Brazil’s government on Friday sacked the head of its agency handling indigenous issues, a week after 13 members of one tribe were wounded in a bloody attack by ranchers in a land dispute.
The justice ministry said in a statement that the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) needed “agile and efficient management” and it hadn’t had that under its ousted president, Antonio Fernandes Toninho Costa.
But Costa, who had taken the helm of FUNAI only in January, said he believed he was being booted because he went against the interests of a powerful lobby in Brazil’s Congress linked to big landowners and neo-Pentecostal churches.
The dismissal was “because I’m honest and I defend the Indian cause against the agro-business lobby,” he told the G1 news website.
The sacking came after the attack Sunday on members of the Gamela tribe in northeastern Maranhao state. Police are investigating the clash, involving machetes and firearms, between 200 men sent by ranchers and the smaller Gamela group.
The UN office in Brazil said it viewed violence against indigenous people in the country with “concern.”
The confrontation highlighted tensions and often deadly violence in several regions between native Brazilians defending land they consider theirs and encroaching ranchers and farmers.
Brazil’s government has vowed to have indigenous land boundaries clearly demarcated.
But Costa said earlier this week that task, given to FUNAI, was undermined by a 44% cut in the agency’s budget, severely limiting manpower and resources.
Cleber Buzzatto, member of the Indigenist Missionary Council supported by the Catholic Church, said the forced exit of Costa, a 66-year-old dentist and indigenous health specialist, as “a political decision.”
“He rejected having FUNAI subjugated to the interests of agro-business and religious fundamentalists,” Buzzatto said. “I’m afraid the situation will keep getting worse.”
His council says that, in 2015, at least 137 indigenous people were murdered in Brazil. Since 2003, the total is 891, it says.