BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian police used pepper spray to stop hundreds of protesting Indians from storming Congress on Wednesday, clamping down on the second day of indigenous rights marches.
Tribes across Brazil blocked highways and occupied government offices to oppose what they see as a steady undermining of their rights to ancestral lands by farmers supported by politicians in disputes that have occasionally turned violent.
“We have lost lots of land and they want to take away what we have left,” said Mayalú Txucarramae, a young Kayapó leader from the Xingú reservation in Mato Grosso state, one of about 1,000 indigenous demonstrators camped out in front of Congress.
Indians wearing headdresses and body paint and carrying spears, bows and arrows expressed their anger in war dances outside ministry buildings in Brazil’s capital and then tried to invade Congress, before being stopped by police.
During a similar protest in April, members of some 70 tribes barged into the lower house of Congress, delaying a debate on indigenous policy. Brazilian police, who have faced bouts of social unrest since the country experienced massive protests in June against corruption and poor government services, were less permissive this time.
But the deputy speaker of the lower chamber of Congress, Andre Vargas, agreed to meet with a delegation of Indians, including the Kayapó leader, and vowed to try to stop a constitutional amendment from reaching the floor that would weaken native land rights.
On Tuesday, Speaker Henrique Eduardo Alves said he would delay forming a committee to study the proposal, which would give Congress, rather than the federal government’s Indian affairs office, the power to create indigenous reservations.
President Dilma Rousseff, accused by the Indians of siding with farmers in the disputes over native lands, said on Twitter she opposed the amendment and would encourage her supporters in Congress to vote against it.
“She is just trying to look good,” said Txucarramae.
The protests that shook Brazil in June may have helped the Indian cause by making the country’s politicians more sensitive to popular demands, the Indian leader said.
The Indian protests were occurring on the 25th anniversary of Brazil’s constitution, which is considered one of the world’s most generous in terms of allocating land to natives.
But an article in the document stating that Indians have the right to occupy their ancestral lands is under fire from the country’s powerful farm lobby, which is arguing for the popularly elected Congress to have a say in the creation of reserves.
“The Indian rights enshrined in the 1988 constitution are under unprecedented assault today by the Brazilian Congress, aided and abetted by the Rousseff government and the farm lobby,” said Christian Poirier, an activist with Amazon Watch, a human rights and environmental organization based in California.
Indian land rights are also threatened by other legislative proposals in Congress that seek to facilitate investment in resource industries and agribusiness in Brazil, Poirier said.
Tensions between farmers and Indians have run high since the government evicted 7,000 farmers and their families from an Indian territory in Mato Grosso state earlier this year, spurring violent protests.
In May, two Terena Indians were shot and killed when police tried to remove them from a congressman’s cattle ranch on disputed property in Mato Grosso do Sul.
In other parts of Brazil on Wednesday, Pataxó and Tupinambá Indians blocked roads in the state of Bahia, and Guarani demonstrators stopped traffic in Parana state and occupied the government’s land reform office in Porto Alegre. An Indian protest snarled traffic on a main avenue of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city.
Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer in Sao Paulo; Editing by Peter Cooney