By Victoria Waldersee and Anthony Boadle
LISBON/BRASILIA (Reuters) – A Brazilian tribe that has been fighting for 15 years to preserve land they use to gather food won a victory on Monday when public pressure made Portuguese hotel group Vila Gale cancel plans to build a 500-room luxury resort on the Bahia coast.
Indigenous group Tupinambá de Olivença, numbering 4,631 people, has been fighting for the land to be designated as a reserve since 2003. Brazil’s indigenous rights agency Funai approved the request in 2009, and Brazil’s second-highest court unanimously voted in favor of the Tupinambá in 2016.
But the tribe still requires final sign-off from the Ministry of Justice and the president himself for the protected status of the territory to become official. Despite multiple requests from the tribe, nothing has happened since 2016.
Last week, Brazil National Human Rights Council urged the Bolsonaro government to speed up the final demarcation of the Tupinambá land, which is located in the coastal Atlantic forest in southern Bahia, known for its coconut tree-lined beaches that attract millions of tourists each year.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has not yet made a decision on the specific case of the Tupinambá but stated on multiple occasions that he does not intend to sign off any more territory for indigenous groups, saying earlier this year there is “too much land for too few indigenous people.”
Vila Gale said a local businessman offered them the land in 2018. Regional and state government representatives approved of the project, as did Embratur, Brazil’s tourism agency. The company put the project on its website, with a note saying it was due to open in 2021.
The company’s CEO Jorge Rebelo de Almeida consistently denied that there were any traces of an indigenous population on the territory in question, a claim repeated in the company’s statement to Portuguese press on Monday.
“In the region and in a radius of many kilometers, there was no sign of any occupation or utilization, nor signals of any extractive activity from anyone. There is no indigenous reserve in this area, nor will there be,” the statement said.
While the Tupinambá do not live on the land, they use it for gathering food. Portuguese anthropologist Susana Viegas, who has led studies on the Tupinambá since 2003, said access to the land was “essential for the community’s survival”. Tupinambá chief Ramón Tupinambá said at a meeting in Brasilia in late October that there would be “war” if Vila Gale followed through.
Pressure on the company, Portugal’s second-largest hotel group, to retract its plans began to grow after a letter published in the Intercept on Oct. 27 showed Brazil’s tourism agency urging the government to cancel the process of classifying the land as indigenous territory on the grounds that the hotel could bring $200 million of investment and generate 2,000 jobs.
In response to numerous articles in the Portuguese press following the Intercept’s leak, pressure from Portugal’s third-largest political party Bloco da Esquerda, and multiple requests from Portuguese anthropologist Susana Viegas, who studied the Tupinambá for Funai since 2003, to retract their plans, the company insisted they would wait until the Ministry of Justice and president made the final call.
But in its statement on Monday, the company changed its mind, saying it did not want the hotel to go ahead “in this atmosphere of war”, and so despite viewing the accusations levied against it as “unfair” and “baseless”, it canceled its plans.
Under Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, which guarantees the rights of indigenous people to their ancestral lands, and a presidential decree in 1996, any building on land where the boundaries have already been drawn by the Funai faces confiscation with no compensation.
“This is totally illegal. The land rights of indigenous people take precedence over any other rights,” said Juliana Batista, a lawyer for the Brazilian Socio-Environmental Institute, an NGO that defends indigenous rights. She said local authorities had gone ahead and licensed the hotel project without involving federal agencies.