As the coronavirus pandemic makes its way into the Amazon, raising fears of a genocide of its vulnerable indigenous tribes, the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters are dismantling the rules protecting nature reserves. Key environmental officials have been fired, and environmentalists and indigenous leaders fear the pandemic is being used as a smokescreen for a new assault on the rainforest.
They say that a presidential decree awaiting congressional approval and new rules from the indigenous agency Funai effectively legalize land grabbing in protected forests and indigenous reserves.
“The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are alone and we have to fight against the virus, the loggers and the wild miners. We don't know which one is worse, ”said Alessandra Munduruku, an indigenous leader from the state of Pará.
Bolsonaro, known for his racist comments about indigenous peoples and a nationalist argument in favor of the development of the Amazon, is popular with farmers, miners, loggers and land grabbers. He said the Yanomami indigenous reserve, the largest in Brazil, was too large and attacked environmental agencies for fining people for environmental crimes.
In December 2019 it issued a decree known as MP910, which allows farmers to occupy up to 2,500 hectares within government-controlled reserves to legalize it. An earlier law in 2017 allowed this for lands occupied until 2011; Bolsonaro's decree extended it until 2018.
Critics called it the "land grab decree." Grabbing land in federal reserves by deforesting, burning dead trees, and raising livestock to consolidate possession is a common practice in the Amazon.
"The measure allows the titling of public areas that were illegally deforested in order to obtain the land," said Imazon, a non-profit environmental group. Federal prosecutors said it would make land grabbing even easier, in a detailed analysis.
The decree has until May 19 to be approved by Congress. Farm lobby lawmakers are pushing for a vote before then, amid the pandemic, after proposing changes that will effectively make it even easier and cheaper to legalize occupied land, even if the title-seeking owner already he has received a property title under “agrarian reform” schemes and they sold it.
On April 22, Funai published a new rule to allow land grabbers in indigenous reserves to regularize their lands, provided the reserve has not completed the lengthy demarcation process. That process can take decades to complete and requires presidential approval, and Bolsonaro has vowed not to demarcate “one more centimeter” of indigenous land.
The Funai employee association said the new rule "makes Funai a real estate notary for squatters, land grabbers and land developers on indigenous lands."
The National Human Rights Council, an independent federal body, requested the revocation of the rule, noting that 237 indigenous reservations had not yet completed the demarcation process and another six were "restricted use" areas with reports of isolated groups that do not have immunity to common illnesses like flu, never mind Covid-19. Landgrabbers could now claim the title in all of these.
In a rare move, 49 federal prosecutors across Brazil called for the Funai rule to be overturned for its "unconstitutionality, unconventionality and illegality."
Daniel Azevedo, one of the prosecutors involved, said he encouraged land grabbers to expect similar decrees to be followed.
“The Amazon works like a stock market. What those in power say in the country really influences people's behavior, "he said. "This sends the message that if you deforest now in 2020 or 2021, you will soon own this area," he added. "The trend is that the forest will be very devastated in the next few years."
The land grabbers' defending titles argue that they will help regularize the chaotic land ownership situation in the Amazon. Allowing farmers to title the land they occupied in the past allows them to access credit and improve productivity, reducing their need to expand further into the forest, farmers argue.
Senator Irajá Abreu, who is guiding MP910 through Congress, told Congress on the Focus site that the land grabbing decree was a “good law for 99% of Brazilian families, for Brazilian producers, for people who create jobs ”.
Funai said its new rule "would correct the unconstitutionalities detected in the studies carried out."
Environmentalists challenged that argument. "The government has a project and it is advancing on the forest, on indigenous peoples, to benefit those who want to cut down the forest," said Mariana Mota, a specialist in public policy at Greenpeace Brazil.
As controversy raged over the new rules, Brazilian environmental agency Ibama fired Renê de Oliveira and Hugo Loss, two high-level field specialists, weeks after they coordinated an operation to expel the invaders from indigenous reserves in the state of Pará for fear that they could spread Covid-19.
The operation had been featured on the popular TV show Fantástico, which has also exposed pro-Bolsonaro land grabbers with political connections. Ibama's director of protection, Olivaldi Azevedo, had already been fired.
Environmentalists said reducing protection and encouraging invasions of protected areas risked more violence against those who defend them.
In March, an indigenous teacher, Zezico Guajajara, was assassinated in the state of Maranhão, the fifth murder in the area in six months. In April, Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a teacher from the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve in the Amazonian state of Rondônia, was killed. He was one of a group that patrolled the tribal reservation and had been threatened.
"The invaders believe they can enter the indigenous reservation because of the government's agenda," said Ivaneide Bandeira, of the non-profit group Kanindé, who has worked with the tribe for decades and knew Ari. "Covid is the cover and the excuse."