Brazil’s justice ministry has awarded President Jair Bolsonaro the nation’s “medal of Indigenous merit”, drawing sharp criticism from Indigenous leaders who have long accused the far-right leader of promoting policies that have harmed their communities.
Justice Minister Anderson Torres awarded the medal to Bolsonaro and 25 other honorees on Wednesday “in recognition of their significant altruistic service for the well-being, protection and defence of indigenous communities”, said a decree published in the official gazette.
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Torres also granted the medal to himself, Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Gomes and Defence Minister Walter Braga Netto.
Indigenous leaders and their allies have accused Bolsonaro of trying to force Indigenous peoples in Brazil from their lands, by promoting environmental destruction and allowing rampant deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, home to many Indigenous groups.
“Absurd,” tweeted Sonia Guajajara, national coordinator of the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), about Wednesday’s decision.
“As if all the reversals we’ve had weren’t enough, this barbaric dis-government has now added another: a medal of merit for Jair Bolsonaro and his allies for their ‘significant’ services to Indigenous peoples,” said Guajajara, adding that her organisation would go to court to block the decree.
The Congressional Environmental Front, a legislative bloc often opposed to Bolsonaro, said its leader, lower-house Deputy Alessandro Molon, had filed a motion in Congress to annul the decree.
“It is outrageous that the same government that is trying to legalise mining on Indigenous lands, putting these persecuted and mistreated peoples’ very existence at risk, has the nerve to grant itself medals of ‘merit’ for all the ill it has done,” Molon said in a statement.
Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, has cut back environmental enforcement in the Amazon and defunded the government’s Indigenous protection agency, Funai. He has also pushed for more mining and commercial farming in the Amazon to create jobs and reduce poverty.
The nation’s medal of Indigenous merit had traditionally been awarded to academics such as anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro or Indigenous leaders such as iconic chief and environmentalist Raoni Matuktire.
Brazil is home to approximately one million Indigenous people, about 0.5 percent of the population.
Earlier in March, several thousand Brazilians gathered outside Congress to protest against bills backed by Bolsonaro that would weaken environmental protection of the Amazon and allow mining on Indigenous lands.
The “Earth Event” was called by popular singer Caetano Veloso and three dozens other Brazilian musicians to call on legislators to stop what they called the “destruction” of the Amazon rainforest.
“The situation is critical, this government is destroying what is left of our forests,” said university professor Priscila Borges, adding that Brazil’s environment was endangered by the expansion of farming and a government serving the interests of agribusiness.
Environmental activists are also opposed to a bill that will amnesty land grabbers that have for decades illegally invaded lands belonging to the government or traditionally inhabited by Indigenous communities.
Other bills would weaken the requirements for environmental licensing and increase the number of pesticides and herbicides that farmers can use.
A fourth bill, which the government had hoped to fast-track through Congress arguing that the Ukraine war has disrupted supplies of fertilisers needed for grain crops, would allow mining and oil exploration on Indigenous reservations that are protected by the Constitution.
But party whips in the lower house of Congress did not agree to rush to a vote, amid concerns that voters might be angered in an election year. Speaker Arthur Lira said a working group would be set up to study the bill and report back in 30 days.