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Outcry as Brazil congress moves to gut environment and Indigenous ministries

Brazilian activists have voiced outrage after congress moved to drastically dilute the powers of the environment and Indigenous peoples ministries in what campaigners called a potentially crippling blow to efforts to protect Indigenous communities and the Amazon.

Hopes that Brazil could turn the page on Jair Bolsonaro’s era of Amazon devastation were sky-high after the far-right leader lost last year’s presidential election to the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. During his campaign Lula vowed to stamp out environmental crime and champion Indigenous people, and after taking power in January put the veteran environmentalist Marina Silva in charge of environmental affairs and made the Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara head of a new ministry for Indigenous peoples.

But that optimism received a dramatic reality check on Wednesday as members of the conservative-dominated congress – where the the ruralista caucus representing agribusiness interests remains a powerful force – moved to severely weaken both ministries.

By 15 votes to 3, a congressional committee approved draft legislation that would strip the environment ministry of control of the rural environmental registry, a key tool in the fight against illegal deforestation and land-grabbing, and water resources. The rule change would also strip the ministry for Indigenous peoples of responsibility for delimiting Indigenous territories, handing those powers to the justice ministry.

Silva and Guajajara both denounced the moves, amid anger and alarm that members of Lula’s administration had not done more to oppose the changes, which are likely to be voted on by the lower house and senate in the coming days.

“They are fleecing the environment ministry,” Marina Silva told the newspaper O Globo.

“The Brazilian people elected President Lula but it seems congress wants a repeat of the Bolsonaro government,” Silva added, warning the moves would undermine Brazil’s international claims to be committed to fighting deforestation and climate change.

Guajajara told AFP that attempts to erode her ministry’s powers went “totally against what president Lula is defending” and represented a “step backwards” for Indigenous rights.

A prominent political columnist, Miriam Leitão, claimed the changes were tantamount to “the demolition of the [two] ministries”.

In a separate move, the lower house also approved plans for an imminent vote on legislation which activists fear would annul all Indigenous claims to land Indigenous people were not physically inhabiting when Brazil’s constitution came into force in 1988.

On Twitter, Guajajara called that manoeuvre “genocidal” and a direct attack on Indigenous rights, territories and the fight against climate change.

The developments came as a shock to environmentalists who had hoped South America’s largest country was entering a new, greener era after four bleak years under Bolsonaro during which illegal deforestation soared.

Greenpeace Brasil called the moves an act of anti-environmental “barbarity”. Opi, the campaign group founded by Bruno Pereira, the Brazilian activist murdered last year with the British journalist Dom Phillips, denounced “a terrible day for Indigenous rights”.

Marcio Astrini, the chief executive of the Climate Observatory environmental watchdog, said the moves – if approved in their current form – would deal a severe blow to the environment ministry and an even greater one to the Indigenous ministry, whose raison d’être was the demarcation of Indigenous lands.

“It would be like having a finance ministry that couldn’t handle fiscal or tax policy. It would be like having a health ministry that didn’t run the NHS,” Astrini said, urging Lula’s administration to find ways to block or alter the proposed changes.

“The government is going to have to take some decisions … Will it cave in to all the demands of the ruralistas and Bolsonaristas in congress? Or will it stick to President Lula’s campaign promises? It seems very clear to me it can’t do both,” he added.

Amid a major outcry on Wednesday, one report suggest Lula’s administration was considering a legal challenge to the changes.



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