Elected on a pledge of restoring democracy after former President Jair Bolsonaro’s excesses, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva galvanized support from a broad range of social segments, including Indigenous activists, who expected him to reverse his predecessor’s policies and resume land grants in the country.
More than six months after he took office, however, many say Lula still has not managed to show concrete change, despite relevant symbolic measures. Signs of impatience and disappointment are already becoming visible among Indigenous peoples and ecclesial movements that work with them.
“In Indigenous communities all over the country, famine and vulnerability are evident. Land disputes are a continuous problem,” affirmed Roberto Liebgott, a regional coordinator of the Bishops’ Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (known as CIMI).
The government has been failing to present an emergency plan to deal with such issues, he added.
“While many Indigenous people still feel glad to know that Lula is the president and that he has a pro-Indigenous agenda, some activists are already feeling pessimistic about the lack of change,” he analyzed.
The president created a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and appointed an Indigenous leader, Sonia Guajajara, to head it. He also pledged to strengthen the National Indigenous Foundation (known as “Funai”), the government Indigenous agency, and nominated Indigenous activist Joenia Wapichana as its president.
But Lula’s plans for those areas were drastically harmed by the Congress, dominated by conservative forces. In May, the Chamber of Deputies approved a restructuring of the government and determined that land grants for Indigenous peoples should be a responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and not of Funai.
In Brazil, vast rural and forest areas are owned by the government and disputed by ranchers and traditional populations. The Constitution of 1988 established that all lands historically occupied by Indigenous groups should be officially conceded to them within five years, but all administrations have been failing to conclude the process and dozens of peoples still wait for their lands.
That is the case of several Kaingang communities, who have traditionally occupied territories in Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul states, in Southern Brazil.
“There are 5,000 Kaingang people scattered over 30 camps waiting for their territories. During the Bolsonaro administration, all processes were interrupted. Now we are waiting for Lula’s action,” Deoclides de Paula, a Kaingang leader, told Crux.
De Paula has been living in a camp for 22 years. Many of them are located on roadsides and do not have tap water or sewerage.
“That is where hunger exists. Last month we received a donation of 2,600 food kits. I sent them all to camps,” he said.
Most Indigenous peoples do not have access to rural credit and cannot invest in their crops, de Paula lamented. Some of them end up leasing their lands to ranchers for low prices, “something that is not legal and that is not really helpful,” he added. No administration has ever solved those problems, he said.
“We were very discriminated against by the previous government. Now we want to be heard. And the expectation for our lands is huge. We are nothing without them,” de Paula affirmed.
He said that Indigenous groups all over Brazil know that their “enemies are in the Congress, not in the Presidency,” but he considers that Lula’s previous administrations (2003-2010) did not solve the land problem.
“There was some progress in social aid policies, but not regarding land grants,” he said.
Sydney Possuelo, a leading expert in Indigenous peoples in Brazil, headed Funai between 1990-1991, when 166 territories were granted to their legitimate Indigenous inhabitants, including vast reservations, like the Yanomami’s. After his tenure, no other administration did the same.
“The Workers’ Party administrations [when Lula and Dilma Rousseff were presidents, between 2003-2016] granted a very low number of Indigenous lands,” he recalled.
Maybe that is why so many Indigenous rights organizations are now impatient. But Possuelo does not consider that Lula is failing to address the traditional populations’ needs.
“Every pro-Indigenous policy that existed in Brazil was destroyed over the past four years with Bolsonaro. Despite all difficulties that Lula is facing, he is making an effort to change the situation,” he told Crux.
In his opinion, the most urgent problem to be solved are the invasions of Indigenous territories by illegal miners, especially in the Amazon. That was the case of the Yanomami land, where at least 20,000 miners were digging gold with heavy machinery till January.
“The Lula administration already expelled 90 percent of them and destroyed their equipment. Of course, we would like to see immediate solutions, but that is not how governments work,” he analyzed.
The major tasks ahead include rebuilding Funai – which demands hiring hundreds of experts in Indigenous peoples – and resuming land grants, Possuelo pointed out.
That will only be possible if the popular movements, including ecclesial organizations, put pressure on the government, said Bishop José Ionilton de Oliveira of the prelature of Itacoatiara, in the Amazon.
“Lula’s agenda includes the poor and the Indigenous peoples, but we cannot make the same mistakes we made in the past and think that we will receive what we need from the government without fighting,” de Oliveira, who heads the Bishops’ Conference’s Land Pastoral Commission, told Crux.
Lula pledged to combat deforestation in the Amazon and to protect the Indigenous communities, de Oliveira said, but powerful “economic forces still dominate the region, despite the government’s efforts.”
“That is why many people think it is taking too long for Lula to change the Brazilian reality. The social pastoral ministries need to keep mobilized and demand their rights,” he added.
Most ecclesial movements still hope that Lula will act to implement pro-Indigenous policies, Liebgott affirmed. Pressuring needs include combating deforestation and reforming the healthcare and education systems for Indigenous peoples.
“But his administration needs to clarify if it will struggle against the obstacles imposed by the anti-Indigenous segments or if it will try to negotiate with them every time and avoid conflict,” he affirmed.
In the opinion of Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University’s Faith and Culture Center, in São Paulo, ecclesial movements such as CIMI have realized that “Lula’s electoral victory is not the victory of their agenda, but they cannot directly oppose his administration because it would weaken themselves.”
“Lula was never totally satisfactory for environmentalists and Indigenous rights groups. They always knew that he would compromise with opposing forces in order to keep ruling,” Ribeiro Neto told Crux.
He considers that Lula is now subject to various forces in Congress, some of which are frankly “reactionary, anti-environmentalist, and anti-Indigenous rights.”
“If he manages to achieve good economic results, however, he may have some margin to implement his own policies,” Ribeiro Neto said.
Deoclides de Paula, the Kaingang leader, said that his people are ready to take to the streets if necessary.
“The Indigenous movement is well organized and can be very strong,” he said.