RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Maria Valdenice Nukini believes it's her duty to protect her ancestral territory in northern Brazil and raise awareness of the role indigenous communities play in protecting nature.
That's why she recently traveled 4,700 kilometers from her isolated reserve in the northern state of Acre to Rio de Janeiro to protest oil and gas exploration that may take place near her community, located on the border with Peru.
"Brazil is so big and there are so many other places to look for gas. Why do they want to work in the forest and destroy our land?" asked the 43-year-old.
"If it's not the oil company, it's loggers, or people looking for metals, or people who steal our plants," Nukini said during an oil and gas licensing auction in Rio in October.
"Sometimes I feel we Indians are alone in this fight to protect our nature - everyone's nature," she said, the feathers of her green and yellow headdress glistening in the harsh conference room light.
Brazilian Indians, already under growing pressure from illegal logging, mining, and oil and gas exploration on their lands, may lose the legal protections that guarantee their way of life, which helps protect the country's forests, they and activists say.
A proposed constitutional amendment approved in late October by a commission of lawmakers would give Congress the power to create and manage reserves for Brazil's indigenous peoples, removing from the federal government any oversight of Indian lands.
The amendment would also require the government to compensate landowners in case their property is seized for the creation of indigenous reserves.
The proposed legislation would also allow changes to the geographic boundaries of current reserves, and the possibility of economic exploration by the private sector for agriculture, mining and other projects. It would also suspend any new land demarcation procedures.
The proposal must be approved by Brazil's Lower House and get through the Senate twice, but there is a real danger that Brazil's deeply conservative Congress, heavily influenced by large landowners and agribusiness barons, will make it into law, activists say.
"Most Indian reservations in Brazil are in very valuable areas for agriculture and this is really what this bill is about: allowing a small group of people with agriculture and exploration interests to lay their hands on Indian land," said Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace's public policy coordinator in Brazil.
Activists say the changes would be tragic not just for Brazil's indigenous population, but also for the environment, and would have global implications, as indigenous lands and other protected areas are among the best mechanisms to protect forests and fight climate change, a study by the World Resources Institute showed.
Securing legal rights for communities - as with Brazil's indigenous territories - reduces deforestation and lowers carbon dioxide emissions, according to the WRI report, published last year.
"Brazil's indigenous territories are a model of success, where legal recognition and government protection have helped indigenous communities resist deforestation pressures and maintain healthy forests," the study said.
It added that rates of deforestation were 11 times lower in Indian reservations than in other areas in the Amazon.
Congressmen backing the proposal say the new law would compensate landowners who risk losing their land in demarcation processes that are currently underway.
Osmar Serraglio, a federal representative from the southern Parana state, says the changes aim to protect small farmers, especially those outside the Amazon Basin, where indigenous land demarcation is now taking place.
"We are talking about hundreds of small farmers who are producing food for the entire country who are afraid they may lose their land and receive no compensation because there is no law requiring the government to compensate them if their farms become Indian reservations," Serraglio said.
Giving Congress control of demarcation procedures would make the issue more democratic and more transparent, he said.
Brazil's indigenous population is estimated to have numbered 5 million before Portuguese settlers arrived in 1500. Five centuries of disease, neglect and violence have reduced their numbers to about 900,000 out of a total population of 200 million.
Since 1961, when the first reserve was created, indigenous Brazilians have managed to convince the government to approve nearly 700 preserves totaling 116 million hectares (1.16 million square kilometers).
The reserves cover almost 14 percent of Brazil's territory.
Most reserves are in the Amazon, with the largest and most remote in the western Amazon region, on the border with Peru, Colombia and Venezuela.
Other large Indian lands are scattered around Brazil's agricultural belt and near logging areas such as the south part of Pará state. But there are hundreds of smaller indigenous lands in central and southern Brazil as well, many of which are also coveted by farmers, activists say.
(Reporting by Adriana Brasileiro; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)
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