An Assault on Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

Posted in: Environment, Indigenous identity, State

By Denise Humphreys Bebbington, Ricardo Verdum, Anthony Bebbington

The Amazon basin is home to over 385 indigenous groups, including 71 groups living in voluntary isolation, and the world’s largest intact tropical rainforest.  These two facts are not unrelated. Indeed studies have consistently concluded that forests within indigenous territories are some of the best protected, surpassing forests within other protected areas.

While indigenous territories have long been under pressure from external forces, these threats have increased in recent years from a combination of development pressures that include agroindustry expansion, mining, oil and gas exploration, and large-scale infrastructure works. Together, these threaten the continued existence of indigenous territories.

Nowhere are these pressures more visible than in the Legal Amazon of Brazil, a region encompassing nine states and 65 percent of the Amazon rainforest.

Within Brazil’s National Congress, interests linked to agribusiness, mining and infrastructure development pursue strategies aimed at weakening certain constitutional guarantees and unravelling the social and environmental safeguards that protect the territorial and ethnic rights of indigenous people and the sustainable use of forest, water and subsoil resources.

Current legislation does not permit mining activities within indigenous territories or most conservation units. Similar restrictions are in place regarding the use of water resources that pass through indigenous territories. Accessing such resources (for example in the case of a hydroelectric power plant) requires that projects be approved by the National Congress, following a consultation process with affected indigenous populations.

However, following the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President in October 2018, the message is clear:  Bolsonaro and his allies intend to push ahead with sweeping changes to both the physical and institutional landscapes that hold and protect indigenous populations of the Amazon.

How did we get here?

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s, Amazonian groups and their supporters organized, demanded and won greater recognition and protections from national governments, international financial institutions and the private sector.  Their longstanding claims for territory and legal status were addressed, though not evenly across the Amazon.  At the same time, following the Rio Earth Summit (1992), environmentalists looking to address the loss of the rainforest, saw the creation of indigenous territories, with their restricted use clauses, as an important instrument to address rising deforestation.

The 1990s were marked by the emergence of a series of high profile socio environmental conflicts involving Amazonian indigenous populations including the Kayapó’s campaign against hydropower development, the U’wa’s fight against oil drilling by Occidental Petroleum in Eastern Colombia, and Shell’s proposed project to develop the Camisea gas field in Peru impacting Machiguenga, Nahua and Kugapakori groups some of whom had limited contact with the outside world. In response to growing developmental pressures, indigenous groups mobilized for greater protections including the right to be consulted when extractive and infrastructure projects impact their territories.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, conservative agendas were being steadily strengthened by the rise of a coalition of rural based landowners promoting the expansion of agroindustry, in particular soy. These interests secured a presence within Brazil’s National Congress in the form of the Agricultural/Livestock Parliamentary Front (Frente Parlamentar da Agropecuária), also known as the bancada ruralista (rural caucus). This parliamentary bloc actively lobbied for greater investment in infrastructure, especially roads but also rail lines, ports and logistic facilities, in order to transport soy to ports for export.  To achieve these goals, these interests viewed it as being imperative to weaken what they viewed as overly restrictive protections in order to open up indigenous territories and conservation units for investment.

Infrastructure development in the Amazon, especially road building, is frequently accompanied by inflows of migrants looking for employment and economic opportunity.  Such inflows lead to further pressures on indigenous territories through land invasions, wildcat mining, timber extraction, and deforestation.  Indeed, since 2012 deforestation rates have been on the rise in Brazil, and appear to have accelerated dramatically over the last year.  In July 2019, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that some 4500 square kilometers of forest had been lost since January 2019, the month that Bolsonario was inaugurated. This represents a 60 percent increase over the same period in 2018. In the first 15 days of July alone 1,000 sq km of rainforest had been cleared, an increase of 68% from the entire month of July 2018.

As data such as these suggest, Bolsonaro has wasted no time in fulfilling his campaign pledge to clear the path for his development initiatives. On his first day in office he issued an order transferring responsibility for the demarcation and legal recognition of indigenous territories away from the Indigenous Affairs Agency (FUNAI) and to the Ministry of Agriculture, headed by a former leader of the rural caucus. He denounced the deforestation figures of the federal institute, INPE, as “lies” and recently fired INPE’s head. Critics of the current government, including academics, have been intimidated and threatened.

Bolsonaro also made threats to withdraw Brazil from ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, international legislation that protects the rights of indigenous peoples to have a say about proposed development interventions affecting their territories.  Hundreds of indigenous groups across the Amazon Basin, and their allies, have used ILO 169 to force governments to protect and defend indigenous rights.

Bolsonaro’s approach is both familiar and particularly dangerous. The rejection of science because its finding are inconvenient, coupled with racism and authoritarian arrogance is a mode of rule that is spreading across both Northern and Southern hemispheres. In the case of Brazil, it is probably not an overstatement to suggest, however, that this mode of rule is potentially genocidal, at least for indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. Bolsonaro will also seek to roll out his agenda as quickly as possible, with potentially irreversible effects on indigenous peoples and forests. The challenge to those who disagree is real, and immediate.


Denise Humphreys Bebbington is Research Associate Professor at the Institute for Community, Development and Environment, Clark University, USA.

Ricardo Verdum, PhD, is a Brazilian Anthropologist affiliated with the Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio do Janeiro.

Anthony Bebbington is Global Chair, University of Bath and Higgins Professor at the Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, USA.

This note draws on the study: Assessment and Scoping of Extractive Industries and Infrastructure in Relation to Deforestation:  Amazonia at

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Posted in: Environment, Indigenous identity, State


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