Brazil Indian-farmer standoff intensifies, tribes storm Congress

Reuters News

4/17/2013 1:01:41 PM - Reuters News

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian Indians are trying to derail a congressional proposal to change the way indigenous lands are recognized, intensifying a standoff between the powerful farm sector and a carefully protected minority by literally storming the floor of Congress.

Members of some 70 tribes that had congregated in Brasilia for an annual meeting barged into the lower house on Tuesday, sending lawmakers running for the door as the Indians chanted and shook maracas in traditional dress and face paint.

The Indians were protesting a proposal from the congressional farm committee that would amend the country's constitution to require boundaries for Indian reservations to be approved by Congress rather than just the federal government.

Brazil has reserved some 13 percent of its territory for Indians, who account for 0.4 percent of the population, and their claims sometimes overlap with land that farmers want to use for soy fields and cattle ranches, industries they say spur economic development.

For an amendment to pass, however, a congressional committee must be formed to study it. The Indians only left Congress Tuesday evening after the chamber's president promised such a committee would not be formed in the first half of this year.

"It's not enough, we need this committee to be canceled for good," said Paulino Montejo, a representative for the indigenous organization Apib, which organized the protest.

"But we showed that there are entities in Congress that want to roll back indigenous rights in Brazil, from that standpoint it was a great success," he told Reuters on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Agriculture Committee said lawmakers were meeting to decide how to proceed with the indigenous question they fear will put Brazil's stature as the world's 21st century breadbasket at risk.

"It's still in negotiation," said FPA spokesman Tito Matos.

The protests on the floor on Tuesday were meant to be peaceful, but tempers flared on both sides.

"This is completely irresponsible - it's absolutely absurd and sets a dangerous precedent," said Silvio Costa, who has served in Brazil's lower house since 2007.

A representative for Funai, the federal agency currently responsible for studying and demarcating indigenous reserves, said it had not helped organize the protest but that it was opposed to the farm committee's proposal.

Tensions between farmers and Indians in Brazil's top soybean growing state Mato Grosso have run high since the government evicted 7,000 farmers and their families from an area the size of London earlier this year, spurring violent protests.

Some of the farmers and ranchers had cultivated the land for decades but were forced out after the Supreme Court ruled the area had been made into an Indian reservation in 1998 and said only the Xavante tribe could reside there.

(Reporting by Caroline Stauffer in Sao Paulo and Maria Carolina Marcello in Brasilia; Editing by Todd Benson and Doina Chiacu)