Serious Deterioration of Human Rights and Indigenous Rights Conditions in Brazil

There are 896.917 indigenous persons in Brazil, distributed among 305 ethnic groups.The main challenge for indigenous people is the threat that new indigenous territories will no longer be established. Permissiveness prevails with hydroelectric and mining companies that directly or indirectly affect indigenous territory.


March 20, 2019.- María Lourdes Alcántara, anthropologist and coordinator of the Guaraní Youth Support Group of Mato Grosso del Sur (GAPK / AJI) and Professor of medical anthropology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of São Paulo, reflects on the main threats to indigenous communities in Brazil after Jair Bolsonaro, a former right-wing government representative and retired military captain, assumed power.

Dismantling of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI)

After the passage of the constitution of 1988, FUNAI—the federal body representing indigenous peoples—became primarily responsible for the demarcation of indigenous lands; as well as ensuring that indigenous issues corresponded to the appropriate ministries (e.g.: indigenous health issues corresponded to the Ministry of Health, indigenous education issues corresponded to the Ministry of Education, etc.). Soon after becoming responsible for the demarcation of land, FUNAI began to suffer serious setbacks due to pressure from rural lobbying groups strongly linked to the interests of corporate agribusiness. Furthermore, the President delayed his own executive authorisations and legislative efforts were often pushed back indefinitely. Only through international pressure and the demands of indigenous social movements would the boundary-making processes finally be closed. However, there was no direct action by the government regarding these boundaries. The narratives always came from the rural lobbying groups working to pass laws in the congress without annulling or reversing the provisions of the Brazilian Constitution.

The fact that FUNAI sat under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice meant protection for the delineation of boundaries, as it was a ministry supposedly exempt from economic and political interests.

The first legal measure that President Bolsonaro signed into effect was the transfer of FUNAI to the Ministry of Family, Women and Human Rights, which is headed by controversial Minister Damares Alves, whose declarations demonstrate his lack of knowledge on indigenous rights and display his racism. In addition to this transfer, the responsibility of boundary demarcations has been assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture. Rural groups have historically opposed the demarcation of indigenous land and believe that "a good Indian is a dead Indian". Bolsonaro is thus fulfilling his campaign promise of "zero demarcations of indigenous lands".

Within the Ministry of Agriculture, the Special Secretariat of Funding (SEAF) is responsible for demarcating indigenous lands and granting environmental licenses to extractive projects with environmental impacts. According to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, both offices would be moved to a government body in the as-yet-to-be-created National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) linked to SEAF.

The chain of command is now in the hands of the most radical rural groups. The new Minister of Agriculture is Federal Deputy Tereza Cristina (DEM-MS). The Special Secretary of Funding Affairs, who will be in charge of agrarian reform, is Luís Antônio Nabhan García, President of the Rural Democratic Union (UDR). His Assistant Secretary is Luana Ruiz, an attorney for large landowners involved in several land demarcation processes.

Along with the unconfirmed creation of a government body that joins the departments of Agriculture, Human Rights, Environment, Defence and Justice, with the Civil House and Institutional Security Cabinet, the interests of the mining and energy sector will further influence the already complex and burdened demarcation procedure. According to the Socio-environmental Institute, mining occurs in 25% of the total area of indigenous lands in the Amazon, with Mining Silvana Industria and Comercio Ltd. and Vale S.A being the biggest offenders.

The requests to conduct mining affect indigenous lands of all kinds. At least 56 of the indigenous lands have had over 60% of their land designated for mining. In smaller areas of indigenous land, such as the Mebêngôkre Kayapó Mekrãgnoti and Mebêngôkre Kayapó in Pará state, mining requests cover more than two thirds of their total territories. Over 72 minerals are listed in the 4,181 Mining Requests, with gold being the most in-demand mineral, accounting for more than 50% of the requests.

