As Brazil’s economy booms from rising agricultural commodity prices worldwide, conflicts over land in the Amazon – where the agricultural frontier is rapidly expandfing – are also on the rise. At times, the region appears to be ungovernable for the administration of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and the governing Workers’ Party (PT), which face strong pressure to yield to the interests of regional, national and international agribusiness.
Since it came to power in 2003, the Lula government has been embroiled in a conflict between six large-scale rice growers and 19,000 indigenous people over 4.2 million acres of Amazon grassland, forest and river called Raposa Serra do Sol, in the northernmost state of Roraima, on the border with Venezuela and Guiana. Today, the land dispute threatens to provoke a civil war in the region.
Raposa Serra do Sol was demarcated as a single, continuous indigenous reserve by the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1998, and signed into law by President Lula in 2005. Since then, the rice growers, who arrived in the region in the early 1990s, have been required by law to leave their large, landed estates, and offered financial compensation to do so.
Yet they have refused. Instead, due to pressure from the rice growers and other agribusiness interests, the Brazilian Supreme Court is currently deciding whether legislation for demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol may be changed to make it discontinuous, thereby allowing the rice growers to remain on the reserve in “islands”.
The landmark case, supposedly to be decided by the end of this year, will set the stage for the future of indigenous land rights in Brazil. It has drawn the attention of high-level politicians, military officers, international human rights organizations and even the Pope, pitting the interests of economic expansion against those calling for protection of human rights and the environment.
Leading the struggle to change the demarcation is Paulo Cesar Quartiero, the largest rice farmer in Roraima, former mayor of the town of Pacaraima (part of which lies in Raposa Serra do Sol), and president of the Association of Rice Producers of Roraima (ARPR), a powerful group of rice growers integrated into national agribusiness markets.
Quartiero is a “ruralista“: a member of an influential network of politicians at the municipal, state and federal levels that represents the interests of large landowners and national and international agribusiness.
In March, when dozens of indigenous people began to non-violently agitate for full demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol, the federal government ordered federal police to remove Quartiero and the other rice farmers, who thwarted the operation by blowing up bridges into the reserve.
In May, when several Indians non-violently occupied land controlled by Quartiero, he organized a militia to attack them with firearms and explosives, wounding ten people. The federal police later found 149 bombs on Quartiero’s farm that they suspect were produced with the help of military personnel. Quartiero was briefly jailed, then released after posting US$ 250 bail.
While in prison, Quartiero was charged about US$ 16 million by the federal environmental agency (IBAMA) for destruction of permanently protected land, impeding regeneration of grasslands, using state land without authorization, and undertaking agricultural activities in violation of his farming license.
He has appealed the charges. In August, Quartiero made it onto a “Dirty List” compiled by IBAMA of 38 mayoral candidates running for election who were caught practicing some illegal activity in the Amazon.
During the national elections on October 5, Quartiero voted in a missionary school for indigenous children on Raposa Serra do Sol called Surumu. On September 2, the federal prosecutor had indicted Quartiero for organizing a group of armed men to invade Surumu in 2004, destroy school property, threaten students and functionaries of the school, and kidnap three priests working there – whom he allegedly imprisoned for two days.
Though Quartiero lost his bid for re-election, it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will require him to leave Raposa Serra do Sol. If it does, will he accept? Further, will Quartiero be convicted and sentenced for his alleged crimes? The Amazon region is notorious for impunity and violence.
“Quartiero continues free and harassing the Indians. Last week, he destroyed signs for the demarcation of the indigenous land, and desks and tables at the school,” reported Marcy Picanço of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a national Catholic organization that works with indigenous people in Raposa Serra do Sol.
Some in the military have threatened to rebel against the government in support of Quartiero and the other rice farmers. In August, the Associated Press reported that during a meeting at the Military Club of Rio de Janeiro, General Augusto Heleno Pereira, who commands the Amazon region for the Brazilian Army, attacked the federal government’s indigenous policy as “lamentable” and “chaotic”, and even suggested that if were ordered to do so, the army would refuse to remove the rice farmers from Raposa Serra do Sol.
