Brazil’s former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has promised Indigenous people that he would stop illegal mining on their reservations and recognise their land claims if he wins the presidential election in October.
Lula on Tuesday visited a protest camp in Brasilia where several thousand members of 200 Indigenous tribes have gathered to oppose plans by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to allow commercial agriculture, mining and oil exploration on their lands.
“Everything this government has decreed against Indigenous peoples must be repealed immediately,” said Lula, who held the presidency for two terms from 2003 to 2010.
“Nobody did more for Indigenous people than our Workers’ Party governments, and now everything has been dismantled by this unscrupulous government,” Lula told a cheering crowd.
Illegal mining has soared in the Amazon as gold prices have surged in recent years and mining destroyed a record 125sq km (48sq miles) of the Brazilian Amazon last year, according to official figures.
Bolsonaro vowed in 2018 not to recognise a single centimetre of Indigenous reservation land, winning him the backing of Brazil’s powerful farm lobby.
The far-right leader is trailing Lula in early polls ahead of Brazil’s October 2 election, with a survey released in mid-March by pollster FSB Pesquisa finding that Lula likely would win a first-round vote by 43 percent to 29 percent if the election were held then.
Indigenous leaders have called on Lula to rebuild the government’s Indigenous affairs agency Funai, which has had its funding cut and staff depleted under Bolsonaro.
“Lula, we are unprotected. Our rights are being trampled on,” said Joenia Wapichana, the country’s only Indigenous representative in Congress.
She said illegal occupations of protected Indigenous lands are being legalised and wildcat miners are invading reservations where they destroy forests and pollute rivers.
Illegal mining rose 46 percent on the vast Yanomami reservation last year as high gold prices and tacit support from Bolsonaro set off a gold rush, bringing disease, violence and rights abuses, a report published on Monday said.
Illegal miners with links to organised crime are accused of numerous abuses in Indigenous communities, including poisoning rivers with the mercury used to separate gold from sediment and violent attacks on residents.
The Yanomami, one of the Amazon’s most iconic Indigenous groups, have related a harrowing series of abuses. They included miners giving Yanomami alcohol and drugs, then sexually abusing and raping women and girls.
The Yanomami have said miners often demanded sex in exchange for food. One miner reportedly demanded an arranged “marriage” with an adolescent girl in exchange for “merchandise” he never delivered.
The critical situation led a record number of more than 30 Indigenous people to run for Congress this year, said Sonia Guajajara, head of APIB, the main umbrella organisation for Amazonian tribes.