This federal body will have the authority to make decisions after a first phase of identification. The fear is that many land demarcation processes will be dead before they are born. According to Marcio Santilli, former FUNAI President and Director of the Socio-environmental Institute, the results of ministerial restructuring are the paralysis of land demarcation procedures and further reliance on the judiciary.

The Danger of Revising Indigenous Lands

In addition to the inaction plaguing land demarcation, the other major threat is the revision of lands already demarcated, as in the case of Raposa Serra do Sol. According to Special Secretary of Funding Luiz Antonio Nabhan García, “the largest landowner in the country is the Indian." Because of this, he aims to find gaps in the demarcation law to revise titled lands.

The process of demarcating indigenous land takes an average of 10 to 15 years and can take up to more than 20 years. If previous governments showed a flagrant apathy when legalising indigenous lands, elites and politicians of the current administration have made it clear that “we [they] do not want more indigenous lands”.

This point is very delicate since both legislation and the Constitution are being violated, judicial power has been disregarded, and anthropologists and the indigenous population have been discredited; all of which is generating direct confrontation that is without precedent, with the result being serious setbacks for human and indigenous rights.


On 10 January 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture published a list of 28 agrochemicals and their active ingredients in the Official Gazette of the Union. Among those listed is an unpublished additive called sulfoxaflor, a chemical controversially used in the United States. Of the 28 agrochemicals already published, methomyl—an ingredient used in cotton, potato, soybean, cabbage and corn fields—is considered extremely toxic; four more chemicals were classified as highly toxic. According to the official classification, almost all are dangerous for the environment; fourteen are categorized as "very dangerous" and 12 as "dangerous".

Methomyl and imazetapir—the most toxic agrochemicals—have been registered for use by four companies and are active ingredients in agrotoxins sold to rural producers. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, “the products do not automatically mean risk; if used correctly and in accordance with the instructions for use, within good agricultural practices and with personal protection equipment, their use is completely safe”. According to the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANIVISA), last year a historic total of 450 agrochemicals were registered in Brazil, of which only 52 are of low toxicity.

Climate Change

Ricardo Salles, the Minister of Environment, supports all measures that clearly oppose international agreements that Brazil signed regarding global warming. He asserts that climate change is nothing more than an ideology and that there is no significant evidence to demonstrate this phenomenon.

His statements show his ignorance of the area that is his primary responsibility. According to him, Brazil "is a creditor in the climate [space] and not a debtor”. According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), from 2012 to the present, deforestation has had an upward trend. Deforestation in 2018 was twice as high as the goal indicated in the 2020 Climate Agreement.

Another enormous misunderstanding often repeated by Salles is that, contrary to all statistics, two-thirds of deforestation occurs in indigenous areas. The Ministry of Environment has an analysis of INPE’s 2018 data that outlines where deforestation has occurred by type of land. According to the data, indigenous lands and protected areas account for only 15% of all that was destroyed in the Amazon in 2018; whereas private lands and illegally occupied lands — those that were first stolen and then sold to rural producers — constituted 59% of the total deforested area. An independent analysis by the Institute of Man and Environment of the Amazon (IMAZON) using satellite data, concluded that 18% of the deforestation in 2018 took place in indigenous lands or state and federal protected areas, and 65% occurred in illegally occupied public areas and private lands.

To paraphrase President Bolsonaro: global warming is an unfounded ideology and Indians must integrate into society and stop being “exotic animals”. The Climate Agreement, of which Brazil was originally a primary supporter, is now being seriously questioned by officials to justify further development — Brazil must become one of the largest exporters of grain in the world, at any cost. Indigenous and protected lands must be freed for the agricultural industry; mining, timber and agrochemicals should be used to increase production. This is how Brazil will maintain “its historical role of great power”.

We are clearly in a dark moment of regression, not only in relation to indigenous rights, but also with regard to other rights previously fought for with so much effort. It is a sad fact that we live in a 21st century marked by dictatorships, when we thought it would be marked by the building of true democracies. Everything seems to indicate that this is another failed utopia.


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