Doubts Raised About Effectiveness of New Saudi  Opposition Movement

A Saudi woman drives in Saudi Arabia, where women are still not allowed to drive:



By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Christian Science Monitor

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – An exiled Saudi millionaire has
taken on the nearly impossible task of bringing reform
to this conservative kingdom.
Talal Al-Rasheed, a member of a leading Saudi family
that once ruled central Arabia for several decades,
announced the launch of a new opposition movement in
August that will focus on ending what he claims is
endemic corruption in the kingdom.
He joins a long tradition of opposition to the ruling
Al-Saud family, some of it even from within the royal
family itself. But all of these opposition movements
have failed in bringing dramatic change to a deeply
suspicious population that has been kept quiet through
massive state subsidies and handsome payouts by the
royal family.
Several Saudi analysts have said they doubt that the
recently launched opposition movement will have much
support among the Saudi population.
Al-Rasheed, who has lived in exile in Paris since
1980, told the Christian Science Monitor in an
interview that his group seeks political and social
reforms in the oil-rich kingdom, which would see the
establishment of an elected parliament and more rights
for women.
The religiously conservative kingdom currently only
has a powerless appointed Shoura Council and women are
barred from driving, voting and holding political
office. Although King Abdullah has allowed limited
reforms such as the municipal elections held last year
for the first time in 40 years, many Saudis say that
change is coming too slowly.
“Our group seeks the following: Democratic,
transparent parliamentary elections; liberating women
and giving them their full rights; arresting the
people who are stealing the government’s money, giving
the press its freedom of expression, and to have the
administrative and legitimate authority at the hands
of the citizens and their elected representatives
only,” said the 70-year-old Al-Rasheed.
Al-Rasheed claims to have 2,000 supporters in the
kingdom, both Sunni and Shia, conservative and
liberal, and says that “there are many wealthy people
who support us.” But not everyone is sure of this wide
range of support.
“I do not believe that he has 2,000 supporters. I’m
very skeptical about this figure,” said Adel
Al-Toraifi, an analyst and newspaper columnist based
in Riyadh.
Nawaf Al-Obaid, a security advisor to the Saudi
government, also doubts the level of support claimed
by Al-Rasheed.
“I have doubts about him saying he has 2,000
supporters in the kingdom,” said Al-Obaid. “I think
they are Internet supporters, people who have
expressed support on their website.”
Al-Rasheed said that his group plans to beam
opposition television programs into the kingdom via
satellite, run an Internet website and publish a
“Our TV station will air democratic programs that call
for justice and equality. We want to eliminate
corruption from governmental bodies, especially the
judiciary where people are using bribes to rule and
issue judgments against Allah’s rules,” explained the
reformer. “Everyone will have access to this TV
station, even people who disagree with us.”
He denied rumors that he was joining forces with
another Saudi opposition leader, the London-based Saad
Al-Faqeeh, although Al-Obaid claimed that Al-Rasheed
would be using the satellite broadcasting company of
Al-Faqeeh to beam programs into the kingdom.
“We have no practical association with Saad
Al-Faqeeh. We respect him because he’s a fighter who
deserves to be respected. However, we view things
differently,” said Al-Rasheed.
Al-Faqeeh and his Movement of Islamic Reform in Arabia
have been effectively neutralized since July 2005 when
the US government managed to link him to Al-Qaeda by
alleging that he posted messages written by the terror
group on his website. Al-Faqeeh’s websites have been
subsequently shut down and he has apparently stopped
broadcasting TV programs into the country.
The Al-Rasheed clan is very large and is part of the
Al-Shammar Bedouin tribe that extends from Hail all
the way into Iraq. Long rulers of Hail in central
Arabia, they ruled most of central Arabia, including
Riyadh, from 1887 until 1902, when the founder of
modern Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz Al-Saud recaptured
Riyadh after living in exile in Kuwait for several
Many members of the Al-Rasheed clan have been
receiving a monthly government stipend, much like the
more than 5,000 princes of the royal Al-Saud family
receive. This has served to pacify them and buy their
allegiance to the Saudi state, though many Al-Rasheeds
still believe that they are the legitimate rulers of
the kingdom.
Talal Al-Rasheed is said to have received millions of
dollars in stipends from the Saudi government over the
years, but he denied that he was still receiving a
“We belong to the Al-Rasheed family and as you know
it’s been a ruling family for decades. We have enough
fortune to cover the cost of our expenses and needs. I
used to receive regular stipends from the government
until 1975. Since then I haven’t received any money
from the Saudi government,” said Al-Rasheed.
“He’s a pretty old man. He’s been living in Paris for
the past three decades. It’s doubtful that he has much
support among the Al-Rasheed clan,” said Al-Obaid.
“He’s trying to have a unified opposition, but how can
you lump liberal Sunnis and Shias with hardcore
But Al-Rasheed said he was confident that his movement
would be successful because of its broad base and
“We can’t measure the success or failure of an
opposition group by seizure of the government through
a coup. Saudis today are not the same as in the past.
They are now part of much smaller world. We are
walking on the same path as others because we want
reform. However, we’re different in being a national
movement that includes all regions of the country,”
explained Al-Rasheed.
But Al-Toraifi disagrees, saying that the reformists
in the kingdom are too disorganized and distracted to
pose much of a threat to the royal family. He also
believes that King Abdullah is trying to bring in
democratic reforms but faces much opposition both from
the powerful “ulama” (religious scholars) and within
his own family.
“King Abdullah is going slowly with reforms as he
faces opposition from within the royal family and
faces regional problems such as the war in Lebanon and
Iran’s expansionist tendencies,” said Al-Toraifi.
“Reforms are coming very, very slowly. The lack of
transparency on the part of King Abdullah in terms of
his reform plan makes it difficult to gauge just how
far he’s willing to go.”


