Bolsonaro’s Threat to Indigenous Brazilians

As the world continues to stare down a trend of radical right-wing political growth, perhaps the most dramatic and disastrous development was the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil in the October of last year. Though gaining the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that many continue to misunderstand the blatantly genocidal intentions of the new President.

Almost as soon as the Bolsonaro Government assumed office in January 2019, they set about a programme of government reorganisation and reform. Chief and perhaps most sweeping among these reforms was the near abolition of the National Indian Foundation or FUNAI, stripping the foundation of many of their powers and transferring their authority to other government agencies, most notably the Department of Agriculture. Conservative circles in the United States and the United Kingdom were, oddly, quick to praise this move. Closing “unnecessary” or “wasteful” government departments is a long-established goal of the Conservative and Republican Parties and many defend Bolsonaro from this perspective. Even those beyond traditional conservative groups look to his “economic liberalism” as a new hope for Brazil with centrist publications such as Reuters and mainstream politicians like Czech PM Andrej Babiš praising the new President for his economic plans. The argument, from this perspective, is less about bigotry and human rights and more about streamlining; more good can be done for less money and whatever issues now go unsolved can’t have been particularly important anyway.

If we assume, as many have, that FUNAI has been dismembered as a genuine act of economic streamlining then it still remains a cruel and shortsighted one. Indeed, it has been many decades since the government of Brazil pursued an active policy of genocide and murder against indigenous peoples. Since the start of the 20th century, the threat shifted from direct governmental intervention to the violence of unchecked logging and mining corporations. In 1992, gold prospectors were tried for the attempted genocide of the Yanomami people. A UN report later confirmed that thousands of Yanomami had been massacred by groups associated with logging and mining companies, with the Brazilian government turning a blind eye. In 2017, it was revealed that a group of hitherto uncontacted Indigenous people had been murdered, en masse, by a group of miners. In 2018, important tribal leader Jorginho Guajajara was assassinated following years of opposition to logging groups; the most recent of 80 Guajajaras victims to have been murdered in the region since 2000. The numbers of Brazillian natives dying at the hands of such groups is hard to calculate, in no small part due to the fact that many of those murdered were killed by the first westerners their tribe had ever encountered. Whatever the precise number, it is clear that hundreds if not thousands are murdered every year.

Economic exploitation alone, even when “limited” by small-scale government defence of natives, can and will still result in widespread genocide and murder. FUNAI was founded in an attempt to dam this tide of blood and succeeded only partially. It’s abolition and lack of meaningful replacement is singularly irresponsible. When the consistent assessment of the international community, including the United Nations and native rights groups such as Survival International, has been to call for more regulation and protection, for the Brazilian government to abolish those limited protections that did exist can only be seen as permission of further killings.

When it comes to such issues, Brazil’s President has always been clear where his loyalties lie: “If I become President there will not be a centimeter more of indigenous land.” He later clarified to say “Not one millimeter”. Two years earlier he stated; “Any reserve that I can reduce in size, I will do so.” Bolsonaro has been, seemingly, upfront about the reasons why; “[indigenous reserves] are an obstacle to agribusiness. You can’t reduce indigenous land by even a square meter in Brazil”. The existence of indigenous reserves and more broadly the existence of indigenous people themselves, exist only as an obstacle to companies, to profit and therefore are to be opposed and attacked wherever possible. We should be clear that when western publications praise the firm handed economic reformism of the new Brazilian government, they are endorsing a policy of economic exploitation that inevitably results in genocide. Imperialism and colonialism have always been economic endeavours as much as political ones; to hold up profit as a justification is not a counter to accusations of racism but rather evidence in their favour. To openly state that the profits of corporations matter more than the continued existence of an ethnic group places one in the same category as Cecil Rhodes or Leopold II – profiteers content with the murder of millions. Based on his actions and his words, it is clear that the Brazilian President is among these men.

So far we have assumed the best in Jair Bolsonaro, which has been both a difficult task and an unrealistic one. For his actions to be merely thoughtless neglect requires an act of willful ignorance. Several accounts from the man himself h demonstrate Bolsonaro not to be a mere Thatcher or Reagan; taking down any and all enemies in the way of perceived efficiency and economic doctrine. Rather he is a committed and single-minded racial ideologue. In a newspaper interview in 1998, Bolsonaro made his views exceptionally clear; “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.” Undoubtedly, many will leap to the defence here, stating that 21 years is long enough for Bolsonaro views to have shifted completely and that he would never wish for such a thing. But when the man who one lamented the survival of native people pledges to “deal a blow to the neck” to the one organisation defending them, when he plots to “rip up” the few protections and territories they do have, when he insists “they do not have culture”, it is hard not to think that Bolsonaro is today the same genocidal racist he was two decades ago. His attacks on native Brazilians have softened from outright calls for genocide to demands for “integration”. This is the same logic that drove Australian and Canadian Residential schools which actively attacked native communities and cultures in an effort to force cultural homogeneity. It is the same logic that led to the attempted extermination of the Irish language and saw children ripped from their mothers’ arms in Japanese occupied Korea. It is clear that the Brazilian government has two goals: the boosting of corporate profits at any cost and, if possible, the destruction of indigenous people as a meaningful group. Bolsonaro has figured out that he can do both at once.

Those very institutions praising Bolsonaro’s economic “liberalisation” on the grounds of profit and stability, whilst condemning his racism and bigotry miss the key point that the two are inextricably linked. Bolsonaro’s hatred of native and black Brazilians is based, as many racist attacks around the world are, in an economic argument. Natives are lazy or primitive, they inhibit growth and profit, they are painted as abusing and relying on welfare and draining the character of the nation. They are an alien, an other, they “do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture.” To Bolsonaro, native Brazilians are an economic burden and a cultural blight. If commenters and politicians continue to support any aspect of Bolsonaro’s reforms and continue to praise his economic success, they must accept their culpability in the resumed genocide of indigenous peoples. False binaries, we can all agree, often lead to the oversimplification of politics but here, the choice is obvious and it is stark. You can either support the survival of native Brazilians or you can support President Jair Bolsonaro. It’s time to decide.