Brazil general with mining link takes over indigenous agency

BRASILIA (Reuters) - A retired Army officer who last year advised a Canadian company seeking to mine gold in the Amazon returned to the head of Brazil’s indigenous rights agency on Thursday, vowing to improve the lives of the country’s native peoples.

FILE PHOTO: An Yanomami indian stands near an illegal gold mine during Brazil’s environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

General Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas had run the National Indian Foundation (Funai) until April 2018, but was fired by the previous government under pressure from farmers who considered him too sympathetic to the land rights of indigenous tribes.

He returns to Funai at a crucial time for the agency, which has lost funding and authority on land issues now settled by the farmer-friendly Ministry of Agriculture under Brazil’s new right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

A respected military officer of native descent, Freitas has served in the Amazon rainforest on operations aimed at reducing deforestation by evicting illegal loggers and miners from vast reservations, such as the Yanomami territory.

“Our indigenous policy must be strengthened and our sole aim will be to improve the conditions and support we give native peoples,” Freitas said on taking office at the Funai.

Brazil’s 890,000 indigenous people from 300 tribes make up less than 1 percent of the population and live on reservation lands that cover 12 percent of its territory. Much of that land is threatened by illegal loggers and miners, along with pressure from an agricultural frontier advancing into the Amazon jungle.

On the campaign trail last year, Bolsonaro said he would not grant “one centimeter” more of land to indigenous peoples, whom he vowed to integrate into Brazilian society by engaging them in commercial activities and earning royalties from mining companies that would be allowed into reservations.

Freitas, 62, served last year on an advisory board at Belo Sun Mining Corp BSX.TO, a Canadian company with a project on the on the Xingú river that promises to be Brazil's largest gold mine.

A spokeswoman for the company said its installation license has been suspended pending a report on the impact on indigenous communities adjacent to the planned open-pit mine. The general left the company at his own request in December, she said.

Freitas gained respect from subordinates during his first tenure at Funai by working to improve the quality of life for native tribes by helping them produce goods and forest crops that could be sold, agency employees said.

He appears to share Bolsonaro’s view on integrating native peoples that are already in contact with Brazilian society, while insisting on the need to protect and shield uncontacted or recently contacted tribes.

Anthropologists oppose integration in order to preserve native cultures and languages. Environmentalists say the tribes are the last guardians of the rainforest and opening their lands to commercial activity will speed deforestation of the Amazon.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Bill Berkrot