Allowing youth in malls

Single Saudi men were until recently banned from entering shopping malls on the weekends. The ban has been lifted in the Makkah Province region.

Single Saudi men were until recently banned from entering shopping malls on the weekends. The ban has been lifted in the Makkah Province region.

My column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 11, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

I was extremely happy to read on Friday that Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal ordered lifting the ban on young men entering shopping malls and markets on the weekend.

This banning of young men in malls, especially teenagers, had become a norm in Jeddah and other cities as a way of protecting women from the unwanted attention and harassment that they suffered from some of the young men.

But punishing all young men for the ill deeds of a few was never fair, and Prince Khaled realized this and thus lifted the ban. One major reason for lifting the ban was that shops in these malls were losing money due to the absence of young customers. And so they complained to the authorities repeatedly, asking that the ban be lifted, and finally it was. As Arab News story pointed out, young men who work or study often only have time to go shopping for clothes in malls on the weekends, exactly when the bans were in place.

In the past I would often witness scores of young guys milling about the entrances to shopping malls in Jeddah, waiting for the security guards manning the entrances to become distracted for just a few seconds so that they could slip in. Many of them would approach women entering the mall, asking if they would be willing to act like they were siblings so that they could enter the mall with them. Many times huge arguments would erupt between guards and young men insisting that they be let in to join their family who were already inside. Most of the time the guards knew this was a farce, a lie told in order to be allowed inside. And it is true that many of these young guys just wanted to get inside in order to run after young women, try to talk to them and pass them their phone numbers.

Any young men, who genuinely needed to go shopping in a mall — to buy clothes, perfume or bags — unfortunately would be caught up in this situation and also be banned from entering. Even I was stopped many times when I needed to go shopping in a mall on weekends, even though I was not that young anymore.

As the report pointed out, quoting psychologists, this shunning of young men in malls creates feelings of exclusion and rejection that they said could lead to problems such as anti-social behavior. Just excluding bad-behaving men from malls only treats the symptoms and not the cause. Saudi parents should teach their boys from early on to respect girls and women. Unfortunately the ultra-segregation that we have in our society leaves many young men without the means with which to behave properly in public with girls and women that are not part of their families.

As more Saudi women keep joining the work force problems in how men interact with women will become more prevalent. And we should not put all of the blame on the men. Many young women also act foolishly in public, teasing and encouraging young men, some even throwing them their phone numbers. This only encourages irresponsible and dangerous behavior.

As Prince Khaled noted, it is the responsibility of the security guards at shopping malls to ensure proper enforcement of the rules and protect all shoppers. There is no reason why law-abiding young men should be made to pay the price for the shenanigans of others. It is only living and interacting together in public in a decent and honorable way, that Saudi men and women will learn how to get along.

