Former president decreed fewer reserves than predecessors, and 'failed to generate a coherent set of indigenous policies'
In Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's eight years as president of Brazil, he signed decrees creating just 88 indigenous reserves, far fewer than his immediate predecessors.
That figure comes from the government's National Indian Foundation and the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), which also reported that violence against, and among, indigenous communities increased under the Lula administration.
"A policy to demarcate native reserves and protect and give effective assistance to indigenous communities was not implemented," said the vice president of Cimi, Roberto Antonio Liebgott. "Solving land conflicts was not a priority of the government."
According to the president's office, Lula, who governed from 1 January 2003 to 1 January 2011, had signed decrees legally creating native reserves covering a combined total of 18.6m hectares of land by 2009.
But Cimi, which was founded in 1972 by the National Bishops' Conference of Brazil as a missionary council for indigenous people, reported that Indian reserves have been created on 14.3m hectares since 2003.
That is 60% of what was achieved by the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), who finalised the creation of 147 reserves on more than 36m hectares. And it even falls short compared with the short term of impeached president Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992), who signed decrees creating 128 reserves, covering nearly 32m hectares.
The identification and demarcation of indigenous lands is carried out in accordance with principles laid out in the 1988 constitution. There are more than 650 reserves in Brazil, covering nearly 13% of the national territory.
The census recorded 736,000 indigenous people, in 242 different ethnic groups, in this country of 190 million people.
Demarcation involves marking out the boundaries of a territory that has traditionally been occupied by indigenous communities. Legislation passed in 1996 streamlined the process to speed it up. The president's signature on a decree formally creating the reserves is the final step.
The slowest stages of the process are marking out the boundaries and arranging the payment of compensation for land expropriated from non-indigenous owners, which can take decades. "The entire process is supposed to take no more than a year and a half, but I have never seen a case that came anywhere near that. It normally takes between 15 and 30 years," Liebgott said.
The most controversial of the native territories formally created by Lula was the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve in the northern Amazon jungle state of Roraima, which is home to around 20,000 indigenous people belonging to five ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Macuxi.
Raposa, a 1.7m-hectare area on the border with Venezuela and Guyana, was at the centre of land conflicts between native communities and non-indigenous farmers since the process of land titling in the area began in the 1970s. The struggle for recognition of the indigenous territory lasted decades, as dozens of land disputes and other lawsuits wound through the courts. In 2005 it was formally created by Lula, but the decision was challenged as unconstitutional and the case ended up in the supreme court, which finally upheld the creation of the reserve in March 2009.
The state lacks clear indigenous policies, said Marcos Braga, an anthropologist at the Insikiran Institute for Indigenous Higher Education at the Federal University of Roraima. He said policies and initiatives in favour of native people adopted by different cabinet ministries are piecemeal and unco-ordinated. "Lula promised to create a ministry for indigenous affairs, but no progress was made on that front," said Braga, who specialises in the Amazon jungle and indigenous issues.
But he described the creation of Raposa Serra do Sol as a landmark of the Lula administration. The former president "had the courage to do what Collor and Fernando Henrique [Cardoso] left undone." He said another positive development was the creation of the Special Secretariat on Indigenous Health, which is responsible for designing public policies aimed at providing healthcare coverage and protection for that segment of the population. "That was a long-time struggle," he added.
The budget for indigenous health has also grown, from $30m in the late 1990s to $170m today.
But the last eight years were also marked by growing violence against – and among – native groups, according to Cimi. Between 2003 and 2010, 437 murders of indigenous people were reported. The main cause of the deaths is conflict over land ownership. But while many of the murders are committed in disputes with large landowners or miners, who seize or invade indigenous land, others are the result of increased tension and infighting among indigenous communities themselves.
The bloodiest year was 2007, when 92 were murdered. In Lula's first term (2003-2007), the annual average was 45 killings. In his second term, the worst years were 2008 and 2009, with 60 murders each. Preliminary figures for 2010 indicate that at least 45 Indians were killed.
"Lula didn't fix the problem," Liebgott said. "The federal government's omissions were serious." The government "prioritised its alliance with productive sectors like agribusiness, and with the large economic groups. And with respect to social conflicts, Lula put an emphasis on keeping them quiet, to calm things down."
But Braga put these figures in a different light. He argued that there were more land conflicts because native communities had stepped up their struggle and reaffirmed their identity. "Indigenous people revived their collective memory," he said. "That's when the conflicts began, because the number of struggles for land increased."
The anthropologist described it as a return to the roots. "Where there are conflicts, there is violence," he said. But he also maintained that if Lula had accelerated the creation of native reserves and generated a coherent set of indigenous policies, fewer people would have died. "A systematic vision expressed in more integrated public policies is lacking," he said.