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Indigenous Group Wins Unprecedented Right of Reply to Bolsonaro’s Racist Invective

A federal judge in Brazil has ordered government websites to post a letter from the Kinja indigenous people for 30 days as part of their right to respond to racist rhetoric from the president's administration.

Kinja indigenous people during a ceremony in the Waimiri-Atroari Reserve in 2019. (Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real. Creative Commons)Kinja indigenous people during a ceremony in the Waimiri-Atroari Reserve in 2019. (Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real. Creative Commons)

Kinja indigenous people during a ceremony in the Waimiri-Atroari Reserve in 2019. (Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real. Creative Commons)

A court in Brazil has granted the Kinja indigenous people an unprecedented right of reply to racist invective, in a move that legal experts say could be a game changer against rising discrimination by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

In her ruling, Manaus-based federal judge Raffaela Cássia de Sousa ordered official government websites to publish a letter from the Kinja indigenous people (also called Waimiri-Atroari) for 30 days, among other measures. The decision, issued on March 30, follows a series of offensive statements by government officials over the indigenous group’s resistance to the planned construction of a 720-kilometer (450-mile) power transmission line that will cut through their Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Reserve in the Amazon rainforest.

“For the first time they will be given space on the presidential website,” said Jonas Fontelle, a lawyer at the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Association. “They want to be heard.”

In January, Bolsonaro said indigenous people were responsible for stalling the project: “Indigenous people want money… while the people of Roraima [state] suffer,” he told reporters. In April 2019, Bolsonaro told a local TV station: “We still have an indigenous problem,” adding that the transmission line would be built “despite indigenous protests.”

Other remarks by Bolsonaro attack indigenous people more broadly. Traditional indigenous lifestyles, he declared last year, were akin to “prehistoric men.” In a recent live transmission on Facebook, he said: “Indigenous people have changed and are increasingly human beings like us.”

The decision comes a month after Roraima state congressman Jeferson Alves used a chainsaw to destroy a legal road block controlled by the Kinja, dedicating the act to Bolsonaro — a move seen as a consequence of the president’s previous previous comments. Attacks on indigenous peoples have soared since Bolsonaro took office at the start of 2019, with a record number of murders of indigenous leaders that year.

“This decision is important because it recognizes the discriminatory content that is offensive to indigenous people and particularly to the Waimiri-Atroari people,” Julio Araújo, one of the federal prosecutors behind the case, told Mongabay. “Since 2019, [Bolsonaro] has been piling up comments, tweets and approaches that are not permitted by the Constitution. Certain ways of life cannot be said to be superior to the detriment of others.”

Bolsonaro’s track record on indigenous rights has raised concerns globally.

Sousa’s ruling also requires the Brazilian government to develop an anti-discrimination indigenous program and to formally discourage all public authorities against inciting or encouraging racial discrimination.

Bolsonaro’s track record on indigenous rights has raised concerns globally. NGOs reported Bolsonaro to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in March for encouraging indigenous genocide. A group of lawyers and human rights activists urged his indictment at the International Criminal Court in November 2019 for the same reason.

Legal battle

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This court case, however, may run for years in the Brazilian justice system as an appeal is already underway.

In an emailed statement to Mongabay, Brazil’s National Indigenous Agency (FUNAI) says the decision confuses the president’s right to freedom of expression on public policies with discrimination and is out of the court’s jurisdiction, calling it a “flagrant usurpation of the Supreme Court’s authority in analyzing a right to reply based on presidential speech.”

In July 2019 Bolsonaro appointed as head of FUNAI a policeman and former political adviser to parliament’s Rural Caucus, the group of politicians who champion agribusiness. Critics denounced the move as part of a larger plan to place leadership of indigenous issues in the hands of the agribusiness lobby.

Since the recent court decision implicates the federal government, not the president personally, it is not exclusive to the Federal Supreme Court, says Juliana Batista, a lawyer for the Brazilian Socio-Environmental Institute, an NGO that defends indigenous rights. “This brings a limit to public authorities that are encouraging discriminatory acts and pitting the population against indigenous groups by saying they are a hindrance to development,” she said.

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FUNAI said it intends to appeal the ruling with the help of the Federal Attorney General’s Office (AGU). In a statement, the AGU said it is analyzing the appropriate legal measures; the federal government did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the long battle ahead, Rafael Modesto, a legal adviser to Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a watchdog linked with the Catholic Church, called the trial decision “a fantastic precedent for indigenous people to be able to reply to aggression.”

Fast-tracking the transmission line’s construction would connect the northernmost state of Roraima to the national power grid, allowing Brazil to halt energy imports from Venezuela, an avowed enemy of the Bolsonaro administration.

Officials have called the measure an issue of national security as tensions with Venezuela escalate, and are attempting to bypass regular protocols to ensure indigenous rights are respected.

Kinja leader Tuwadja Joanico, who met indigenous leaders in the National Congress last month, said his people need to be consulted since a fifth of the transmission line is to run through their reserve, which has been formally demarcated since 1989. “We want to talk about the preoccupations we have with our land,” he said in an interview, adding they are not opposed to its construction.

Shanna Hanbury

Shanna is a freelance journalist who has worked with the world's top international publications. A Rio de Janeiro native, she has extensive experience in research and reporting across Brazil and Latin America with a focus on the environment, culture and social issues.

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