Expats are not our enemy

Illegal foreign workers gather in Riyadh in 2013 to return home after the Saudi government gave them an amnesty. (AFP photo)

Illegal foreign workers gather in Riyadh in 2013 to return home after the Saudi government gave them an amnesty. (AFP photo)

This is my column that was printed in Arab News on Nov. 30, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

When I read a few weeks ago that that an Indian from the state of Kerala had been arrested in Jeddah for illegally running a vegetable and fruit selling business worth SR5 million, I did not breathe a sigh of relief. Of course I understand the action that the various ministries undertook in enforcing the Saudization rules of the vegetable market which led to the arrest of the Keralite, and I fully support our government’s efforts to make more work opportunities available to Saudis. But I also know that unfortunately there are very few Saudis that I know of who are willing to wake up every morning at 3 a.m. in order to be at the vegetable market at 4 a.m. for the daily auction of fresh fruits and vegetables. So in my mind, the arrested Keralite was just filling a market demand.

It is sad to note that too often the coverage of these Saudization issues by the local press takes on xenophobic overtones, often implying that foreigners are taking over the Kingdom and threatening our national security. This is ridiculous, as more often than not they do the difficult and low paid jobs that we Saudis do not want to do, such as domestic work, street cleaning, vegetable selling and taxi driving, among others. For sure Saudis have made immense strides in terms of the types of work that we are willing to do, both men and women. Nowadays you can find Saudi women working as cashiers in supermarkets and Saudi men working in fast food restaurants, something that was impossible to see only 10 to 15 years ago.

We should be happy and proud that so many foreigners want to work and live here. Saudi Arabia has become a wealth magnet in the Middle East, a stable country that provides job opportunities to millions of Saudis and foreigners in a tax-free environment. In that sense, we are sort of in a similar situation as the United States, which also has a large immigrant population, with many illegals.

It was good news to read that the Saudi government will allow runaway expats to leave the country without having to return to their sponsors as long as they do not have criminal cases pending against them, pay any outstanding fines and pay for their own tickets home. Too often many employers put up unnecessary obstacles or drag their feet in repatriating disgruntled employees, which makes the lives of the runways hell as they have to wait to be deported in crowded detention centers, all the while not receiving any salary.

The other good news was that the Saudi government is considering issuing Iqamas, or residency permits, that are valid for five years, instead of for one year as is the case now. This would immensely help make the lives of expatriate workers and their family members easier and less worrisome. The government also said it was studying the possibility of extending the validity of Saudi passports from five years to 10 years, which pleased me very much. Most developed countries have long issued 10-year passports, so why not Saudi Arabia? In my case, since the Saudi Embassy here in Brasilia does not issue new Saudi passports, each time my passport needs to be renewed I need to return to the Kingdom to do so, which is costly and time consuming.

It is high time that we Saudis stop seeing foreigners as the enemy and acknowledge how much they have helped develop this country, and how much they help us keep this country running smoothly every day. Measures such as extending the validity of Iqamas and facilitating the departure of runaway workers are all developments that are just and help to ease the lives of those who struggle so much to make our lives more pleasant. It’s the least we can do.

Campus death: Could it have been averted?

Could Amna Bawazeer's life had been saved if emergency workers such as these had been let into the female section of KSU quickly?

Could Amna Bawazeer’s life had been saved if emergency workers such as these had been let into the female section of KSU quickly?

This column appeared originally in Arab News on Feb. 09, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The recent death of Amna Bawazeer, a graduate student at King Saud University in Riyadh, after she suffered a massive heart attack on campus on Feb. 5, has led to calls for a full investigation and the implementation of protocols to be used in emergencies.

Two versions of what happened are circulating. The first one says that university officials panicked and waited for too long before they called an ambulance. They add that once the male paramedics finally arrived, they were allegedly not allowed quick access to the female section of the university to help her because university officials said there were uncovered women inside. The second version emerged when the rector of the university Badran Al-Omar denied this in an interview with The Associated Press, claiming that there was no hesitation in letting the paramedics in. He insisted that the university did all it could to help the student.

“They called the ambulance at 12:35 p.m. and the ambulance staff were there by 12:45 p.m. and entered immediately. There was no barring them at all. They entered from a side door,” Omar told The AP. That does indeed sound swift, but at what time did Amna have her heart attack? That is a crucial piece of information.

This brings back the bad memories of the 2002 fire at a Makkah girls’ school that saw 15 girls die and more than 50 injured after the male firefighters were barred from entering the school because not all of the girls had their abayas on.

