Hundreds of indigenous people protested on Wednesday in front of the headquarters of Congress in Brazil to demand that a bill that could weaken the protections of their lands be rejected, an initiative that has already sparked clashes with the police.
Groups of indigenous people have been protesting in the capital for days. Wearing traditional garb and bows, they marched to Congress, where they sang and danced.
A group of women handed roses to the guards who were guarding the demonstration. The day before, the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and the indigenous people responded by firing arrows, one of which penetrated the leg of an officer.
According to the proposal for debate in the Constitution and Justice Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, indigenous people who want full protection of their lands must prove that they lived there in 1988, the year the Constitution was approved after the dictatorship.
The commission approved the bill on Wednesday night, paving the way for it to be voted on in plenary.
Pro-indigenous groups argue that the date ignores the fact that many tribes were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands, particularly during the dictatorship, or have no way of legally proving they own the territory.
There are currently 237 requests for the protection of ancestral lands, most of them small and located outside the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil, according to Juliana Batista, a lawyer with the Instituto Socioambiental, a nonprofit organization.
“It is a huge conflict because they are on land within a context of real estate speculation, cities and many pressures from economic interests,” Batista said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
“If they can’t prove that this land belongs to them, they could lose it,” he added.
Supporters of the law argue that it will give legal protection to agricultural producers, supporters of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. The president has insisted that indigenous people control too much territory in proportion to their population: their lands comprise 14% of Brazil, the majority in the Amazon rainforest, and he has expressed strong intentions to promote development.
“Brazil has enormous potential with that 14%, that vast area of our indigenous brothers,” said the president in a message on social networks in April, detailing the great variety of agricultural crops that the country has.
“We want to integrate indigenous people into society, indigenous people want to integrate into society, and we are not going to do anything that our indigenous brothers do not want to do,” Bolsonaro emphasized.
The protests of indigenous people in Brasilia seek to show that they are in fact opposed to any changes that deprive them of their rights.
The initiative would also allow the government to assign so-called indigenous reserves demarcated before 1988 if the cultural characteristics of the groups have changed. That could apply to more than 60 areas totaling about 400,000 hectares (about 1,500 square miles), where about 70,000 people live, according to the institute.
“The initiative threatens lands that have already been approved and demarcated and opens space for illegal mining and deforestation if it is approved,” Kretã Kaingang, an indigenous leader from the southern region of Brazil, said in an interview. “It violates all our rights.”
Indigenous protesters stood around a giant loudspeaker Wednesday to listen to the proceedings of the legislative commission. They said Tuesday’s clashes began when they tried to retreat from the intense sun into a shady area.
“For decades we have faced invasions by miners, violence, assassinations of leaders,” said Dinamã Tuxá, an indigenous leader from the northeastern state of Bahia. “And then we came to denounce precisely what is happening within our territories and we face the same situation.”
In the past, the Federal Supreme Court has ruled against initiatives to open indigenous territories to business interests, determining that there can be no commercial development in the reserves.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.