We fight alongside Brazil's first peoples, standing against the onslaught on indigenous Brazilians.
Following the period of the military dictatorship (1964-1984), in which Indigenous peoples were subject to a brutal process of dispossession and violence by state and private actors, the 1988 Constitution established a variety of important rights for Indigenous peoples. These include strengthening Indigenous autonomy, rights to social services, and usufruct rights to legally defined Indigenous territories. The ambitious rights defined in this constitution were in part a reflection of the energetic participation and influence of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous rights activists in its creation.
Building on the foundation of the constitution and the return to democratic rule, the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s was a period in which there was a general trend towards the enhancement of the political agency of Indigenous peoples and the significant expansion of Indigenous territories. These processes were marked by a lack of resources and limited and fickle political will, but overall, the period was seen as a moment of progress in the rights of Indigenous peoples and allies. Factions of the political and economic elite opposed specific territorial claims, as well as sought to undermine the Indigenous rights more broadly, with some successes, but executive, legislative, and judicial actions by and large helped protect and strengthen Indigenous rights, foster their political empowerment, and improve Indigenous livelihoods. This enabled and was propelled by the great expansion of Indigenous political mobilization, with the proliferation of formal Indigenous organizations (as well as allied NGOs focused on Indigenous rights, human rights, and the environment) and the intensification of connections between Brazilian organizations and foreign NGOs, multilateral institutions, and allies.
Over the last 5 to 10 years, however, there has been an intensification of efforts in the federal executive and legislative branches (as well as at the state and local level in some places) to roll back progress in Indigenous rights and political influence, and to undermine the gains described above. Factions of the political and economic elite tied to agribusiness, mineral exploration, and infrastructural development have increasingly sought to erode Indigenous rights in order to facilitate access to land, minerals, and other natural resources. These efforts have been especially pronounced since the 2016 impeachment, under the presidencies of Temer and Bolsonaro.
The Temer and Bolsonaro governments have taken action to abolish or shrink established Indigenous territories and to prevent the creation of new territories undergoing study and demarcation. For example, government leaders have attempted an institutional reconfiguration that politically subordinates the Indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI) to mining and agribusiness sectors of the government, which would place decision making over Indigenous territories in the hands of mining and agribusiness interests. Both the Temer and Bolsonaro administrations have also sought to dilute Indigenous political influence and undermine their rights through the appointment of political officials to FUNAI and other relevant government agencies, officials who lack the technical qualifications to oversee these issues or are overtly hostile to Indigenous rights claims. The institutional weakening of Indigenous rights and political influence has also been promoted through budgetary cuts to FUNAI and other relevant government agencies and programs.
Furthermore, the rhetoric of the current president and other high level government officials have increasing displayed overt hostility to Indigenous rights (and human rights more broadly), and have taken recourse to simplistic and outdated oppositions between development, Indigenous rights, and environmental protection that ignore the growing global consensus for models of sustainable development that foreground matters of equity, rights, and environmental sustainability. The incendiary rhetoric combined with the anachronistic notion of development has sanctioned and enabled an increase in violence directed at Indigenous people, “traditional” peoples, the rural poor, and advocates for environmental and human rights causes.
In the worrisome context of the current political scenario, there have been some successes by Indigenous activists and allies to prevent or inhibit some of the ambitions of the backlash against Indigenous rights. With pressure from advocates and public opinion, judicial interventions and political push-back from factions within the legislature there has been success in limiting certain efforts of the president and his allies, but there is a persistent and serious threat to the lives, livelihood, and autonomy of Indigenous peoples that requires domestic and international vigilance and political pressure.