Islam is a practical religion that has exceptions for many of its rules. My father used to tell me that it was a practical religion that allowed travelers to break their fast during Ramadan. In emergency cases like these, the authorities must remember this practical and merciful aspect of Islam and allow the male helpers in at once to help females.

If, for instance, university officials and the religious police are not going to allow male paramedics and firemen into all-female institutions then they should train female paramedics and firefighters. All universities that have female sections should have female doctors on call during school hours in order to provide medical assistance in case of emergencies. Why female professors did not try to move Amna to a hospital themselves is a question that should be asked of them. Many Saudis have asked these same questions in social media, suggesting that medical clinics be set up in all colleges, while others suggested that women be included in the paramedic staff of emergency services so that they could be used in certain situations. I hope the Ministry of Health will thoroughly investigate this sad case and institute mandatory measures that all female colleges will have to follow in medical emergencies. Incidents such as this one are outrageous and give Saudi Arabia and Islam a bad name in the international arena.

A good friend of mine pointed out a similar case in Washington, D.C., where a man last week was having a heart attack in the parking lot of a shopping mall across the street from a firehouse. His relatives ran over to plead for help from the firemen, but they refused to help, insisting that they could only help if they called the 911 and reported the emergency. The man died because of the heart attack.

The mayor of Washington, Vincent Gray, said this was an outrage and that a full investigation would hold those responsible accountable. He said the firemen who failed to help the man having a heart attack failed to show “common decency.”

Here in Saudi Arabia we need a culture of accountability, enforcement of laws and more training in how to deal with emergencies. University staff and students should be trained to deal with emergencies. When I went to college in the United States in the 1980s, we had monthly fire drills in the middle of the night where we had to leave our dormitories and stand outside in the cold until the all-clear signal was given to return inside. Let us learn from such tragedies so that they do not recur.

Read the original here:

Exclusive: Nathalie Morin and family in financial distress

Nathalie Morin's three children in their Dammam apartment.

Nathalie Morin’s three children in their Dammam apartment.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Nathalie Morin video

In an exclusive interview, Nathalie Morin told me that her Saudi husband, Saeed al-Shahrani, has been unemployed since May 2013, and that this has forced them to sell a refrigerator, washing machine, a television set and other household items in order to buy food and pay their bills.

I found out about their unfortunate situation after emailing questions to Nathalie about her relationship with the two Saudi women’s rights activists, Wajeeha al-Howaider and Fawzia al-Ayuni, who were sentenced to ten months in jail each, and a two year travel ban, earlier this month after being convicted of allegedly committing the crime of Takhbib, or inciting a wife against her husband. This sentence was for a visit of the two to the apartment building of Canadian national in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, in 2011, supposedly to give her food supplies. In the interview, Nathalie says she never talked or met Wajeeha.

I discovered that Nathalie does speak good English by visiting her blog called Saudi Real Life (, where she has posted several videos of herself speaking in English.

I also found out by watching the videos and interviewing her that Saeed until recently worked for Saudi intelligence services, and that Nathalie first came to Saudi on a wife’s visa even though she was not yet married to Saeed at the time, but already had given birth to their first child in Canada.

She claims that her husband is her best friend, and that they share everything with each other. She complains loudly that all of them are now on some blacklist that does not allow them to leave the kingdom, or for Saeed to find a job.

Here is the text of the interview, with the emphasis put in by Nathalie:

Q:  Why has your husband Saeed been stopped from working as an intelligence agent? Does he have any other job in order to earn money? Have his relatives been helping him financially?

A: My husband worked actively for his country in the National Security department from 1995 to 2008. He has been officially off-duties since September 2008, with permission from Saudi government to stop service and to return to his real identity.

From 2008 to May 6, 2013, he had many hidden jobs in many sectors. On May 6, 2013, the Saudi government decided to cut-off his financial resources completely and he cannot work anymore. Also, all charitable societies have refused to help us for some weird reasons and we do not have relatives helping us.

For our survival since May 6th until today, we have sold:

-A refrigerator;

– 3 air-conditioners;

– A washing machine;

– A dryer machine;

– A television;

– Furniture in two living rooms;

– A few electronic gadgets;

– A watch

Q:  You say on your blog that the Saudi government has banned all of you from traveling outside the kingdom. Why?

A: Yes, my husband and our children are registered on the Saudi National black list.  We’re not allowed to get a passport; to get an ID card without our blacklist data; we’re not allowed to get out of Saudi territories even just for tourism purpose within GCC countries. Why? Ask your question directly to Saudi government.

