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Indigenous and environmental rights under attack in Brazil, UN and Inter-American experts warn

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GENEVA / WASHINGTON DC (8 June 2017) – Three United Nations experts and a rapporteur from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have joined forces to denounce attacks on indigenous and environmental rights in Brazil.

“The rights of indigenous peoples and environmental rights are under attack in Brazil,” said the UN Special Rapporteurs on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, and on the environment, John Knox, and the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli.

Over the last 15 years, Brazil has seen the highest number of killings of environmental and land defenders of any country, the experts noted, up to an average of about one every week. Indigenous peoples are especially at risk.

“Against this backdrop, Brazil should be strengthening institutional and legal protection for indigenous peoples, as well as people of African heritage and other communities who depend on their ancestral territory for their material and cultural existence,” the experts stated.  “It is highly troubling that instead, Brazil is considering weakening those protections.” 

The experts highlighted proposed reforms to the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the body which supports indigenous peoples in the protection of their rights, and which has already had its funding severely reduced. A report recently adopted by the Congressional Investigative Commission calls for the body to be stripped of responsibility for the legal titling and demarcation of indigenous lands. The experts were also concerned with allegations of illegitimate criminalization of numerous anthropologists, indigenous leaders and human rights defenders linked to their work on indigenous issues.
 
“This report takes several steps back in the protection of indigenous lands,” the experts warned. “We are particularly concerned about future demarcation procedures, as well as about indigenous lands which have already been demarcated.”

The Congressional Investigative Commission’s report also questions the motives of the United Nations, accusing it of being a confederation of NGOs influencing Brazilian policy through its agencies, the ILO Convention 169, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The report also states that the UN Declaration presents a grave threat to Brazil’s sovereignty, and it further encourages the Brazilian government to denounce ILO Convention 169, claiming it manipulates the establishment of non-existent indigenous peoples in order to expand indigenous lands in Brazil,” the experts stressed.

“It’s really unfortunate that instead of exemplifying the principles enshrined in the Declaration, the Congressional Investigative Commission questions the motives behind it and those of the UN itself, and waters down any progress made so far,” they said.

Ms. Tauli Corpuz expressed particular alarm at accusations that her 2016 visit to Brazil intentionally triggered an increase in the number of indigenous peoples reclaiming their lands, exposing them to further violence.  She highlighted the fact that some of these communities suffered attacks immediately following her mission.

The human rights experts also noted that a number of draft laws establishing general environmental licensing that would weaken environmental protection were being circulated in Congress on Friday 2 June.  For example, the proposed legislation would remove the need for environmental licenses for projects involving agri-business and cattle ranching, regardless of their size, location, necessity, or impact on indigenous lands or the environment.

“Weakening such protections would be contrary to the general obligation of States not to regress in the level of their protections of human rights, including those dependent on a healthy environment,” they stressed.

The experts warned that the proposed laws were at odds with the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples to the conservation and protection of the environment, and protects the productive capacity of their land and resources. 

Both the report and the draft legislation had been submitted by members of the “ruralist” lobby group, a coalition representing farmers’ and ranchers’ associations, the experts noted.

“Tensions over land rights should be addressed through efforts to recognize rights and mediate conflicts, rather than substantially reducing the safeguards in place for indigenous peoples, people of African descent and the environment in Brazil,” they said.

The UN experts are in contact with the Brazilian authorities and closely monitoring the situation.

Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and Mr. John H. Knox, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Mr. Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli, Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, was elected on June 16, 2015, by the OAS General Assembly, for a 4-year mandate ending December 31, 2019. A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

UN Human Rights, country page: Brazil

For more information and media inquiries, please contact Ms. Hee-Kyong Yoo (+41 22 917 97 23 / hyoo@ohchr.org), Ms. Christine Evans (+41 22 917 9197 / cevans@ohchr.org) or  write to indigenous@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, OHCHR Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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