May 5, 2017 / 4:57 PM / 3 months ago

Brazil sacks head of indigenous agency amid land conflicts

3 Min Read

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - B razil's government sacked the head of the country's aboriginal rights agency on Friday amid increasing territorial conflict between indigenous groups and farmers.

No immediate reason was given for Antonio Fernandes Toninho Costa's removal as president of Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the arms-length government agency responsible for demarcating land for indigenous people.

However media reports suggested the sacking, announced in a government statement, was at least partially due to the increased violence.

Costa's dismissal also came three days after he criticized lawmakers for cutting FUNAI's budget by more than 40 percent as Brazil struggles with a recession and a government deficit.

He said the cuts made it difficult for the agency to fulfill its mandate in safeguarding the rights of Brazil's 900,000 indigenous people.

"I'm being removed for being honest and for being a defender of the cause of the indigenous," Costa was quoted as saying by Brazilian news outlet G1 on Friday.

No replacement to head FUNAI was announced in the government statement.

FUNAI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Sunday, more than a dozen members of an indigenous tribe were injured in the northeast of the country in the latest flare-up of violence over land.

Police said they were investigating the incident in Maranhao State where members of the Gamela tribe were attacked by farmers with guns, clubs and knives, according to campaign groups.

The Indigenous Missionary Council, a monitoring group linked to the Catholic Church, said the victims were leaving land recently reclaimed from cattle ranchers when they were set on.

Last year, 61 land rights campaigners were killed in Brazil, the highest level of violence since 2003, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, an advocacy group linked to the Catholic Church.

About 13 percent of Brazil's land has been set aside for the country's indigenous people based on the territories they historically occupied.

Indigenous groups say the sacking comes at a time when their rights are being rolled back.

"The rights we have been promised - and any hope that they would be fully recognised and respected - have begun to disappear," Sonia Guajajara, coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, said in a recent statement. (Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Emma Batha.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)

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