As Bolsonaro Keeps Amazon Vows, Brazil’s Indigenous Fear ‘Ethnocide’


The country’s 1988 Constitution tried to redress some of these wrongs.

It ended the military-era policy that had encouraged the assimilation of Indigenous people and recognized their “customs, languages, beliefs and traditions.”

The Constitution also established a process of land demarcation that over the years created the vast patchwork of 567 protected Indigenous territories. In 2010, when Brazil conducted its last census, about 517,000 of the country’s 897,000 Indigenous people lived in those lands.

On his first day in office, Mr. Bolsonaro transferred the land demarcation process from the National Indian Foundation, known as FUNAI, to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is heavily influenced by the agribusiness lobby. The Supreme Court blocked the move, finding it unconstitutional, but all pending demarcation cases remain frozen.

In addition to the challenge on transferring FUNAI, Mr. Bolsonaro has encountered other setbacks or delays. Leaders in Congress have signaled they are not in a hurry to move forward on his bill to authorize energy projects in Indigenous lands.

But the power of the presidency still gives him plenty of opportunity to further his vision.

The government recently appointed a former Christian missionary, Ricardo Lopes Dias, to head the FUNAI division in charge of protecting uncontacted tribes. While Mr. Dias has pledged not to use his post to proselytize, his appointment incited fears the government will allow missionaries to make contact with isolated communities, which are vulnerable to dying en mass from common diseases during such encounters.

A representative of FUNAI said the agency is investing in entrepreneurship and sustainability programs like artisanal fishing and small-scale honey-making ventures that are meant to encourage the autonomy of Indigenous communities.

For years before Mr. Bolsonaro became president, FUNAI had already been contending with personnel shortages and lean budgets, which forced the agency to abandon several outposts in remote areas and cut the frequency of visits to villages.

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