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Has Jair Bolsonaro backed Brazil's Indigenous people?

October 1, 2022

Brazil's Indigenous people have consistently protested against the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro. But his son claims the current administration has done more for them than any other government. Is this true?

Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro (left) next to his wife among a group of people
President Jair Bolsonaro and his wife, first lady Michelle Bolsonaro, took part in a March for Jesus earlier this yearImage: Bruna Prado/AP Photo/picture alliance

On October 2, South America's largest country will elect its next president. Incumbent Jair Bolsonaro is running for a second term, and his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is himself a federal lawmaker, is supporting his campaign.

Claim: In recent weeks, Eduardo Bolsonaro has complained that his father has not been sufficiently recognized for his commitment to Brazil's Indigenous population. In a tweet on August 9, he wrote that "Bolsonaro's government is the one that has done the most for Brazil's Indigenous people, even if this has not been acknowledged by the media."

Fact check: False

To back up his claim, Eduardo Bolsonaro published a list of 11 examples of the president's support for Indigenous people: nine were dedicated to the protection measures for Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the remaining two consisted of measures to protect Indigenous reserves. But even if, at first glance, some of these examples appear to back his claim, the president's basic policies run counter to Indigenous interests.

Eduardo Bolsonaro speaking and gesturing, holding up a mobile phone
Eduardo Bolsonaro has been helping his father with his presidential campaignImage: Andre Lucas/dpa/picture alliance

Fight against COVID-19

The claim that 90% of Brazil's Indigenous population had been vaccinated by the end of 2021 is correct. According to Health Ministry figures, 90% of Indigenous people over the age of 18 had received their first does of the COVID vaccine as of January 8, 2022, while 85% had received a second dose. In addition, nearly 9 million medical items have also been distributed to Indigenous communities by mid-January, including protective clothing, face masks, COVID-19 tests and painkillers.

However, what is also true is that all these government support measures were not voluntary, but came after a court order. Only after a ruling by Brazil's Supreme Court on August 5, 2020, did the government draw up a pandemic plan for the country's Indigenous areas, one that would also improve access to health care in these communities.

The complaint was filed by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, the country's largest Indigenous representative body. The association also filed a complaint in 2021 against President Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accusing Bolsonaro and his government of crimes against humanity and genocide for his flawed COVID-19 response and threats to Indigenous lands.

Indigenous health care is guaranteed under Brazilian law. According to legislation passed in 1990 and amended many times since then, the government is obliged to treat Indigenous people within the framework of the national public health system. To do so, the federal government must provide states and municipalities with the necessary funds.

A man holding a cross with the word "Genocida" written on it
Bolsonaro has attracted plenty of protesters in recent yearsImage: Roosevel Cassio/REUTERS

Food security

The Supreme Court's 2020 ruling also obliged the government to distribute basic food staples to residents in Indigenous areas, to ensure food security during the pandemic.

In his Twitter post, Eduardo Bolsonaro wrote that the government had given out 1.7 million packages of food staples to 200,000 families. According to the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, some 1.3 million packages had been distributed by the end of May.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling and the claims made by Eduardo Bolsonaro, "Brazil is far from guaranteeing food security for Indigenous people as required by the constitution," according to a statement made by the state prosecutor's office in the southern state of Parana on May 22.

That view was backed by Indigenous activist Alessandra Korap Munduruku, vice president of the FEPIPA umbrella organization of Indigenous peoples in the northern state of Para.

"We can't rely on the state. Most of the packages food staples were distributed by private aid organizations during the pandemic," Korap told DW. "Without the NGOs, we would have starved. They also brought oxygen to the [Indigenous] reserves."

An indigenous activist standing on a street
'Without the NGOs, we would have starved,' said Alessandra Korap MundurukuImage: Christian Russau/Misereor

Protecting Indigenous territories

The Indigenous population numbers just under 900,000 people — less than 1% of Brazil's total population of around 217 million. According to government statistics agency IBGE, just under 60% of the population lives in designated reserves.

A total of 680 areas are registered with the FUNAI Indigenous authority as Indigenous land, which accounts for 13% of Brazil's surface area. Of these, around two-thirds are officially recognized as reserves, which — at least on paper — are subject to a certain degree of protection. The definition of the legal status of the other areas has not yet been finalized.

Jair Bolsonaro already expressed his distaste for Indigenous protected areas during the 2018 election campaign. In a TV interview shortly after his election, he reiterated his position that there would be no new designation of reserves during his term. So far, he has maintained that policy.

According to the Brazilian investigative portal Agencia Publica, Bolsonaro has not officially recognized a single demarcation. By comparison, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president from 1995 to 2003, designated a total of 145 Indigenous protected areas during his term in office, according to the Catholic Indigenous Mission Council. In the case of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in power from 2003 to 2011 and hoping to win the presidency again in October, the figure was 79.

As if that wasn't enough, in the past four years there have been numerous initiatives to undermine the protection of existing reserves and to block or delay the designation of Indigenous areas that had already been determined. Earlier this year, for example, the Brazilian Congress approved a government bill that would allow the mining of raw materials in reserves with the consent of the Indigenous peoples.

On April 16, 2020, Brazil's Justice Ministry and the Indigenous agency FUNAI published a decree allowing the registration of real estate and land ownership in Indigenous territories whose designation has not yet been fully completed.

"No more laws are needed to mine gold, extract iron ore or raise cattle in reserves," said Korap. "There is no penalty for destruction, and thus the invasion has become legal."

According to the civil society organization Instituto Socioambiental, some 2,265 hectares were devastated by gold prospectors in the Munduruku Indigenous territory between January 2019 and May 2021. During a federal police patrol against illegal invaders meant to last from May 23 to June 10, 2021, the officers withdrew after only five days. This is not an isolated case. Since Bolsonaro took office, environmental crimes have been inadequately prosecuted.

A veritable onslaught seems to have begun on Brazil's largest Indigenous protected area, the Yanomami reserve. According to a report in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the Brazilian Mining Agency has received 500 applications for mining operations covering an area of 3.3 million hectares, about one-third of the protected area.

Conclusion: The "special protection of Brazil's Indigenous peoples" claimed in Eduardo Bolsonaro's Twitter post is no longer being implemented in principle. The claim that Bolsonaro's government has done more for Indigenous peoples when it comes to COVID-19 than any other government is also false. First, it implemented protection measures only after being forced to do so by a court ruling. And second, there is no comparison with previous governments in the fight against the coronavirus.

Written in collaboration with DW's Brazilian editorial office