Violent backlash against Indians in Brazilian Amazon

Settlers take missionaries hostage and destroy Catholic mission in indigenous area

Yesterday a group of about 200 Brazilian settlers invaded the Catholic mission of Surumu, in the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve, in the northern Amazon state of Roraima. They took three missionaries hostage. Local television showed them with their hands tied, forced to stand outside in the hot sun. The mission, which has a hospital and school catering for the indigenous population, was ransacked. All roads to the area have been blocked by the settlers, and the police are trying to negotiate the release of the missionaries who come from Brazil, Colombia and Spain. Settlers and their supporters are also protesting in the state capital, Boa Vista.

For decades the Makuxi and other tribes who live in Raposa Serra do Sol have been campaigning for the territory to be 'ratified'. Although it has been mapped and demarcated, it still awaits the presidential signature approving the demarcation, promised since 1998. Brazil's minister of justice announced on 23 December that the president would ratify the area and remove the 7,000 non-Indian inhabitants who are rice cultivators, farmers and cattle ranchers.

A spokesman for the Indigenous Council of Roraima said today that 'ratification of Raposa Serra do Sol is the barometer measuring the attitude of the Lula government. If it acts now, Indians throughout Brazil will take this as a sign of the government's commitment to upholding their rights.' Despite his manifesto promises to respect the rights of Brazil's indigenous peoples, one year of government by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has seen a huge increase in violence against Indians, lack of progress on giving them back their land, increased militarisation in indigenous areas, and threats to indigenous health care.

Meanwhile the UK government, at the start of the final year of the UN Decade of Indigenous Peoples, is considering cutting back its funding for the protection of the Amazon rainforest and its tribal peoples.

Survival's director Stephen Corry said today, 'The hopes of Brazil's Indians were dashed in 2003. To avoid further violence in 2004, Lula must take their rights to their land seriously, and start by ratifying Raposa Serra do Sol.'

For more information contact Miriam Ross on (+44) (0)20 7687 8734 or email [email protected]

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