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Demarcation - And Then What? Brazil takes a step, but its commitment to protecting indigenous lands is not proven.

Demarcation-And Then What? Brazil takes a step, but its commitment to. protecting indigenous lands is not proven.

On November 15, 1991, Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello announced that he had authorized demarcation of the Yanomami territory of some 36,000 square miles in the states of Roraima and Amazonas. On his left stood then-environmental secretary José Lutzenberger, looking pleased; on his right, the army minister Gen. Carlos Tinoco, frowning, Sidney Possuelo, the president of Brazil's Indian protection agency (FUNAI), a longtime defender of indigenous rights, was overcome by emotion and had to receive medical attention for a suspected heart attack.

In the days that followed, a tidal wave of opposition swept through Brasilia. Members of Congress from Roraima, 40 percent of whose territory was included in the decree, filed suit against the demarcation; representatives from other frontier states introduced a bill to limit the amount of land that could be demarcated to 500 acres per Indian. Gov. Gilberto Mestrinho of Amazonas went much further, threatening to send state police with machine guns to shoot any FUNAI agent who might try to demarcate indigenous territory in the state. The federal attorney general's office called this statement an incitement to crime, but the federal government took no action against the governor.

A few days later, despite the backlash, the Brazilian Congress approved a supplementary appropriation of about $2.7 million to pay the costs of physically demarcating the Yanomami reserve. In London, Washington, and other First World capitals, indigenous-rights advocates and environmentalists put away the protest banners they had been carrying in front of Brazilian embassies for as long as four years. An invasion by thousands of gold prospectors starting in 1987 had decimated the Yanomami, but the ensuing international pressure seemed to have moved the Brazilian government to drive out the prospectors and guarantee the Yanomami's rights to their traditional territory.


What now? Are the Yanomami safe at last? With the demarcation of their territory, is their survival assured, along with the rain forest they inhabit? And what of the hundreds of other indigenous groups waiting to have their territories demarcated by the Constitutional deadline of October 5, 1993? What does demarcation really mean for them and the Yanomami?

Demarcation is a legal and physical procedure that usually takes years to complete. Out of some 500-odd indigenous areas in Brazil, fewer than half have been demarcated: 89 have not even been designated as indigenous territories, the first step in the lengthy process. Some are relatively small and could be demarcated in a matter of weeks, given the political will - which the federal government has lacked until recently. Others are huge areas whose demarcation has major political and economic implications.

Yanomami territory, the single largest indigenous area, is rich in such mineral deposits an uranium and gold. Located on the frontier with Venezuela, it is difficult to defend from incursions by outsiders because of its expanse, mountainous terrain, and heavy forest. The Yanomami are semi-nomadic, living in small villages with no central authority and divided into often hostile factions. Because of gold miners' invasion, many of the 9,000 Yanomami have contracted chronic "contact" diseases such as malaria. It would be very difficult indeed under these circumstances for them to defend their vast territory.

According to FUNAI rules, indigenous territory must be physically demarcated, usually by clearing a strip through the forest and placing markers 200 yards apart along the entire perimeter, including riverbeds. Signs are erected warning that outsiders may not enter. These symbolic barriers do not protect indigenous territory from invasions, however. A 1987 survey by Brazilian anthropologists found that 30 percent of indigenous territories have experienced entry by prospectors, 70 percent by mining companies, and 40 percent by hydroelectric projects; 50 percent are crossed by roads. (Intrusions by loggers, ranchers, and other would-be exploiters were not calculated.)

Demarcation of the Yanomami reserve was completed in early 1992 without technical hitches. Gov. Mestrinho did not send any military police to shoot FUNAI personnel, and as of early 1993 efforts to nullify the demarcation had come to nothing. President Collor was said to have promised to "review" the demarcation, presumably in exchange for support for his unsuccessful efforts to stay in office. In January 1993, the federal government admitted that 11,000 prospectors had reentered Yanomami territory. An expulsion operation began in March, but it appears to have been underfunded and is therefore likely to prove ineffective. The most serious threats to the Yanomami remain disease and incursions by miners and other predatory outsiders. It is still unclear how the boundaries of their reserve will be protected, and by whom.


Less than two weeks after the Yanomami demarcation announcement, the justice minister signed another demarcation order for a large indigenous area, the Menkragnoti territory in the state of Par . Menkragnoti is the home of a subgroup of the Kayapó, an indigenous group well known for its combative character and political savvy. The Kayapó sent hundreds of warriors to the Constituent Assembly to lobby for indigenous rights in 1988. The sponsored the 1989 meeting of forest peoples at Altamira, where they protested and stopped the building of a hydroelectric project that would have flooded part of their lands.

Also in those years, a Kayapó leader named Raoni Mentuktire made an alliance with the popular musician Sting, who promised to raise funds to pay the costs of demarcating Menkragnoti. Sting prevailed on then-president José Sarney to sign a demarcation decree for the area, but the decree lapsed without being enforced.

Founded in 1989, the Rainforest Foundation and its Brazilian partner, the Fundacao Mata Virgem, lobbied for two years before the justice minister finally approved the Menkragnoti demarcation order on November 27, 1991. The trigger for the order seems to have been a letter sent by Megaron Txucarramae, the Kayapó director of the neighboring Xingú Indigenous Park, to President Collor. Megaron congratulated Collor for authorizing Yanomami decree and asked for similar action on Menkragnoti.

Menkragnoti demarcation began in August 1992 and was completed by November. Because it was privately funded, the physical demarcation could be done on an experimental basis, using innovative techniques such as satellite mapping. Unlike the Yanomami demarcation (in which a strip was cleared around the territory), 25 clearing were made within the perimeter of Menkragnoti. This technique made the demarcation less environmentally destructive, less time consuming, and much less expensive per mile. The final cost was about half of FUNAI's 1988 estimate.

