Brazil's Bolsonaro hands indigenous land decisions back to farm sector

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro issued a new decree on Wednesday putting decisions on indigenous land claims in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, four weeks after Congress rebuffed him on the move that is sought by Brazil’s farm lobby.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during the launch ceremony of the Plano Safra 2019/2020, action plan for the agricultural sector, in Brasilia, Brazil, June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The temporary decree once again removes decisions on the demarcation of reservation lands from the National Indigenous Affairs agency Funai and restores them to a ministry that is run by farming interests.

The decree goes into effect immediately but requires the approval of Congress within 120 days. If Congress does not pass it before then, it expires.

Bolsonaro, a former Army captain elected last year on a wave of conservative voter sentiment, has alarmed anthropologists and environmentalists by planning to assimilate Brazil’s 800,000 indigenous people into Brazilian society.

Bolsonaro says he wants to open reservation lands to agriculture and mining, even in the Amazon rainforest, and indigenous tribes should be allowed to engage in commercial activity and charge royalties from mining companies.

His insistence on an issue already voted on angered some lawmakers, but conservative caucuses that hold a majority in the lower house, led by representatives from farm states, are expected to approve the decree.

Indigenous leaders and rights groups rejected the president’s decision. The Indigenous Missionary Council said it was a “flagrant” violation of Brazil’s Constitution that defends indigenous rights to their ancestral lands.

Environmentalists say the lands are the best way to stop destruction of the Amazon rainforest, considered by many as nature’s best defense against global warming, with its trees absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Bolsonaro and farm sector leaders interested in pushing the agriculture frontier deeper into the Amazon have complained that Brazil’s indigenous peoples account for less than 1% of the population and live on 13% of its territory.

Last year, the first indigenous woman was elected to Brazil’s Congress, Joenia Wapichana of the Sustainability Network. The party filed an injunction asking the Supreme Court to annul the decree because the legislature has already voted on the issue.

“Reissuing this decree will put the fox in charge of the chicken coop,” the party’s Senator Randolfe Rodrigues said.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; editing by Grant McCool