sol were not binding on other sub-judicial demarcations, the “temporal deadline” provision allowed the Court to annul the demarcations of Guarani-Kaiowá and Canela Indigenous Lands (located in Mato Grosso do Sul and Maranhão, respectivley), and most seriously, also to annul in 2015 the demarcation of the Terena Limão Verde Indigenous Land, also in Mato Grosso do Sul, which had been approved and demarcated over 10 years prior.
In legislative terms, actions against the constitutional rights of indigenous people began a few years after the promulgation of the Constitution, always aimed at weakening or annihilating indigenous rights to land. This is the tenor of PEC 215 (Proposed Amendment to the Constitution 215), the purpose of which is to transfer to Congress (from the executive branch) the processes of demarcating new indigenous lands and ratifying already registered ones.  In practice, this would prevent new demarcations and to legitimize alterations to existing indigenous territories, allowing specialized, political interests to use rule-making to their own ends. 
The latest attack by Congress is the CPI (Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry) aimed at investigating federal agencies that oversee indigenous land policy and other traditional populations, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and the National Institute for Colonization and Reform Agrarian Association (INCRA). This inquiry aims to destabilize the demarcation process as a whole by attacking these institutions, as well as some of the principal non-governmental institutions that support the indigenous struggle and also the anthropologists directly involved in some of these processes (groups targeted by the CPI include the Indigenist Missionary Council [CIMI], the Socio-Environmental Institute [ISA], the Indigenist Work-Center (CTI), and the Brazilian Association of Anthropology [ABA]). Its final report, which may be approved as soon as May 8, 2017, proposes the mass indictment of indigenous leaders, anthropologists, advocates of indigenous people, religious leaders, and prosecutors. Most of these people have not even been summoned by the CPI, and their right to defense has been compromised.
In the current federal government, which was elevated to power following a somewhat questionable impeachment process, that which had been an attack on indigenous rights became “reform,” as the ruralist party is now installed in the Ministry of Justice in the person of Minister Osmar Serraglio, the legislative rapporteur of PEC-215.
This is the current situation faced by indigenous peoples in Brazil, the result of which is a situation of legal insecurity that generates an exponential increase of violence and legitimizes actions such as the brutal attack just a few days ago on the Gamela in Maranhão.  This is one more case in a series of acts of violence perpetrated against indigenous populations, which translates, on the one hand, into forced displacement, forced migration to the outskirts and slums of cities, problems of collective health, food insecurity, murder, rape, alcoholism and suicide; and, on the other hand, the increasing criminalization of indigenous leaders.
We therefore ask the Brazilian State to respect the constitutional rights of the indigenous peoples of the nation as well as the international treaties that protect traditional populations. We all know that these lands are fundamental to their survival and to maintaining the diversity of life on the planet.
Simone Dreyfus – Président, Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones (GITPA)
Jonathan D. Hill – President, Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA)
Lia Zanotta Machado – Presidente, Associação Brasileira de Antropologia (ABA)