Move marks setback for President Lula da Silva’s push to protect Indigenous rights and stem Amazon deforestation.
Brazil’s conservative-majority Congress has voted to scale back the authority of two ministries dedicated to upholding Indigenous rights and protecting the environment, following opposition from the South American nation’s powerful agribusiness industry.
In a 51-9 Senate vote on Thursday, Brazilian lawmakers moved to strip the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change of some of their powers. The measure easily passed in the lower house of Congress a day earlier.
Objecting to what he called “constraints on agribusiness that could harm exports”, Senator Carlos Viana said during Thursday’s voting session that “the main points [of the caucus] have been addressed”.
The vote marks a setback for left-wing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who had promised to put Indigenous rights and the battle against climate change front and centre after years of neglect under his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.
Indigenous and environmental advocates had hoped Lula’s election victory last year would boost their fortunes after the tenure of Bolsonaro, whose government was blamed for record deforestation and violence against Indigenous people.
But Thursday’s vote underscored the political staying power of the Brazilian agribusiness industry, and critics have expressed frustration over what they saw as a lacklustre effort on Lula’s part to fight the cuts.
The changes block the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples from legalising the boundaries of new Indigenous territories and prevent the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change from managing a property registry — a central tool for tracking deforestation and managing water resources.
Rolling back such authorities represents a major success for Brazil’s “beef caucus”, which is closely aligned with the country’s large cattle and agricultural industries that made up key elements of Bolsonaro’s constituency.
The caucus opposes the legalisation of more Indigenous lands, as well as any measures to control deforestation.
During the Bolsonaro administration, deforestation in Brazil’s section of the Amazon rainforest reached dizzying new heights as agribusiness interests and illicit commercial enterprises expanded their operations into the region.
Watchdog groups say the government largely turned a blind eye, and Indigenous communities were frequently subjected to violence and abuse.
On Tuesday, Indigenous rights advocates suffered another setback as the lower house of Congress passed a bill barring the establishment of Indigenous reservations on lands where they were not present in 1988, when the current Constitution was adopted.
Indigenous groups argue that the cutoff violates their rights, given that many were forced from their ancestral lands, especially during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
In a Twitter post on Thursday, the Indigenous rights group Survival International called that bill a “kiss of death for the Indigenous peoples of Brazil and their highly biodiverse territories”.