Brazil Indians At Belo Monte Dam, Para State, Brazil
Amazon Indians march in front of representatives of the Brazilian government as they block the entrance to the main construction site of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Vitoria do Xingu, near Altamira in Para State, May 30. Reuters/Lunae Parracho

BRASILIA, Brazil -- In an American nation rich with immense swaths of fertile land, farmers are facing off against natives. The object of their fight is the arable land fueling the nation’s economic boom. The natives, known as Indians and largely living in reservations, want their ancestral right to those lands upheld by the federal government; the settlers, who have planted them with vast cultivations, say their right to an agricultural livelihood should be defended.

You would be forgiven for thinking this was the United States in 1850, the setup for a Western movie pitting cowboys against Indians. But it’s Brazil, today.

It’s a centuries-old conflict, one that the government has been trying to solve since at least 1910, when it created the Indian affairs agency known as National Foundation of the Indian, or Funai by its Portuguese acronym. The agency has been in charge of formulating the government’s policies toward the Indians since then, including the fundamental step of demarcating Indian lands. But that never happened.

Under the country’s 1988 Constitution, all Indian lands were supposed to have been demarcated and officially registered by 1993. According to Funai, there are 428 Indian land tracts fully registered so far, with 12 in the process of being registered, 51 that have been ruled as Indian but have not been demarcated yet and 115 claimed by Indians that are still being studied.

Then there 36 Indian reservations, formed from land that was either donated to them or bought or expropriated by the federal government, which are not subject to demarcation.

While authorities study what belongs to the Indians and what doesn’t, things on the ground are happening fast. Brazil’s huge appetite for more agricultural products to be grown and exported, and demand for more electricity, helped spark tensions between Indians, farmers and the federal government that have been simmering for decades.

Government statistics say that in 2011 Brazil produced $124 billion worth of agricultural products, or about one-fifth of its entire economy, which is now the world’s sixth-biggest, according to U.N. data. Most of that volume gets exported.

The appetites stirred by that kind of money are huge, and politicians are in on the action. A group of members of the National Congress has been trying since 2000 to wrest control from the Funai of the demarcation of Indian lands, which now rests with the executive branch through the Ministry of Justice, and place it in the hands of Congress, through the introduction of a constitutional amendment.

Funai isn’t popular with farmers, who have long criticized it for being packed with leftist sociologists and anthropologists, who they claim have always taken the side of Indian tribes.

Violence And Death

The conflict has escalated into violent clashes. A growing wave of invasions of farms and hydroelectric dam projects by Brazilian Indians have alarmed many on both sides of the conflict.

On May 2, 150 Indians invaded the construction site of the Belo Monte dam in the northern state of Pará, paralyzing work on the huge site. The Indians said they had not been consulted on the construction of the dam, whose impact on their land would be irreversible. They claim that up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) of rivers in the area will dry up once the dam is functioning. They also complained of the military presence in the area. The Indians eventually left the site peacefully on May 9 after a court ordered them to do so. But another group of more than 100 reoccupied the construction site on May 27. They initially refused to leave, even after a judge ordered their departure, dramatically ripping up the order.

They later agreed to leave the site and send a delegation to Brasilia this week after Gilberto Carvalho, the chief minister of President Rousseff’s presidential office, agreed to meet them. But they warned on Monday that they were not ready to give away their right to previous consultation on all dam projects that would affect their lands and that the government had tried to strong-arm them in the past into signing documents saying they were in favor of the dams. Carvalho must have disappointed them on Tuesday when he declared at the meeting that the government was not going to abandon the Belo Monte dam project. “I cannot lie to you. I won’t tell you that we are going to stop the Belo Monte dam. There is no way to stop it; Brazil’s needs that power. What we want to do is correct what is wrong there,” Carvalho told around 140 Indians of the Munduruku tribe that the government had flown into Brasilia.

In other parts of the country, namely in the Midwest states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, Indians have regularly invaded large farms, demanding that at least part of the lands, over which they have ancestral claims, be returned to them. The latest invasion was by 200 Terena Indians, who entered the farm of Ricardo Bacha, a former congressman, in Mato Grosso do Sul in early May and have since refused to leave.

Bacha and his family were finally arrested by the Federal Police on May 15, supposedly to ensure their safety after Bacha’s private security guards shot at the Indians. A judge ruled that the Indians had to leave Bacha’s property by May 20. On the morning of May 30, federal police charged the Indians on the farm, using rubber bullets, killing a 32-year-old Indian named Oziel Gabriel and wounding 14. The Indians were removed from the farm. Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo has promised an investigation into the death and injuries. But tensions flared up again this week when Indians invaded Bacha’s farm again and blocked roads in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, while others briefly occupied the Curitiba office of the ruling Workers Party.

The Feds Step In

The clashes led the Agriculture Parliamentary Front in the Brazilian Congress, a group of members of Congress and senators from rural areas, to demand that the chief of staff of President Dilma Rousseff, Gleisi Hoffmann, attend a congressional hearing on the issue of the demarcation of Indian lands. On May 8, Hoffmann appeared before the panel and announced that the federal government had decided that Funai would no longer decide on its own which Indian lands were to be demarcated; the government’s agricultural research arm, Embrapa, as well as the Ministries of Agriculture and Agrarian Affairs, would now be involved.