“The Brazilian army does not serve the government but rather the Brazilian state,” General Pereira said. While he was reprimanded by the Minister of Defense, Quartiero called him a patriot, and the state assembly of Roraima voted unanimously to give him the title of Citizen Emeritus.
Many politicians and non-indigenous residents of Roraima support Quartiero and the rice farmers’ fierce determination to stay on the land. “A great part of the area of our state is committed to indigenous land, and if this goes through, 47% of our state will then be demarcated for the Indians, and this endangers our economic development,” José de Anchieta Júnior, Governor of Roraima, told Al Jazeera.
Quartiero and the other rice farmers are integrated into Brazil’s highly-capitalized agricultural sector, replete with expensive machinery, agrochemicals and, possibly, transgenic seeds. According to ARPR, on average, the rice farmers in Raposa Serra do Sol have expanded by 20% per year since their arrival.
According to CIMI, the farmers’ rice is harvested and transported by truck over 400 miles to the Amazon port of Manaus. From Manaus, the rice is sold and distributed to national (and possibly international) markets. The Minister for Agriculture confirms that 70% of rice produced in Roraima is produced in Raposa Serra do Sol.
Yet, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IGBE), Roraima’s contribution to the country’s total agricultural production is tiny: the state produces just 1.3% of Brazil’s rice, and its contribution to all cereals, legumes and oilseeds is only .1% (in fact, the entire north, which represents 45% of Brazil’s national territory and is almost entirely Amazon rainforest, produces just 2.6%).
There are about 750,000 indigenous people in Brazil, of whom 70% live in the Amazon. The families of the five tribes in Raposa Serra do Sol are mostly peasants – camponeses – cultivating beans, corn and manioc for family consumption and local markets, hunting in the forest, and fishing in rivers.
According to Picanço, a continuous reserve is important because land and territory ensure the essential elements for the survival of the indigenous people in Raposa Serra do Sol, and the “physical and cultural reproduction of future generations. All indigenous land demarcations in Brazil are continuous. This is laid out in the Constitution of 1988, and does not allow for the demarcation of reserves as ‘islands’, which signifies separating a people from its own being and condoning it to death.”
Others against changing the demarcation for Raposa Serra do Sol say that it will set a dangerous precedent for the other indigenous territories still in the process of demarcation. “If the Supreme Court alters the demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol, then the ruralistas will pressure to change other indigenous demarcations, in order to amplify land area for planting and mining,” said congressman Adão Pretto, a member of the PT from the state of Rio Grande do Sol, in a recent interview.
“Since 2007, the ruralistas have been pressuring to alter the federal demarcation decrees. There are various legislative decrees-some of which have already been approved-to repeal mandates that create new reserves,” reports Pretto.
Amongst those who support changing the legislation for Raposa Serra do Sol is Abelardo Lupion, a congressman who – like Quartiero – is in the right-wing, reactionary Democratic party. Lupion is presently under federal investigation for alleged corruption through ties to U.S.-based Monsanto Corporation. In March, Lupion presented a proposal to suspend the demarcation of an indigenous reserve in the state of Santa Catarina.
Various reserve demarcations have been suspended. On September 16, after a meeting with the state’s governor that was attended by hundreds of large soybean farmers, FUNAI suspended demarcation of a reserve in Mato Grosso do Sul state. On September 24, the Supreme Court suspended a ruling on the demarcation of an indigenous reserve in Bahia state.
In 2004, the New York Times reported that many indigenous in Raposa Serra do Sol felt betrayed by Lula: “They recall that Mr. da Silva visited here more than a decade ago, expressed support for their plight, and promised that if he ever got into power, he would grant their demand.”
Lula did not sign the legislation for the demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol until two years after he became president. The Times suggested that Lula’s delay was the result of backroom politicking by the PT to consolidate its power. Soon after Lula was elected, Flamarion Portela, then governor of Roraima, switched political parties and joined the PT. In return, the PT may have cut a deal with the rice farmers.
