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Deforestation on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado is shown in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil. File photo: AMANDA PEROBELLI/REUTERS
Deforestation on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado is shown in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil. File photo: AMANDA PEROBELLI/REUTERS

Rio de Janeiro — Short-staffed, stripped of its powers and led by a police officer, Brazil’s Funai indigenous affairs agency became a symbol of Jair Bolsonaro’s dismantling of Amazon protections.

Now, as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva seeks to reverse his predecessor’s policies and rebuild Funai, staff say he must act quickly to address widespread exhaustion and frustration among the agency’s depleted workforce.

“I’m in absolute despair over the situation here,” one Funai worker in an Amazon region said, asking not to be named as he described a daily grind that involves covering multiple jobs for which he is poorly qualified.

Since defeating Bolsonaro in last year’s presidential election, Lula has appointed former congresswoman Joenia Wapichana as Funai’s first indigenous leader. He has also created a ministry of indigenous peoples, headed by indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara.

But while Lula da Silva’s pledges and the appointment of Wapichana and other indigenous directors have inspired hope among Funai employees, many of them say the agency must tackle a staffing crisis caused by years of budget cuts, an exodus of skilled experts and poor working conditions.

In mid-March, dozens of Funai employees in Brasilia set out their demands for better pay, bonuses for high performance and a clearer career path for those climbing the ranks.

Members of the INA association of Funai employees are urging the government to approve the plan before April 15, a tight deadline that would allow the changes to become effective by next year.

They say that is vital to stop the agency from losing more staff. Official data shows about 565 people quit, were fired or retired over the past four years of Bolsonaro’s administration, leaving the agency with about 1,350 employees.

Vacant posts 

About half of Funai’s postings are vacant, putting a huge strain on remaining staff, said Monica Carneiro, a co-ordinator at Brasilia’s union for government employees, Sindsep-DF.

“This is extremely exhausting,” she said, describing the agency’s workforce as in poor shape “mentally and physically”.

The Amazon-based staff member said he had started off eager to get to work when he joined in 2018, but five years on would quit if he did not need the job to support his family.

Based in a region plagued by deforestation, he said he does what he can to protect the interests of the local Indigenous population, but is overstretched due to a sharp decline in staffing levels under Bolsonaro.

He registers births and deaths in Indigenous lands, and also helps people access documents, social security and government assistance.

Due to a lack of personnel, however, he now undertakes tasks he has no expertise in, such as managing fuel supplies for official vehicles, and estimates that he does the jobs of at least five people — breaking them down into one job per day.

“Today, it’s contract handling and [sending] reports to other bodies,” he said.

Climate protections

The situation is a far cry from the agency’s heyday in the 1980s, when Funai had about 4,400 permanent staff to carry out its mission of protecting Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people.

Securing the land rights and traditional way of life of Brazil’s native peoples is seen as key to preserving the Amazon forest, helping to rein in climate change by stemming deforestation.

But working conditions at Funai have been bad for years, said INA representative Luana Almeida, with some staff facing dangerous situations in the middle of the Amazon in understaffed postings with a lack of basic materials.

Funai’s workforce had already shrunk considerably when Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, promising to curb the expansion of indigenous land to make way for mining and agriculture and installing military and police officers in Funai’s top tiers.

Under Bolsonaro, indigenous leaders and rights advocates accused Funai of working against the interests of indigenous peoples, as the president incentivised the development of their lands.

In 2019, Bolsonaro named federal police detective Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva to head Funai, and Da Silva later reported several staff members and indigenous leaders to the police for alleged crimes.

The changes drove many staff to quit in exchange for higher paying or easier jobs elsewhere in the federal government, leaving Funai’s ranks depleted of qualified professionals, Almeida said.

"[Funai’s staff] has immense responsibility, but a salary way below the level of responsibility they take on,” she said.

If nothing is done to improve working conditions, including the hiring of more permanent staff, the trend could continue, she added, warning that about 30% of the agency’s workforce was within retirement age.

New hiring

Funai’s new director of administration and management, Mislene Metchacuna — one of two Indigenous women appointed by Wapichana to head up directorates at the agency — acknowledged the staff shortages and said the agency aimed to hire permanent workers this year.

She said 2,000 more staff would be ideal, but could not say whether that might eventually be authorised.

In Brasilia, Carneiro welcomed the pledges to hire more staff and called Funai’s shift since the change in leadership “impressive”.

But she added that it was vital for the government to swiftly implement the career path plan demanded by workers as part of the wider push to give the agency a new lease of life.

“It’s no use [to hire more staff] if we then lose them due to a lack of a career path.”

In order for it to take effect next year, the plan would need to pass through several internal government commissions and be approved by Congress in less than a month.

Erika Kokay, a congresswoman from Lula da Silva’s Workers Party (PT), said she believed the government would meet the workers’ demands and that the time frame was achievable.

"[Lula da Silva’s government] needs to close the loop on a very dramatic and cruel period for indigenous peoples,” she said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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