SÃO PAULO — As President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva prepares to take office on January 1, indigenous organizations in Brazil are pressuring him to revert President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies on land grants for native peoples and on environmental protection.

According to such groups, deep transformations are needed, given that the outgoing leader is still showing his strong commitment to economic sectors that want to loosen environmental control in the South American nation.

On December 16, two weeks before leaving office, Bolsonaro signed a measure to implement so-called “sustainable forest management” in indigenous territories. The act allows organizations led exclusively by indigenous peoples or mixed entities – controlled by indigenous groups but also formed by non-indigenous members – to exploit lumber in native peoples’ territories.

A number of environmental and indigenous associations criticized Bolsonaro’s measure, scheduled to become effective within 30 days – when Lula will already be the acting president and will, therefore, have the authority to suspend it.

“That measure is absurd, abusive, provocative, and unreasonable. He, Bolsonaro, knows it will be revoked, but edited it to disdain the new government and its environmental agenda,” affirmed Roberto Liebgott, a regional coordinator of the bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council, which is known by the Portuguese acronym “CIMI.”

Liebgott thinks that Bolsonaro’s idea was to demonstrate to criminal land invaders that he would have completely opened indigenous lands and natural reservations to economic exploitation had he managed to win re-election.

One of the pioneering indigenous rights advocacy entities in the South American country, CIMI has been accompanying the work of the transition team in analyzing native peoples’ situation and has been demanding a broad engagement with native peoples’ issues.

In a document released earlier this month, CIMI harshly criticized Bolsonaro’s handling of indigenous affairs, affirming that the State “has become one of the main agents” in the promotion of indigenous’ lands’ invasions by illegal miners and loggers.

The letter requires Lula to take 10 measures as soon as he takes office, such as the adoption of a “consistent policy of territorial protection” against invasions and “breaking with practices of land exploitation through lease.”

CIMI also urged the immediate rejection of the so-called “time-frame thesis”, a juridical claim promoted by Bolsonaro and his allies in the agribusiness sector with the goal of limiting the possibilities of indigenous peoples to demand lands.

According to the promoters of that thesis, only the territories occupied by indigenous peoples before 1988, when the current constitution was promulgated, can be requested.

The idea has been widely repudiated by indigenist organizations such as CIMI, which argue that native groups have been historically persecuted and expelled from their lands, so the definition of an arbitrary date does not make any sense when it comes to establish which were their original territories.

A lawsuit concerning the rights of the Xokleng people over their lands in Santa Catarina State, currently waiting for the Supreme Court’s appreciation, is the main arena for the debate over the “time-frame thesis”.

The Xokleng territory was officially recognized by the government in 2003, but when the demarcation began, Santa Catarina State judicially questioned the process, said the community leader Tucum Gakran.

Since then, the case was remitted to the Supreme Court and for three times over the past years judgement began but ended up being postponed. The Supreme Court ruling concerning the Xokleng territory will be valid for all other litigations involving indigenous lands and the “time-frame thesis”.

“We hope that the case will be finally judged in the first months of 2023. And we hope that the new government will do something for us,” Gakran told Crux.

He was part of a group of indigenous delegates that met with Supreme Court Justice Carmen Lucia earlier this month in order to discuss the “time-frame thesis” judgement.

In a previous meeting, she had asked the indigenous movements to provide a list of lawsuits connected to the thesis which are currently under the Supreme Court analysis.

“They informed her of 28 cases and asked her help to accelerate the procedures. She acted in a considerate way and promised she would do so,” CIMI’s executive secretary Antonio Eduardo de Oliveira, who accompanied the meeting, told Crux.

De Oliveira said that Lula will certainly repudiate the “time-frame thesis” and that will favorably impact the debate in the Supreme Court.

“Lula has been signaling that he will create a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, something that demonstrates that he has a different perspective concerning the native peoples,” he argued.

The indigenous peoples are anxious about the new government’s measures but they have been cautious about them, de Oliveira said.

“Lula will need national and international support in order to gain strength and take the necessary measures. His government will have to take hundreds of land invaders out of indigenous reservations, for instance. And it will face much resistance,” de Oliveira added.

CIMI has listed at least 26 land grant demands that have already been totally approved by the government but have not resulted in territory demarcations yet.

“That is something that can be immediately carried out by the new administration. It will be an act of justice,” de Oliveira said.

The hardships faced by the Xokleng demonstrate that the Brazilian indigenous groups have been struggling in different fronts in order to survive. Not only they have been trying to secure their traditional territories, but they also need to protect them.

Tucum Gakran said that a dam was built inside the Xokleng territory by the Military government in the 1970s. The works were concluded only in the 1990s. The indigenous group was not consulted about the project and has never received any compensation.

According to community leader Cullung Vei-Tcha Teie, the dam has greatly impacted the territory. During the rainy season, most of the valley is flooded.

“Those are lands where we lived and worked for many years. Houses are destroyed and the people have to leave their region and move to somewhere else,” Teie told Crux.

Due to the problems caused by the dam, many Xokleng had to leave their territory in Santa Catarina and go to other parts of the country. That was her case, as she left the state years ago and now lives in Rio Grande do Sul, in a region which was also part of the Xokleng historical area.

Gakran said that the Xokleng will sue the government in order to seek a solution. He hopes that the new political situation in Brazil may collaborate to change their plight.

“We have the expectation that things will be better for the poor and the indigenous peoples,” he said.