Q: When Wajeeha al-Howaider and Fawzia al-Ayouni went to your apartment in 2011, did they manage to get to your apartment and speak with you before being arrested? Did they bring you food? 

A: No, I never spoke to them and they did not bring food.

Q: How did you first meet Saeed in Montreal? Did you know at that time that he was an intelligence agent?

A: I met him normally in Montreal as many others meet people. He was like an ordinary person and me, how do you want me to know about his work? Intelligence, espionage, spy are NOT subjects that most of people have knowledge. How do you want me to have clues? At the beginning he told me, “My name is Saeed Al Bishi and I’m a businessman from Saudi Arabia.” Me, I believed him.

I NEVER knew about his real identity and real work. I NEVER knew about his involvement with the Saudi government until March 5, 2005.

Q: I am amazed that you were able to get a visa the first time you visited Saudi, as you were not married yet to Saeed. How did he manage to do that?

A: Yes, my husband came back to Saudi Arabia in September 2002 and the Saudi government told him that he would not return abroad anymore. He met in person with the late Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz al Saud and he told his Royal Highness that it is impossible because he has a baby boy with a Canadian woman in Canada. Prince Naif decided to grant my husband a special reward and favor to marry a foreign national woman and to bring me on Saudi soil with a married visa WITHOUT any document of marriage and to bring our baby boy with Saudi nationality WITHOUT any document of paternity.  We arrived in Saudi Arabia for a vacation in July 2003 and we met in person with Dr. Ahmed Al Salam in his office of the Ministry Interior Federal Headquarters in Riyadh. He gave us in person our official permission to get married and after that we went to Jeddah and we got a confirmation of marriage document from Jeddah Civil Courthouse.

Q:  Do you have contact with the female relatives of Saeed’s family? Are they nice to you? Do they help you?

A: No, I do NOT have any contact with the female relatives of my husband and the last time I saw them is in 2010.  They do not like me, because I have foreign roots, in my blood, from a western country.

Q:  Does your husband allow you to go to the supermarket every week to buy food?

A: My husband allows me to do anything I wish to do. He is open-minded and we are in mutual agreement together. But, since May 6th, the Saudi government has cut off all our financial resources and so, we do NOT have any money to go supermarket.

Q: Do your children go to school? What are their names and ages?

A: Samir, 11 years old, has completed the 4th elementary grade. Abdullah, 7 years old, has completed the 1st elementary grade. Sarah, 4 years old, has not gone to school yet.

Q: Do you have any Canadian friends in Dammam or Riyadh?

 A: No, I do NOT have any friend, Canadian or of any other nationality.

Saudi women activists say they will appeal judgment

Wajeeha al-Huwaider, one of the activists sentenced to a jail term, at the wheel of her car.

Wajeeha al-Huwaider, one of the activists sentenced to a jail term, at the wheel of her car.

‘We were only trying to help the Canadian woman by giving her food. We never tried to help her run away from her husband.’

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

THE two Saudi women’s activists, Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Ayuni, who were sentenced on June 15, 2013 to ten months in prison and a two year travel ban after that, for allegedly having tried to help a Canadian woman leave her Saudi husband, have said they will appeal the decision.

“These harsh sentences will not deter us from our Islamic duties of helping those who are oppressed, needy and to press for women’s rights,” they said in a statement published in Arabic on the Membar al-Ahwar website. “The charge of trying to smuggle Nathalie out of the country was dropped because the prosecution did not have enough evidence,” they noted, adding that there was no way they could have communicated so much information to the Canadian woman since she speaks only French, and does not know English or Arabic, and that they spoke to her for only five minutes.

The Canadian woman in question is Nathalie Morin, who has been in Saudi Arabia for eight years now, and is married to the Saudi national Saeed al-Shahrani. She had three children with him. Her case received wide coverage in the local press in 2011 when Wajeha and Fawzia were arrested on June 6 of that year after they met Nathalie in a shopping mall in Dammam to try and give her food, after Nathalie’s mother, Johane Durocher, contacted them asking for help. Her mother has claimed that Nathalie is being held against her will in Saudi, that her husband mistreats her, denies her adequate food, and has prohibited her from taking her children with her back to Canada.

