Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Has Lula lost sight of his Brazilian roots?

Brazil's native people are worse off under its leader, despite his vows to protect then and the Amazon

By Sue Branford  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A member of the samba school ``Academicos del Grande Rio'' gives the finishing touches to a float that symbolizes the Indians of the Amazon forest, last month, in a workshop at the Samba City in Rio de Janiero.


On Christmas Eve, gunmen killed Brazilian indigenous leader Dorvalino Rocha. Earlier last year his community of Guarani Kaiowa Indians had won the right to re-occupy their traditional lands in central Brazil. At the time of his murder, Rocha and his community were still squatting at a roadside.

His death brought to 38 the number of Indians known to have been murdered last year. According to the pressure group Survival International, Brazil's indigenous peoples now face their worst crisis in a decade. And President Lula da Silva has failed to keep his election promises to protect them.

Three years ago, when the former car-worker strode into the presidential palace, it seemed impossible that Brazil's indigenous people would be worse off. Marina da Silva, a former rubber tapper and a highly respected ecologist, was appointed minister of the environment. She brought dozens of activists into her ministry, determined to stop the headlong destruction of Brazil's extraordinary biodiversity.

Da Silva has rooted out corrupt officials from the government's environmental agency and has created new nature reserves. But she has failed in her main goal: to persuade the Lula government to curb the relentless move northwards of the agricultural frontier that is now biting deeply into the Amazon forest.

When in May 2003 I traveled with Blairo Maggi, the world's biggest soya farmer, over endless brown fields of soya and maize in an area that not long before had been forest, he seemed worried about the future and repeatedly bad-mouthed Lula. But Maggi need not have worried: today, soya farmers -- and the billions of dollars they earn in exports -- are untouchable. Almost 90 percent of the millions of tonnes of soya that the giant US trading company Cargill purchases in Santarem, a port on the Amazon river, comes from land the farmers have slashed and burned illegally.

The Indians have suffered most and the demarcation of reserves is moving at a snail's pace. Deprived of land, their children are dying of starvation and teenagers are killing themselves. There have been 242 suicides recorded in the last five years. Over two dozen people, including a former state governor, have been arrested, accused of the genocide of an uncontacted group of Indians.

Six years ago, indigenous leader Marcos Veron spoke movingly in London. "My land is my life, my soul," he said. "Take my land away from me and you take my life." Three years later, just as Lula came to power, Veron was assassinated. Is it possible that Lula will spare a thought for him?

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