In fact, the Supreme Court’s present deliberation over Raposa Serra do Sol was initiated by Roraima Senator Augusto Botelho, a member of the PT. Botelho proposed the action when he was in the Democratic Workers Party, and became a member of the PT in 2002. According to Picanço, “Botelho should leave the PT, or the PT should ask him to revoke the action or leave the party. Unfortunately, he continues in the PT, contradicting its national policy.”
“The PT in the North suffers a lot of pressure from the ruralistas,” acknowledges congressman Pretto. “In the specific case of Roraima, there is immense pressure from those living on ‘the islands’ that would be extinguished with the demarcation of a [continuous] reserve. However, the PT’s official position is for the demarcation as it is. This position was debated in the executive branch.”
Many others in the PT support the struggle for indigenous land rights. Brazilian Minister of Justice Tarso Genro has repeatedly expressed support for a continuous demarcation in Raposa Serra do Sol. In a 2007 landmark decision, Genro upheld the demarcation of 27,000 acres of land for several indigenous communities in the state of Espírito Santo, thereby requiring Aracruz Celulose S.A. – a multinational corporation that is the largest producer of paper pulp cellulose in the world – to relinquish a large swath of its eucalyptus monocultures.
“The problem is that the Judicial branch is more reactionary than the government,” says José Maria Tardin, a Brazilian member of the international food sovereignty movement La Vía Campesina, whose members in Brazil have repeatedly expressed solidarity with the indigenous people in Raposa Serra do Sol.
The Supreme Court was supposed to make a final decision on Raposa Serra do Sol on August 27. Judge Carlos Ayres de Britto was the first to vote in favor of a continuous reserve. Later that day, Judge Carlos Alberto Menezes Direito requested more time to make a decision, delaying a final vote. One week later, Quartiero and the other rice farmers in Raposa Serra do Sol harvested 150,000 tons of rice, worth about US$ 67 million.
“Some say that it will be 7 to 4 in favor of changing the demarcation legislation, though nothing is certain,” says Pretto. “With Britto’s vote, now the pressure from the ruralistas on the other judges will be much greater.”
If the Supreme Court upholds the legislation for a continuous reserve in Raposa Serra do Sol, and the federal government can compel the rice farmers to leave the territory, the case will serve to advance human rights for indigenous Brazilians, curb impunity and rein in the power of agribusiness. Further, it will help stop industrial agriculture from pillaging what is arguably the planet’s most important ecological asset to climate stability: the Amazon rainforest.
Brazil ranks among the top ten largest emitters of greenhouse gases emissions (GHG), and the primary cause of GHGs from the country is deforestation. In August, IGBE reported that the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 70% in 2007, spurring a loss of 2.4% of the forest. As prices for food and agrofuels skyrocket, farmers in the Amazon are enticed to clear more forest for planting crops, pushing the agricultural frontier further north into the rainforest.
Support for indigenous land rights could help to counter the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. Including the 123 reserves yet to be demarcated, Brazil has 611 reservations on about 13% of Brazilian land, and 70% of indigenous lands (of which Raposa Serra do Sol comprises almost 4%) are in the Amazon region.
Eleanora de Paulo Dias, a spokeswoman at FUNAI, spoke recently from her office in Brasília, “The connection between indigenous land rights and climate protection is fundamental. Indigenous lands are better protected than conservation reserves.”
Alternatively, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the rice farmers and Quartiero continues to enjoy impunity, it is not only the indigenous people in Raposa Serra do Sol who will suffer the consequences; everyone will.
Isabella Rennie Kenfield graduated from Rutgers with a B.A. in anthropology and journalism. She conducted research for her thesis on farm worker equity share schemes for land redistribution in South Africa. Kenfield currently resides in Curitiba, Paraná, in southern Brazil, working as a freelance journalist and as a volunteer with NGOs and social movements engaged in agrarian reform. This article was written for CENSA, the Center for the Study of the Americas, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, California.