The two activists also said that the ill-will against them on the part of the prosecutor was clear from the beginning, as he insisted on moving forward with the charge of Takhbib, or incitement of a wife to defy the authority of her husband, despite the fact that the governor of the Eastern Province had closed the file on the case two years ago. They also criticized the judicial authorities for never having called Nathalie to testify, despite the fact that six interrogation sessions were held in the case over the course of one year. They noted that the prosecution never gave a reason for not calling the Canadian woman to testify.

Johane told the Canadian daily La Presse that she was surprised the two activists had been convicted and that they had never incited her daughter to leave her husband. “They explained to me at great length that they might try to help my daughter. They never intended to kidnap her, take her to the Canadian embassy and never talked against her husband,” she told the daily. “Their only intention was to bring her some food.”

Nathalie met Saeed in Montreal, Canada, in 2001. She became pregnant in 2002, the same year Saeed was deported back to Saudi Arabia. She visited him twice in Saudi before moving there in 2005. She claims that her children are on a Saudi government blacklist since 2009, which prevents them from being issued Saudi passports and leaving the kingdom.

Nathalie Morin is seen here in this undated family photo taken with her husband and one of her children.

Nathalie Morin is seen here in this undated family photo taken with her husband and one of her children.

In this rather bizarre video — Nathalie Morin video — posted online in 2010, Nathalie is filmed in her Dammam apartment by her mother and brother when they visited her in the summer of 2009, seemingly talking into a cellphone while seated on a sofa, with a man in a white thobe—possibly her husband—walking in front of the camera several times. Other scenes show Nathalie pointing out her blacked out windows, her kitchen, missing ceiling light fixtures and the male section of her apartment, which has nice views of the street below and trees from their unblocked windows. (In many Saudi homes it is common to have a male living room for the men of the house to receive their male friends, far away from the women folk.)

The Canadian government has tried to help Nathalie, but they have said that since this is a family affair their hands are tied. “This is a complex family matter with no easy solution,” the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs told Arab News in 2011.

Under Saudi law, children usually remain in their father’s custody until they are of age, leaving foreign women who are married to Saudis, but who want to divorce, in a difficult position if there are children involved.  The US and other Western governments regularly warn their nationals to be aware of the custody laws when they intend to marry Saudi citizens. “If a couple consisting of a foreigner and a Saudi living in Saudi Arabia divorce, the foreign parent cannot under any circumstances leave the country with the children born of their union even if he or she is granted custody rights,” says the US State Department’s website.

Wajeeha has been in trouble before with Saudi authorities for repeatedly driving her car on public highways, filming herself doing so and posting the video online. Women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, despite there being nothing in Islamic law or tradition that says women cannot drive.

“It was clear to us from the beginning when the prosecutor in Dammam called us to testify, that there was malicious intent, and that the charges were brought against us in order to crush us and stop our humanitarian activities,” the two activists said in their statement.

The Conflict Behind Brazil’s Agricultural Boom

Munduruku Indians listen to Gilberto Carvalho during a meeting in Brasilia on June 4, 2013.

Munduruku Indians listen to Gilberto Carvalho during a meeting in Brasilia on June 4, 2013.

This story appeared in the International Business Times on June 8, 2013:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

You would be forgiven for thinking this was the United States in 1850, the setup for a Western movie pitting cowboys against Indians. But it’s Brazil, today.

It’s a centuries-old conflict, one that the government has been trying to solve since at least 1910, when it created the Indian affairs agency known as National Foundation of the Indian, or Funai by its Portuguese acronym. The agency has been in charge of formulating the government’s policies toward the Indians since then, including the fundamental step of demarcating Indian lands. But that never happened.

Under the country’s 1988 Constitution, all Indian lands were supposed to have been demarcated and officially registered by 1993. According to Funai, there are 428 Indian land tracts fully registered so far, with 12 in the process of being registered, 51 that have been ruled as Indian but have not been demarcated yet and 115 claimed by Indians that are still being studied.

Then there 36 Indian reservations, formed from land that was either donated to them or bought or expropriated by the federal government, which are not subject to demarcation.

While authorities study what belongs to the Indians and what doesn’t, things on the ground are happening fast. Brazil’s huge appetite for more agricultural products to be grown and exported, and demand for more electricity, helped spark tensions between Indians, farmers and the federal government that have been simmering for decades.

Government statistics say that in 2011 Brazil produced $124 billion worth of agricultural
products, or about one-fifth of its entire economy, which is now the world’s sixth-biggest,
according to U.N. data. Most of that volume gets exported.

