Brazil clips wings of Indian affairs office in land dispute

BRASILIA Wed May 8, 2013 7:13pm EDT

BRASILIA May 8 (Reuters) - The Brazilian government sought to appease the country's powerful farm lobby on Wednesday by broadening the decision-making process used to designate land for Indian reservations, following controversial expropriations.

President Dilma Rousseff's chief of staff Gleisi Hoffmann told angry congressmen from agricultural states that more government agencies will have a say in land decisions that have been the exclusive purview of the Indian affairs office FUNAI.

FUNAI is responsible for protecting Brazil's 800,000 indigenous people and has expanded reservations to some 13 percent of the country's massive territory, even though Indians account for only 0.4 percent of the population.

Clashes with farmers have intensified since Brazil became a top world food producer and the agricultural frontier advanced into traditional Indian areas where soy fields and cattle ranches now overlap with land claimed by indigenous tribes.

Hoffmann said respected agricultural research institute Embrapa will have a role in determining whether disputed areas are ancestral Indian lands or have been farmed for decades. The agriculture and environment ministries will have input, as well as agencies involved in infrastructure investments, she said.

"We need to listen to other voices and get information needed for qualified decisions," she said at a noisy hearing of the Agriculture Committee of the lower chamber of Congress.

Embrapa has already provided a study of land usage in her home state of Parana and has been asked to do the same for Mato Grosso do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, she said.

Farmers crowding the hearing room booed the minister when she defended FUNAI's role in protecting Brazil's natives.

A group of Indians wearing straw skirts and painted faces rattled maracas, and then walked out in protest over the farm lobby's proposal to give Congress the last word on FUNAI's decisions on reservation boundaries.

Last month, members of 70 tribes stormed the main chamber of Congress to protest the constitutional amendment.

Though FUNAI had no comment to Hoffman's statements on Wednesday, Indian rights group Arpinsul, representing tribes in the south of Brazil, called the move to give a government agency like Embrapa a role in reservation land decisions "nefarious."

"It undermines the serious work of the government's own experts and shamelessly favors agribusiness," Arpinsul said in a statement.

Tensions between farmers and Indians in Brazil's top soybean growing state Mato Grosso have run high since the government evicted 7,000 farmers and their families from an area the size of London earlier this year, spurring violent protests.

Some of the farmers and ranchers had cultivated the land for decades but were forced out after the Supreme Court ruled the area had been made into an Indian reservation in 1998 and said only members of the Xavante tribe could reside there.

FUNAI says it designates reservations based on field work by trained anthropologists.

But lawmakers demanded that the government suspend all decisions on Indian lands and called for a Congressional inquiry into the role of FUNAI. They welcomed the broadening of decision-making on reservation boundaries.

"The government has woken up to the problem and needs to resolve this conflict to avoid future conflicts," said Rubens Moreira Mendes, a PSD party representative for Rondonia state.

"The Indians should be protected, but Brazil is not made up only of Indians," he said in an interview. "We have seen cases of farmers killed by Indians and it could get worse." (Editing by Eric Walsh)

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