BRASILIA (Reuters) -Brazil's indigenous leaders were disappointed on Monday after President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva appeared to backtrack on a promise to create a ministry of indigenous affairs to help restore rights and protections that were undermined by the current government.
Lula said on Friday he might instead decide on a special department linked to the presidential office rather than a fully-fledged ministry, which disappointed indigenous leaders who were taken by surprise by his comments.
"It was a campaign promise by Lula and we are still working on building a Ministry of the First people," said Dinamam Tuxá, a lawyer for the largest indigenous umbrella group, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).
Sonia Guajajara, APIB leader who in October became only the third indigenous person ever elected to Congress, said a working group in Lula's transition team will present a proposal for the ministry next week, but she does not expect any announcement until after the day he takes office on Jan. 1.
The ministry was important for the historical recognition of Brazil's 900,000 indigenous people and reparation for their mistreatment and loss of land rights, she told Reuters.
Lula drew loud applause at the COP27 climate talks in Egypt last month when he told delegates he explicitly promised an indigenous ministry to ensure "dignified survival, security, peace and sustainability" for some 300 indigenous tribes that still exist in Brazil.
Under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, whom Lula defeated narrowly on Oct. 30, violence has increased against indigenous communities who lands have been increasingly invaded by illegal gold miners, loggers and cattle ranchers.
"The recognition of land claims that have been paralyzed under Bolsonaro must be restarted and urgent action is needed to protect indigenous people, as well as environmentalists and defenders of our rights who are at risk," Guajajara said.
Bolsonaro eased environmental enforcement and backed legislation to allow commercial agriculture and mining in the Amazon, and even on protected indigenous reservation land, measures that the APIB is now seeking to revert.
Guajajara said violence by organized crime had surged in frontier areas, such as the Javari Valley bordering Peru where British journalist Don Phillips and Bruno Pereira, an expert in isolated tribes, were murdered by illegal fishermen in June.
Indigenous experts said the creation of a secretariat directly under the wing of the presidency could be faster to set up, more effective and cost less.
But indigenous leaders said a ministry was needed to support their communities with the power to mobilize other ministries, and even the police and security forces to protect them.
"Our situation is so serious today that we need a robust ministry with powers and resources to defend us," said Eliesio Marubo, lawyer for the Javari Valley indigenous union Univaja.
A main indigenous demand is to revamp the government's Indigenous Affairs Agency Funai, which has been run by a policeman appointed by Bolsonaro and seen by the people it is meant to protect as a tool of the farm sector's land interests.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alistair Bell)