The appetites stirred by that kind of money are huge, and politicians are in on the action. A group of members of the National Congress has been trying since 2000 to wrest control from the Funai of the demarcation of Indian lands, which now rests with the executive branch through the Ministry of Justice, and place it in the hands of Congress, through the introduction of a constitutional amendment.

Funai isn’t popular with farmers, who have long criticized it for being packed with leftist
sociologists and anthropologists, who they claim have always taken the side of Indian tribes.

Violence And Death
The conflict has escalated into violent clashes. A growing wave of invasions of farms and
hydroelectric dam projects by Brazilian Indians have alarmed many on both sides of the

On May 2, 150 Indians invaded the construction site of the Belo Monte dam in the northern state of Pará, paralyzing work on the huge site. The Indians said they had not been consulted on the construction of the dam, whose impact on their land would be irreversible. They claim that up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) of rivers in the area will dry up once the dam is functioning. They also complained of the military presence in the area. The Indians eventually left the site peacefully on May 9 after a court ordered them to do so. But another group of more than 100 reoccupied the construction site on May 27. They initially refused to leave, even after a judge ordered their departure, dramatically ripping up the order.

They later agreed to leave the site and send a delegation to Brasilia this week after Gilberto Carvalho, the chief minister of President Rousseff’s presidential office, agreed to meet them. But they warned on Monday that they were not ready to give away their right to previous consultation on all dam projects that would affect their lands and that the government had tried to strong-arm them in the past into signing documents saying they were in favor of the dams.

Carvalho must have disappointed them on Tuesday when he declared at the meeting that the government was not going to abandon the Belo Monte dam project. “I cannot lie to you. I won’t tell you that we are going to stop the Belo Monte dam. There is no way to stop it;
Brazil’s needs that power. What we want to do is correct what is wrong there,” Carvalho told around 140 Indians of the Munduruku tribe that the government had flown into Brasilia.

In other parts of the country, namely in the Midwest states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, Indians have regularly invaded large farms, demanding that at least part of the lands, over which they have ancestral claims, be returned to them. The latest invasion was by 200 Terena Indians, who entered the farm of Ricardo Bacha, a former congressman, in Mato Grosso do Sul in early May and have since refused to leave.

Bacha and his family were finally arrested by the Federal Police on May 15, supposedly to ensure their safety after Bacha’s private security guards shot at the Indians. A judge ruled that the Indians had to leave Bacha’s property by May 20. On the morning of May 30, federal police charged the Indians on the farm, using rubber bullets, killing a 32-year-old Indian named Oziel Gabriel and wounding 14. The Indians were removed from the farm. Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo has promised an investigation into the death and injuries. But tensions flared up again this week when Indians invaded Bacha’s farm again and blocked roads in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, while others briefly occupied the Curitiba office of the ruling Workers Party.

The Feds Step In
The clashes led the Agriculture Parliamentary Front in the Brazilian Congress, a group of
members of Congress and senators from rural areas, to demand that the chief of staff of
President Dilma Rousseff, Gleisi Hoffmann, attend a congressional hearing on the issue of the demarcation of Indian lands. On May 8, Hoffmann appeared before the panel and announced that the federal government had decided that Funai would no longer decide on its own which Indian lands were to be demarcated; the government’s agricultural research arm, Embrapa, as well as the Ministries of Agriculture and Agrarian Affairs, would now be involved.

A further victory for farmers came when the federal government announced in early May that the demarcation of Indian lands in the state of Paraná would be halted, after famers complained that too much of their productive land was being eaten up by these claims. Later, the government announced a similar freeze in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Hoffmann said the government was also planning to stop land demarcations in Mato Grosso do Sul and in Santa Catarina.

According to Funai’s own estimates, there are approximately 800,000 Indians in Brazil today, occupying 12 percent of the nation’s territory. Alarmists claim that if the government gives in to Indian demands, they would occupy up to 20 percent of the country.

Critics of the government’s policies toward them claim that Indians today, overwhelmingly poor and uneducated, have become too dependent on government handouts of money, through the Bolsa Familia wealth redistribution program and food through the supply of “cesta basicas,” or “basic baskets,” which contain basic foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, flour, cooking oil, beans, toilet paper and soap.

A survey of 32 tribes across Brazil commissioned by the Agriculture and Livestock Confederation, or CNA, a lobbying group for farmers, found that 63 percent of Indians have televisions, 51 percent have refrigerators and 36 percent use cell phones. But the survey also found that 29 percent said access to health care was their main concern, followed by land disputes (24), discrimination (16), access to education (12) and work issues (9). The survey also found that 64 percent of Indians benefit from the Bolsa Familia program, receiving an average of R$153 ($76) per month in assistance.

