Brazil: Landowning-Military Front Against Indigenous Policy

(IPS) – The battle to defend Brazil’s Amazon region "began in Roraima," according to Paulo Cesar Quartiero, a central figure in land conflicts in the indigenous border territory of Raposa Serra do Sol (RSS) which are prompting politicians and military officers to organise an opposition front.

Quartiero, a 55-year-old agronomist, moved from the far south to the north of the country 32 years ago and settled in Roraima, a jungle state bordering Guyana and Venezuela, where he acquired two farms with a combined area of 9,200 hectares and became a large-scale rice producer.

In 2004 he was elected mayor of Paracaima, a town of 9,000 people.

In early May he was arrested and held in Brasilia for nine days on charges of possession of explosives and supplying guns to men who shot 10 indigenous people who — Quartiero says — were invading his land.

If anything, this seems to have confirmed his leadership of those who, like him, are opposed to the recognition of the RSS as a single, unbroken indigenous territory of 1.7 million hectares.

"We are not concerned about money, we won’t accept compensation" in exchange for quitting large landholdings within the RSS Indian reservation, because that "would mean death, after 32 years of cultivating and tilling the soil," Quartier told IPS.

"We only want 4.7 percent of that land, for the 200 farmers" who are still in the area, which has been demarcated but has not yet been formally given in possession to between 15,000 and 20,000 indigenous people who live on it.

What Quartiero is asking would mean dividing the RSS reservation into separate "islands," even thought it was officially demarcated as a continuous territory by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2005, after judicial appeals and debates that dragged on for nearly two decades. The decision followed the principles laid down in the 1988 constitution.

Most of the farmers occupying land in the territory agreed to leave, but the group headed by Quartiero is refusing to go.

Federal police commenced Operation Upatakon 3 on Mar. 27 to remove all "non-indigenous" settlers from the RSS, but the Supreme Court suspended the action two weeks later at the request of the state government of Roraima, to prevent bloodshed.

Now the Supreme Court must decide whether or not to ratify the demarcation of the RSS as a continuous area, as authorised by President Lula.

Quartiero admits that most of the local farmers have no legal title to the land they occupy: "only a few of them do." As for himself, he bought one of his estates from people who had been the legal owners since 1922, "well before the current policy was introduced" and indigenous affairs institutions were established, he said.

The governor of Roraima, José de Anchieta Junior, and Quartiero were in Rio de Janeiro last week at a seminar organised by the Aeronautical Club, speaking before hundreds of people, many of whom were retired air force officers.

A political-military alliance is taking shape, catalysed by the controversy over the RSS reservation, which is critical of the government’s indigenous and environmental policies and calls for the defence of the Amazon against alleged foreign threats.

A Parliamentary Front in Support of the Armed Forces in the Amazon was formed on May 27 in the lower house of Congress in Brasilia during a session attended by generals and many other officers of all three armed forces.

Its members oppose the demarcation of indigenous reservations like the RSS and the presence of non-governmental organisations which, in their view, represent foreign interests in the Amazon.

The movement gained momentum when, in mid-April, the military commander of the Brazilian Amazon region, General Augusto Heleno, condemned the demarcation of the RSS as an unbroken area and said the government’s indigenous policies were "chaotic."

Other high-ranking officers also alleged that the RSS, on the border with Guyana and Venezuela, was a threat to national sovereignty.

"The government’s policies for indigenous people are inconsistent and irresponsible," said the governor of Roraima at the Aeronautical Club.

Anthropological studies that justified the demarcation of the RSS were carried out in an "authoritarian" manner, without listening to all the parties involved, and ran counter to local reality, without taking into account economic issues and the heterogeneity of the indigenous groups, Anchieta said.

"One hundred percent of Roraima’s politicians," as well as the business community and the non-indigenous people living in the area, are opposed to the demarcation of the continuous territory, he said.

Anchieta and Quartiero accused the Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR), which has the support of the Catholic Church, of imposing its will as the self-proclaimed representative of local indigenous people, allied with the state National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI).

In Quartiero’s view, a verdict by the Supreme Court annulling the continuous demarcation of the RSS would be "a historic step," but would not be sufficient to develop and populate Roraima, which he described as "empty."

"The central government should stop interfering in our activities" and should promote policies to support local development, he said.

The common front with the armed forces is due to their "having the same national defence goals and interests," he said, arguing that the demarcation of vast indigenous reservations and nature preserves creates "vacuums" that serve foreign interests.

Joao Ricardo Moderno, president of the Brazilian Academy of Philosophy, was even more explicit about the fear of foreign invasion when he spoke at the Aeronautical Club.

It would be "treason" for Brazil’s president or parliament to embrace the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007, he said.

In Moderno’s view, the Declaration’s recognition of "indigenous nations" forms "part of a neocolonial strategy" to occupy land with foreign troops, aimed "mainly at Brazil."

He also said that he opposed South American integration because it emulated Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s "Bolivarian" model, which he said was inspired by the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Sociologist Helio Jaguaribe, an 84-year-old member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, contributed to the movement against current indigenous policy his ideas in favour of "voluntary and gradual adaptation" of native tribes to modern culture, through education, social welfare and high-level professional training.

"It is essential to change" official policy, which is dictated by anthropologists and based on the "fallacy" that "primitive cultures" should be preserved, and are incompatible with Western culture, he said.