"Good living" or landowner power? Rousseff's indigenous challenge

Tension between indigenous peoples and large landowners is set to affect the new presidential term · Rousseff promises dialogue to indigenous peoples, claims she will not accept a constitutional amendment that could harm them · Indigenous umbrella group blames Rousseff for having prioritized "alliances with agribusinesses" during her first term, announces fresh protests if government does not change policies

In a letter to the indigenous peoples released during the election campaign, Dilma Rousseff -who was re-elected President of Brazil on Sunday- had promised to work in order to "ensure a good living" for the country's native communities. But Rousseff is set to face a tough challenge if she is to harmonize this commitment with Brazil's economic development -which is prominently quoted once and again in her election manifesto- and more particularly with the pressures from several members of Brazil's National Congress and large landowners.

Indigenous people are some 900,000 of Brazil's 200 million inhabitants, according to the 2010 census: that is a little less than 0.5% of the total population. Of them, about 517,000 live in indigenous lands.

Indigenous land demarcation is one of the main demands that the native movement has been asking for decades -mobilizations earlier this year bore a direct link with that issue. Indigenous communities argue they had historically occupied territories that should be recognized as their own. The Brazilian Constitution recognizes the indigenous peoples "permanent possession" and "exclusive usufruct of the riches of the soil, the rivers and the lakes" of demarcated lands.

The federal government and the presidency hold the powers over land demarcation. But landowners -who are often recognized as the legal owners of lands claimed by the natives- and their Congress allies usually put pressure on the government so that it does not demarcate more indigenous lands. Moreover, they want the Brazilian Constitution to be amended: landowners and their allies believe their position would be strengthened if powers on land demarcation were assumed by the Congress.

In the letter addressed to indigenous peoples, Rousseff committed herself not to accept such an amendment: "Nothing in our Constitution will be altered in relation to the rights of indigenous peoples," the President proclaimed. Rousseff admitted that "challenges in the legal field" over land demarcation exist, and recalled that in 2014 she signed a decree calling a National Conference on Indigenist Policy, a framework in which the President says she wants to agree "new developments" with indigenous representatives, "particularly in land issues."

APIB: Rousseff not giving priority to indigenous demands

But the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), which brings together hundreds of native groups, believes Rousseff has not given priority to indigenous demands in her manifesto. In a highly critical communiqué, APIB blames Rousseff of having "close alliances with agribusinesses" during her first term (2011-2014). "Meanwhile," the text goes on, Rousseff "did not meet any of the signed commitments, and allowed her Justice minister to paralyze land demarcations."

However, the Brazilian government has shown some willingness to deal with the issue of land demarcation during the last term. Probably one of the most significant developments in this respect was an operation, earlier this year, against the "intrusion" of non-indigenous people in the Awá-Guajá lands. Starting from early 2014, the government -with army support- expelled settlers, loggers and ranchers who were illegally occupying and exploiting the Awá-Guajá territories in the state of Maranhao.

This was possible, among other reasons, because the Awá-Guajá land had previously been demarcated. But according to APIB data, more than 60% of indigenous lands are not, and this prevents native peoples who have ancestrally occupied them from enjoying "conditions of sustainability" and "food security and sovereignty". Indigenous leaders believe non-demarcation of lands forces the native peoples to poverty and marginalization, as they are unable to freely dispose of their ancestral lands.

If government policies do not change, APIB leaders -who, according to their communiqué, were expecting even less from the other candidate, Aécio Neves- say they will launch fresh indigenous mobilizations during Rousseff's second term.

(Image: Dilma Rousseff in election day / Picture by Agência Brasil.)