To become final, all demarcations must be ratified by Brazil's president, on the recommendation of the justice minister. Former president Collor ratified the Yanomami demarcation relatively quickly, but the minister was delaying other recent demarcations in mid-1993. Pleading lack of resources, he said he hadn't figured out how to resolve competing claims by nonindigenous people already living in indigenous territories. There are no outstanding claims in Menkragnoti territory, but opponents of demarcation could use the delay to undermine the demarcation of this area. Even when the physical process of demarcation has been completed on the ground, political maneuvers in Brasilia can sabotage it.

Nevertheless, the Kayapó of Gorotire allowed Brazilian prospectors to enter their territory in exchange for its demarcation in the mid 1980s, and the results have included not only the arrival of money and consumer goods, but also deforestation and mercury contamination of soil, air, and water. At the request of the Kayapó, the Fundacao Mata Virgem is sponsoring scientific research on the effects of mercury contamination in the reserve. The next phase of the foundation's work will be to support projects that provide the Kayapó and other indigenous groups with alternative sources of income through sustainable resource management.

Raoni and his traditionalist faction have gained considerable prestige among the Kayapó by engineering the Menkragnoti demarcation. Perhaps in the long term, with proper support, they can persuade their people to protect the environment by continuing or reviving traditional practices - and by not making deals with prospectors or loggers. As long as FUNAI and other government agencies fail to carry out their statutory responsibilities, however, the Kayapó, like some other indigenous groups in Brazil and elsewhere, will continue to give in to environmentally destructive offers of short-term gain.


Other indigenous groups that seek demarcation of resource-rich lands will face similar dilemmas. Merely marking boundaries and signing decrees cannot protect indigenous land and its inhabitants and their culture from destruction. The 1988 Brazilian constitution guarantees that all requests to carry out mining in indigenous territories first be approved by Congress and by the indigenous people concerned.. However, the constitution's indigenous provisions come up for review this year, and they could be eliminated, weakened, or reversed. Brazilian advocates of indigenous rights are planning a campaign to ensure that these Constitutional provisions are maintained after this year, which is the UN Year of the World's Indigenous People. In Amazonas, COIAB, a regional indigenous organization, is already carrying out a pro-demarcation campaign that includes billboards reading "Terra Demarcada, Vida Preservada" ("Land Demarcated, Life Preserved"). And part of the funds that the G-7 (the world's seven major economic powers) promised to Brazil's Pilot Program for Forest Preservation have been earmarked for demarcation of indigenous reserves.

But many sectors of Brazilian society can't see why indigenous culture should be protected while millions of small farmers have no land and 100 million city dwellers go hungry. Others believe that the developed world keeps Brazil from achieving prosperity by raising specious environmental and human-rights concerns as reasons to deny international aid. Some think that powerful outside interests want to use the Indians to undermine Brazil's sovereignty over the Amazon region; meanwhile, they point out, First World societies waste resources, destroy forests, pollute the air, and deplete the ozone layer.

This argument between North and South is likely to continue for decades, until the forests where indigenous peoples live are either protected or cut down. The weakening of the "Forest Principles" document at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (known as the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro was an ominous sign.

Not far from the UN conference, site, more than 300 indigenous leaders from many countries met in a newly constructed village, where they sang songs, danced dances,a nd produced documents paralleling the UN agreements. Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, the Yanomami's leader, performed a religious ritual by blowing hallucinogenic nose. The young man danced for half an hour, fighting the spirits that menace his people.

More than a thousand miles north, bringing disease, violence, and environmental depredation, miners were reentering Yanomami territory, undeterred by such ceremonies or by the federal police. Yanomami continue to contract and die of malaria, but the government does not provide enough medical assistance or preventive measures.

In his "Letter to All the Peoples of the Earth," Davi Yanomami has written, "Our customs are better than the whites' because we preserve the rivers, streams, lakes, mountains, animals, fish, fruit, nuts, eveythings we already have, everything that God created. I, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, want to preserve all this. The white man has no respect nature, he doesn't know what is good, he has to learn from us. I, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, want to help the whites learn from us in order to make a better world."

Many indigenous people and their allies in Brazil and other countries are working hard to protect indigenous territories and their resources. Their first requirement is demarcation, which gives legal force and backing to indigenous land and resource control. As they mobilize at the local, regional, national, and international levels, indigenous groups will need the active support of public opinion to attain this objective.

Although the problems of the Yanomami and other indigenous groups have not been resolved, important steps have been taken to address them. International monitoring, pressure, and support need to remain at high levels to ensure the survival of Brazil's indigenous peoples. Demarcation is the first step; but it cannot be the last.

The Rainforest Foundation and its affiliates in the United States, England, Norway, Italy, and Japan accept donations from the public. The international headquarters is at 270 Lafayette St., No. 1205, New York, NY 10012.

CCPY, a Brazilian NGO, asks that telegrams or faxes be sent to President Itamar Franco and Justice Minister Maurício Correa, urging them to do everything in their power to resolve the urgent health and social problems of the Yanomami. Contact the same officials to recommend ratification of Mekragnoti demarcation.

Exmo. Sr. Presidente da Repûblica

Dr. Itamar Franco

Pal cio do Planalto

70150-900 Brasilia, DF, Brasil

Fax: (55-61)226-7566

Exmo. Sr. Ministro da Justica

Dr. Maurício Correa

Esplanada dos Ministérios

Bloco T

70064-900 Brasilia, DF, Brasil

Fax: (55-61)321-5172

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