Yet, data on Indian-claimed areas that have productive farms within them is hard to come by. Both sides in the dispute claim they do not have that information. “Strictly speaking, we haven’t done such a study, because Funai has created a climate of instability in the country,” said congressman Rubens Moreira Mendes, a fierce critic of Indian claims to farmland. “Historically, Indian claims to land followed the requirements of the 1988 Constitution, but today, when we see Funai asking for productive lands that only have soy and corn growing on them, this is unacceptable. They are going over the limits.”

The conflict between Indians and farmers has spread within the federal government itself, with hardline leftists, supporters of former president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, on one side and more pragmatic leftists concerned with Brazil’s economy, led by current President Rousseff, on the other.

Funai is caught in the middle, said Mauricio Santoro, an advisor to Amnesty International in Brazil and a university professor of political science. “The perennial lack of employees and of financial resources at Funai is well-known to the authorities, who therefore shouldn’t be surprised at the agency’s slowness in demarcating Indian lands. The criticism of Funai’s performance, therefore, is representative of the conflict between sectors of the government that deal with infrastructure and policies toward agroindustry and those responsible for Indian affairs,” he said.

Too Much Growth?

That leftist position is represented outside of government as well, for instance by the
Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI, a nongovernmental group that is part of the Catholic Church and has been working to help Indians in various areas since 1972. It currently has approximately 300 employees working in the field. CIMI believes that the standoff between Indians and farmers is the result of Brazil’s path of rapid growth and record agricultural exports.

“There has been a very violent wave of attacks on indigenous people in Brazil,” Cleber César Buzatto, the executive secretary of CIMI, said. “This has been caused by the large landowners and the model of development that Brazil has chosen to follow, which involves the export of agricultural and mineral products. This influences their priorities, one of which is to export basic commodities on a large scale.”

Buzatto sees the Belo Monte dam project as emblematic of the federal government’s misplaced priorities. “The government went in and promised to pay each Indian tribe affected in the area to be flooded by the dam R$30,000 per month ($15,000). They are basically paying them off for their support,” he said. “The problem is that the government has now stopped paying some of these tribes, who had grown dependent on these payments and now have nothing to fall back on.”

The Catholic Church became so alarmed with the rising tensions that the secretary-general of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, Dom Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, met with Hoffmann, the top government officer, on June 5 to discuss the situation. Steiner said that the church was worried that Funai was being hollowed out and asked that Hoffmann meet with Indian leaders before going any further in changing the ways lands are demarcated. Hoffmann agreed.

CNA, the farmers’ organization, said it is worried that Funai is increasingly targeting
productive farmland, including that of small farmers, to be turned into designated Indian lands. “Once these lands are turned over to Indians, Funai only allows them to produce crops using methods that their ancestors used. This is different from what happens in other countries like the U.S. and Canada, where Indians are allowed to choose whatever method of agricultural production,” CNA said in emailed answers to questions.

CNA said that it has initiated legal action in 10 Brazilian states because of disputes over lands that Funai wants demarcated as Indian. The agriculture confederation points out that these areas are either heavily populated or heavily cultivated, which has led to clashes.

CNA also claims that Funai is deliberately arbitrary in the way it demarcates lands, pointing to the conclusion of a 1999 congressional investigation of Funai that found too much power was concentrated in the federal agency. Many of the farmers’ allies in Congress want Funai to be investigated again by a congressional commission for alleged fraud in the official reports used to support the demarcation of specific lands as belonging to certain Indian tribes.

“Funai is not working for the protection of the Indians but is instead causing a destabilization of our agricultural production. Today, Brazil is the second largest producer of food in the world, but there are still some people who want to end this because they hate the idea of private property,” Congressman Moreira Mendes said.

The head of Funai, Marta Azevedo, has been strangely silent throughout most of this, perhaps because some believe her days at the head of agency are numbered. The Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported she was on her way out a few weeks ago, but until now she has remained at her post. What is certain is that the amount of potential Indian lands and the method of demarcating them are already changing. It remains to be seen if Brazil can do so while respecting the rights of both its indigenous populations and its farmers.

Update: Marta Azevedo resigned on June 7, 2013, after my story was written, citing health reasons.

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