RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The government agency created to protect Brazil's indigenous people is out to destroy them, a prominent native leader said on Thursday after Funai asked the police to investigate her for fake news.

Police subpoenaed Sonia Guajajara, head of Brazil's largest indigenous coalition APIB, at the request of the native affairs agency Funai, after she accused the government of genocide for not protecting indigenous people from the coronavirus pandemic.

"Bolsonaro's Funai does not recognize the indigenous movement, and has no dialogue with those who diverge from the government's position", Guajajara said, referring to right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been in office since 2019.

"They want to end the indigenous culture in the country once and for all," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Funai did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The agency said in its submission to the police that it had invested 26 million reais ($4.9 million) to fight the pandemic in indigenous lands, including distributing food and setting up barriers to stop outsiders entering indigenous lands.

Funai was set up in 1967 to coordinate and implement government policies to protect the indigenous population, especially isolated and recently contacted people.

That function has been curtailed under Bolsonaro who has criticized indigenous people for having too much reservation land and advocates commercial mining on their lands. Bolsonaro named a policeman, Marcelo Xavier, to run the agency.

"Inside Funai there are many serious civil servants who are trying to do a job that corresponds to the interests of indigenous peoples," said Guajajara.

"But Funai's management no longer serves those interests."

INTIMIDATION

Funai asked that the police investigate Guajajara last week for "perfidy and the crime of slander" because of APIB's documentaries about the lethal impact of the government's poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis on native people.

"The biased content of fake news ... reveals serious illegality. Although possible criticism is tolerated, what in fact happened was an authentic abuse of freedom of expression," Funai wrote in its submission.

On Wednesday, a judge halted the police probe into Guajajara, saying in court documents that its main goal was to "silence political demonstrations" by APIB.

Funai is not the only government agency under Bolsonaro to be accused of turning against indigenous people that it is mandated to protect.

Sesai, the agency responsible for providing medical care to indigenous people, has come under fire for allegedly underreporting COVID-19 deaths.

While Sesai reports about 663 deaths due to COVID-19 among indigenous people, a tally by APIB shows 1,063 fatalities among the country's 900,000 native people.

"When the pandemic started, it exposed how bad indigenous health was," said Eriki Paiva from the Terena peoples in the centre-west state of Mato Grosso do Sul, one of the groups with the most deaths, according to APIB's data.

"It saddens us that beyond not doing the basics, they have now used intimidation tactics against our leaders."

Sesai did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Funai has also rejected APIB's tally.

"(The) data presented was inflated, with the intent to manipulate, almost doubling the number of deaths among indigenous people," Funai wrote in its submission to the police.

Cristiane Juliao, a leader of the Pankararu people in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, dismissed Funai's claim that it set up barriers to stop outsiders entering indigenous lands during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Funai's presence basically involved the delivery of a basic food baskets," she said, adding her tribe set up the barriers and Funai provided equipment, transport and funding for a short while and then vanished.