Brazilian Presidential Decree 1775 Poses Threat


The signing of Decree 1775 by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso on Jan. 8 of this year marked a dramatic reversal of Brazilian policy toward the protection of human rights of indigenous peoples and the natural environment throughout the country, but especially in the Amazon region where most indigenous lands are located.

Indigenous areas now make up 11% of the total area of Brazil. Decree 1775 potentially opens up over half of these areas to claims by private or local state development agencies, in apparent violation of the Brazilian Constitution's guarantee of the rights of indigenous peoples to their territories. The economic interests that benefit by the Decree are of the most environmentally and culturally destructive kinds: mining, logging, and ranching. Since it is principally in indigenous areas that natural ecosystems survive relatively intact, the decree poses as grave a threat to the survival of environmental diversity as to cultural diversity.

The consensus of Brazilian observers is that the Decree is part of a political deal, by which Cardoso is giving the conservative business and state development interests of Brazil's Northern states access to indigenous lands and resources in exchange for the support of Northern politicians for his economic reform program in the current session of Congress. The government's ostensible rationale for the decree maintains that it was necessary to avert the threat that the Supreme Court might find indigenous reserves unconstitutional because their demarcation had been carried out without allowing all non-indigenous people with any interests in the indigenous areas to contest the boundaries and enter counter-claims to the land. This claim has been denounced as specious by the Brazilian Bar Association and other legal authorities, and several challenges to its constitutionality have already been brought to the Supreme Court. The effect of the Decree's assertion that most existing reserves are illegal has of course been to create precisely the discussion the government claimed the Decree was intended to avoid. There have already been numerous invasions of previously secure reserves, some accompanied by violence and killing.

The three-month period allowed by the Decree for interested parties to bring claims on Indian land will end in early April. There will then be a two month period for the evaluation and approval of the claims by the ministry of Justice and the President. There is thus time for pressure against giving away indigenous lands under the terms of the Decree to be effective. The American Anthropological Association has condemned the decree and called for its repeal. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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