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Brazil's Indigenous people protest as lawmakers vote to limit their land rights

Guarani Indigenous block Bandeirantes highway to protest proposed legislation that would change the policy that demarcates Indigenous lands on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.
Ettore Chiereguini
/
AP
Guarani Indigenous block Bandeirantes highway to protest proposed legislation that would change the policy that demarcates Indigenous lands on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Lawmakers in Brazil approved a proposal that opponents argue will gut Indigenous land rights and environmental protection.

The fast-track approval highlights the strength of Brazil's powerful agriculture industry. Indigenous leaders vow more protests.

The law sailed through Brazil's lower house of Congress late Tuesday and is expected to pass the Senate. Among its provisions, it will limit the creation of new Indigenous reserves to lands that were only occupied by native people in 1988. That's the promulgation date of Brazil's latest constitution.

Indigenous leaders blocked a major highway in protest of the proposed legislation. Many held signs saying "we existed before 1988." They clashed with police, using bows and arrows at security forces, who dispersed the crowd with water cannons and tear gas.

Guarani Indigenous people block the Bandeirantes highway with burning tires to protest proposed legislation that would change the policy that demarcates Indigenous lands on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil.
Ettore Chiereguini / AP
/
AP
Guarani Indigenous people block the Bandeirantes highway with burning tires to protest proposed legislation that would change the policy that demarcates Indigenous lands on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil.

Opponents of the law say many tribes were expelled from their lands during Brazil's military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, and they hadn't returned to lands until years later.

There are 764 Indigenous territories located in Brazil, but more than 300 have yet to be officially demarcated and remain in legal limbo. Most are located in the Amazon and are considered key buffers against deforestation.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recognized six new territories back in April. He has vowed to protect Indigenous rights and reverse years of rainforest destruction. Under the previous far-right administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, Indigenous land demarcation had stalled.

New Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara speaks during her inauguration ceremony at the Planalto Palace in Brasília, Brazil, Jan. 11.
Eraldo Peres / AP
/
AP
New Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara speaks during her inauguration ceremony at the Planalto Palace in Brasília, Brazil, Jan. 11.

Lula created a new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. Its minister, Sonia Guajarara, called the new bill a "genocide against Indigenous peoples" as well as an "attack on the environment."

Brazil's critical agricultural industry made big gains in last year's election and the sector's allied conservative lawmakers are backing the proposal. The bill now goes to the Senate for a vote where the agriculture lobby has strong support and possibly could override a presidential veto.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.