By Ernesto Londoño – The New York Times
RIO DE JANEIRO — President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has compared indigenous communities living in protected lands to animals in zoos, took a major step toward undermining the rights of indigenous people just hours after taking office on Tuesday.
In one of a handful of measures that stand to hurt historically marginalized communities, the incoming government on Tuesday transferred responsibility for certifying indigenous territories as protected lands to the ministry of agriculture. The ministry has traditionally championed the interests of industries that want greater access to protected lands.
The certification was previously overseen by the National Indian Foundation, a government agency tasked with safeguarding the rights and welfare of indigenous communities.
Mr. Bolsonaro, a far-right former lawmaker and Army captain, presented himself to voters as the polar opposite of the leftist Workers’ Party, which championed the advancement of poor and disenfranchised communities. The party lost the presidency during impeachment proceedings in 2016 as Brazil was beset by a recession, rising violence and a corruption scandal.
As a candidate, Mr. Bolsonaro appealed to conservative groups, including the powerful agricultural lobby, the military and Evangelical Churches, by promising to boost economic growth by rolling back regulatory burdens and enforcement of environmental protections.
This right-wing coalition helped him crush the once-dominant Workers Party at the polls, giving him a strong mandate to bring about the changes he promised and elevating his small party to the second-largest in Congress.
Mr. Bolsonaro defended the new decree in a message on Twitter on Wednesday, arguing that indigenous groups and descendants of formerly enslaved black Brazilians have been given the right to more than 15 percent of the country’s land area.
“Fewer than a million people live in those isolated areas of Brazil, in reality, and they are exploited and manipulated by nongovernmental organizations,” he wrote. “Together, we’re going to integrate those citizens and take care of all Brazilians.”
The measure was one of a handful that appeared designed to appease the core groups that propelled the unlikely rise of Mr. Bolsonaro, a far-right lawmaker and former Army captain, to the presidency.
On Wednesday, the government also announced it was dismantling a division of the education ministry that promoted human rights and sought to expand access to higher education for historically disadvantaged communities, including black Brazilians.
Mr. Bolsonaro has accused his leftist political rivals of using the public school system to indoctrinate children, a charge that several educators and experts have called unfounded.
“One of our strategies to get Brazil from the lowest spots of the educational rankings is to tackle the Marxist garbage in our schools heads-on,” Mr. Bolsonaro wrote in a message on Twitter in English. “We shall succeed in forming citizens and not political militants.”
Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, passed as the country emerged from a 21-year military dictatorship, established strong protections for Brazil’s historically marginalized groups, seeking to make amends for decades of institutionalized discrimination and brutality.
One of the most concrete measures was a process to recognize the right of indigenous communities to control areas that had been home to their ancestors.
Under the era of military rule, the Brazilian government regarded indigenous communities as impediments to the development of areas that were rich in minerals or that could be turned into farmland. Rather than respecting their autonomy, it sought to force their integration into the wider society.
Leila Sílvia Burger Sotto-Maior, an anthropologist who worked at the National Indian Foundation until recently, called the new decree “a clear affront to the Constitution.”
The Brazilian government has gradually rolled back protections for indigenous communities over the past eight years by cutting funding for programs and prioritizing the interests of industries that want greater access to the Amazon, Ms. Burger said.
But Mr. Bolsonaro’s new measure, she said, felt like a fatal blow for those who have spent their careers trying to deliver on the vision of a Constitution that sought reparations for indigenous groups after decades of abuse.
“There’s fear, there’s pain,” Ms. Burger said in an interview, adding that she and several of her former colleagues are distraught. “This feels like defeat, failure.”
The process for recognizing the indigenous peoples’ control of ancestral lands has moved at a glacial pace in recent years, as rural landowners have gained more clout in the capital.
There are 436 territories that have been formally designated as autonomous indigenous lands; in roughly half of those, the government has yet to fully expel non-indigenous people.
More than 120 territories that indigenous groups claim as theirs are under study. But Mr. Bolsonaro, as a candidate, said he would ensure that indigenous communities don’t get “one more centimeter” of protected land.
As the government has pared back protections of indigenous territories in recent years, miners, farmers and loggers have established a presence in hundreds of sites, in violation of the law.
Indigenous leaders who have resisted their presence are often threatened.
Marina Silva, a former presidential candidate and environment minister who was hailed for curbing deforestation in the Amazon during her tenure between 2003 and 2008, called the measure a travesty.
“The Bolsonaro government is giving the butcher an opportunity to be even more violent with those who, throughout history, were its main victims,” she wrote in a message on Twitter.
Tereza Cristina Corrêa da Costa Dias, a federal lawmaker who was sworn in as Mr. Bolsonaro’s agriculture minister on Wednesday, did not mention indigenous lands during her inaugural speech.
She later urged reporters not to read too much into that, saying “let’s not create a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s merely a matter of organization.”
Ms. Corrêa has come under scrutiny for accepting a campaign donation in 2014 from a landowner charged for ordering the killing of an indigenous leader in 2003.