Brazilian President Receives Indigenous Merit Award, Sparking Controversy


On March 16, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was awarded the Medal of Indigenous Merit. The award was granted to Bolsonaro – and many of his cabinet members – by Justice Minister Anderson Torres. Some of the recipients include Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Gomes, Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto, and Minister Torres himself. According to the ministry, the medal is meant to recognize “relevant services of an altruistic nature, related to the well-being, protection and defense of indigenous communities”.

Bolsonaro received this medal at the dismay of many Brazilian indigenous communities, as well as past recipients of the award. These groups claim that Bolsonaro is ill-suited to receive the award, due to his policies pertaining to indigenous populations. 

Bolsonaro has an extensive history of enacting policies designed to promote agribusiness at the expense of the Amazon Rainforest. Many of his policies have reversed the progress made by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration, who cut budgets for groups that work to combat deforestation. Moreover, he significantly defunded the government’s Indigenous protection agency, Fundai, and the country’s environmental Protection Agency, Ibama.

The Brazilian president also has an extensive track record of neglecting the rights of indigenous populations. During his first week in office back in 2019, Bolsonaro relocated the duty of delineating indigenous territory from the Justice Ministry to the Agriculture Ministry. This shift in responsibilities sparked fear among indigenous communities, as Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina is a member of the agribusiness caucus in the Chamber of Deputies.

Sonia Guajajara, the national coordinator of the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), called Bolsonaro’s receival of the award “absurd”. She later tweeted about the situation saying: “As if all the setbacks we are facing weren’t enough, this barbaric dis-government has now created another: a medal of merit to Jair Bolsonaro and his allies for their ‘significant’ services to indigenous peoples.” APIB stated that it intends to file a lawsuit against Torres’ decision to award Bolsonaro the medal. 

In addition to the APIB’s condemnation, the Congressional Environmental Front (a bloc in the legislative assembly) has also expressed their disapproval of the decision. The leader of the block, Deputy Alessandro Molon, stated that “it is outrageous that the same government that is trying to legalize mining on Indigenous lands, putting these persecuted and mistreated peoples’ very existence at risk, has the nerve to grant itself medals of ‘merit’ for all the ill it has done”. 

In protest, past Medal of Indigenous Merit recipient Sydney Possuelo returned his medal. He stated in a letter that he was “immense[ly] surprise[d]” by Bolsonaro’s premiation, calling it a “glaring, colossal, blatant contradiction”. 

Grace Berry
Grace Berry
Fourth year International Relations student from the US. Interested in print and digital journalism, social advocacy, traveling, and learning languages!

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