A further victory for farmers came when the federal government announced in early May that the demarcation of Indian lands in the state of Paraná would be halted, after famers complained that too much of their productive land was being eaten up by these claims. Later, the government announced a similar freeze in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Hoffmann said the government was also planning to stop land demarcations in Mato Grosso do Sul and in Santa Catarina.

According to Funai’s own estimates, there are approximately 800,000 Indians in Brazil today, occupying 12 percent of the nation’s territory. Alarmists claim that if the government gives in to Indian demands, they would occupy up to 20 percent of the country.

Critics of the government’s policies toward them claim that Indians today, overwhelmingly poor and uneducated, have become too dependent on government handouts of money, through the Bolsa Familia wealth redistribution program and food through the supply of "cesta basicas," or "basic baskets," which contain basic foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, flour, cooking oil, beans, toilet paper and soap.

A survey of 32 tribes across Brazil commissioned by the Agriculture and Livestock Confederation, or CNA, a lobbying group for farmers, found that 63 percent of Indians have televisions, 51 percent have refrigerators and 36 percent use cell phones. But the survey also found that 29 percent said access to health care was their main concern, followed by land disputes (24), discrimination (16), access to education (12) and work issues (9). The survey also found that 64 percent of Indians benefit from the Bolsa Familia program, receiving an average of R$153 ($76) per month in assistance.

Yet, data on Indian-claimed areas that have productive farms within them is hard to come by. Both sides in the dispute claim they do not have that information. “Strictly speaking, we haven’t done such a study, because Funai has created a climate of instability in the country,” said congressman Rubens Moreira Mendes, a fierce critic of Indian claims to farmland. “Historically, Indian claims to land followed the requirements of the 1988 Constitution, but today, when we see Funai asking for productive lands that only have soy and corn growing on them, this is unacceptable. They are going over the limits.”

The conflict between Indians and farmers has spread within the federal government itself, with hardline leftists, supporters of former president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, on one side and more pragmatic leftists concerned with Brazil’s economy, led by current President Rousseff, on the other.

Funai is caught in the middle, said Mauricio Santoro, an advisor to Amnesty International in Brazil and a university professor of political science. “The perennial lack of employees and of financial resources at Funai is well-known to the authorities, who therefore shouldn’t be surprised at the agency’s slowness in demarcating Indian lands. The criticism of Funai’s performance, therefore, is representative of the conflict between sectors of the government that deal with infrastructure and policies toward agroindustry and those responsible for Indian affairs,” he said.

Too Much Growth?

That leftist position is represented outside of government as well, for instance by the Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI, a nongovernmental group that is part of the Catholic Church and has been working to help Indians in various areas since 1972. It currently has approximately 300 employees working in the field. CIMI believes that the standoff between Indians and farmers is the result of Brazil's path of rapid growth and record agricultural exports.

“There has been a very violent wave of attacks on indigenous people in Brazil,” Cleber César Buzatto, the executive secretary of CIMI, said. “This has been caused by the large landowners and the model of development that Brazil has chosen to follow, which involves the export of agricultural and mineral products. This influences their priorities, one of which is to export basic commodities on a large scale.”

Buzatto sees the Belo Monte dam project as emblematic of the federal government’s misplaced priorities. “The government went in and promised to pay each Indian tribe affected in the area to be flooded by the dam R$30,000 per month ($15,000). They are basically paying them off for their support,” he said. “The problem is that the government has now stopped paying some of these tribes, who had grown dependent on these payments and now have nothing to fall back on.”

The Catholic Church became so alarmed with the rising tensions that the secretary-general of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, Dom Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, met with Hoffmann, the top government officer, on June 5 to discuss the situation. Steiner said that the church was worried that Funai was being hollowed out and asked that Hoffmann meet with Indian leaders before going any further in changing the ways lands are demarcated. Hoffmann agreed.

CNA, the farmers’ organization, said it is worried that Funai is increasingly targeting productive farmland, including that of small farmers, to be turned into designated Indian lands. “Once these lands are turned over to Indians, Funai only allows them to produce crops using methods that their ancestors used. This is different from what happens in other countries like the U.S. and Canada, where Indians are allowed to choose whatever method of agricultural production,” CNA said in emailed answers to questions.

CNA said that it has initiated legal action in 10 Brazilian states because of disputes over lands that Funai wants demarcated as Indian. The agriculture confederation points out that these areas are either heavily populated or heavily cultivated, which has led to clashes.

CNA also claims that Funai is deliberately arbitrary in the way it demarcates lands, pointing to the conclusion of a 1999 congressional investigation of Funai that found too much power was concentrated in the federal agency. Many of the farmers’ allies in Congress want Funai to be investigated again by a congressional commission for alleged fraud in the official reports used to support the demarcation of specific lands as belonging to certain Indian tribes.

“Funai is not working for the protection of the Indians but is instead causing a destabilization of our agricultural production. Today, Brazil is the second largest producer of food in the world, but there are still some people who want to end this because they hate the idea of private property,” Congressman Moreira Mendes said.

The head of Funai, Marta Azevedo, has been strangely silent throughout most of this, perhaps because some believe her days at the head of agency are numbered. The Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported she was on her way out a few weeks ago, but until now she has remained at her post. What is certain is that the amount of potential Indian lands and the method of demarcating them are already changing. It remains to be seen if Brazil can do so while respecting the rights of both its indigenous populations and its farmers.