Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Eventful Week in Brazil: Argentine Agreements, Challenging China, and a Major Court Ruling in Indigenous Rights

Brazil and Argentina met this week to re-affirm their economic and political relations. The meeting itself sounded innocuous enough - standard diplomatic promises to "iron out" some minor trade issues over things like import licenses on shoes and textiles (exciting!), as well as Brazil signing a deal with Argentina to help with the recent nationalization of Aerolineas Argentinas.

While that all seems minor enough, the language on China coming out of a business leaders' meeting between reps from both countries during Presidents Kirchner's visit was far more interesting. It's no secret to anybody that China has become a growing power in trade with Latin America. However, not all that trade is good, even for Latin America, as it has also been flooded with inexpensive products that undercut national economies in South and Central America, and reps from that meeting between the two countries didn't pull punches in mentioning China's role in the hemisphere, either commenting:

“The objective now is to fight against the common evil, Chinese products which are sold at dumping prices[...] With bilateral differences back on the right track, we must address the outside enemy."

That's some pretty tough talk there for an issue that hasn't really come up yet. Of course the Argentine and Brazilian business leaders who met have their own interests to defend, and Chinese products no doubt cut into their market somewhat. Nonetheless, even if criticisms of Chinese products undercutting local companies in South America seems fair enough, referring to China as "the outside enemy" raises eyebrows a bit. If this had come from Kirchner's or Lula's mouth, it would be even more shocking and newsworthy, but even as it stands right now, it does hint at future issues facing Latin American economies as they try to increase relations with China without having their own national companies and economies being undermined by cheaper Chinese products.

Also in Brazil, the Supreme Court refused to split up an indigenous reserve half the size of Belgium in the Amazon. White farmers had insisted it was too much land for the twenty-thousand indigenous inhabitants, while logging, mining, and agricultural companies had said the reservation's existence (required in the 1988 constitution) was "an obstacle to growth."

This is a major victory for indigenous rights and the environment in Brazil, and I have absolutely no sympathy for either the farmers nor the corporations. The damage farmers, miners, loggers, and agribusiness have caused in the Amazon is already irreparable, and the cycle probably won't end without measures like the court's ruling. While indigenous people will still obviously need to cultivate the land in ways they seem fit, and while I hate essentialist notions of indigenous peoples as being "in harmony" with the earth, I think it's a fair bet that they will manage the forest in the reserve better than logging and mining companies do - hell, by simply not clearing hundreds of acres a month, they'd be managing the environment better than the corporations. It's also a huge victory for re-affirming indigenous rights in Brazil, which often go unheeded in a society that considers itself a wide spectrum of racial mixture, but which often leaves indigenous peoples out of the equation in the present even while acknowledging their past.

The ruling won't just make all of the entanglements and problems go away. Violence will persist, and even some indigenous peoples don't like the ruling and feel it perpetuates racist stereotypes by trying to keep the indigenous communities "cut off from modernity." Nonetheless, the importance of this legal precedent cannot and should not be ignored, either. The Constitution of 1988 said that indigenous peoples were to get their traditional lands back, and when the businesses and farmers, miners and loggers, pushed and pushed, trying to effectively undo the constitution, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution stands, and the reserves cannot be split up. And that alone is a major step for indigenous rights in Brazil. We can only hope it leads to real gains for the communities, the environment, and Brazil overall.