Friday, December 12, 2008

Challenges Facing Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

There were a couple of articles of note in the New York Times recently on indigenous issues in Brazil. The first deals with the growing struggles an indigneous group is having with drugs in the western-most part of the country in the Amazonian basin, where Brazil shares a border with Colombia and Peru. With the drug trade in the region growing, and with a non-indigenous town where drugs and alcohol are legal (they are illegal on the reserve) only a few miles away, growing numbers of Tikunas are getting involved in both the supply and demand sides of the drug trade: some are helping to smuggle the drugs across the border from Colombia and Peru into Brazil, while a growing number of Tikuna youths are becoming addicted to cocaine.

At a loss of what to do as traditional tribal authority has eroded, the Tikunas are turning to the government for assistance:
“We want government officials to help us save our children, so they don’t take part in these ruinous practices,” said Oswaldo Honorato Mendes, a deep-voiced Mariaçu chief. “Every day the situation gets worse. The younger generation does not obey. They do not show respect for our authority as chiefs. They need to learn respect.”
This is a rather new and interesting (albeit sad) portal into indigenous-state relations in Brazil. In Brazil, indigenous groups are not subject to most Brazilian laws, and the police are not allowed to enter reserves. The fact that the Tikunas (and maybe other groups in the region, now or in the future) are at such a loss as to be willing to cede at least some of that independence to the police in order to get a grip on the drug problem shows how bad things have gotten.

However, I'm not really sure what the police could do from either a theoretical or practical standpoint. The police themselves, after listening to the Tikuna's case, are unwilling to do much, simply because they feel the law doesn't really let them, even if the Tikunas themselves are soliciting help. They may be right, and it's definitely a murky legal issue. What is more, though, I'm not sure what the police could do. It's not like they don't have jurisdiction over Tabatinga, the neighboring non-reserve city, and the drug trade is absolutely flourishing there. Although I don't mean to question the decency of the police, I find it hard to believe that at least a few corrupt cops in what is far from a "metropolitan" part of Brazil are not at least implicitly involved with the burgeoning trade, even if it's just payoffs to look the other way (though I do not doubt, either, that many police in the area do want to do all they can to combat the problems in Tabatinga). Finally, given the police's record in places like Rio when it comes to the drug trade, I'm not even sure a stronger police presence is really the answer (though, to be fair, dealing with a very poor Amazonian border city is far different from dealing with the favelas in Rio).

And then there's the way in which Brazil deals with drug abusers. Unlike in the U.S., where drug abuse is a crime, in Brazil, it's treated as a social problem, as the article also points out:
Brazil treats drug users as victims who require treatment, not as criminals. They are usually sentenced to receiving drug-addiction treatment and performing community service in lieu of serving prison time.
I realize that's an extremely novel approach to drug abuse, but it also means that the police realyl aren't supposed to be involved with problems of drug abuse (and that's an important distinction between the indigenous reserve and the favelas - in the latter, they aren't combatting drug abuse, but drug trafficking).

And, if that weren't enough, there's the simple difficulty in patrolling the border. Brazil has historically had a very weak presence in the Amazon and its borders with Colombia and Peru (the dictatorship actually used the simple creation of a highway through the Amazon as a marker of Brazil's "progress"; it was never completed, fortunately). Brazil is enormous (larger than the United States if you take out Alaska), and it simply doesn't have the infrastructure, with police or other governmental agencies, to put the kind of strong state presence in the region that might deter the growing drug trade.

Finally, there's the fact that this isn't just Brazil's problem. Being so close to the borders of Peru and Colombia, those countries have to patrol their borders, too. Despite all of his talk, Uribe hasn't really done nearly as much as he claims in the anti-drug battle; it has simply shifted some, and is increasingly turning towards Brazil, Argentina, and even Europe. This just reinforces how un-winnable the "War on Drugs" is, and I may sound like a broken record player, but until countries like the United States deals with this issue on the demand side rather than the supply side (something Brazil has already done a much better job of addressing simply by recognizing drug addiction is a social, not a criminal, problem), then these issues will never go away.

In much more positive news, Brazilian courts have cleared the way for the federal government to establish an indigenous reserve "larger than Connecticut" in the Amazon basin. This is absolutely huge (and not just in terms of land-size). The court found that Lula's establishment of the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve, near the Venezuelan border, is legal, culminating a long-fought process:
The reserve would be one of the largest protected indigenous areas in the world. It has set off a sharp controversy over property rights, the limits of government authority and the rights of Indians to their original lands.
The reserve was decreed by Mr. da Silva’s government in 2005 after a legal battle of more more than 20 years. At more than four million acres, it encompasses about 42 percent of Roraima State and is 11 times bigger than the city of São Paulo.
If this does go through (and, at least from a legal standpoint, I don't think there are too many roads left available to challenge Lula's decision - but more on that in a second), it will be enormously important both for indigenous policy and environmental policy in Brazil.

The legal declaration is all well and good; however, I can't help but believe that actually enforcing this decree is going to take more effort from the government. According to the report, the area is inhabited by rice farmers, cattle ranchers, and even the remnants of an old gold mining industry. None of those groups is terribly interested in leaving, and each has a powerful voice in national and local politics. Lula's administration absolutely cannot just rest on the legal declaration of the court. I have little doubt that it will take a significant governmental presence, particularly military forces and national bureaucrats (local politicians simply cannot be trusted in cases like these, as they have absolutely no interest in protecting indigenous rights over the wealthy landowners - the latter, not the former, helped those local politicians arrive in office in the first place), as well as NGOs for indigenous rights and environmental protection. Fortunately, the government has shown a willingness to have this involvement, having already begun dispatching federal police to the area to evict farmers. The farmers are resisting, but it's still good that the government has begun establishing a strong state presence to enforce the decree and court decision, and one can only hope this will go through and set a new precedent for indigenous rights throughout Brazil.