• Indigenous peoples in Brazil

    Indigenous peoples 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.

Indigenous World 2020: Brazil

Brazil’s Indigenous population numbers 896,900 people, 36.2% of whom live in urban areas and 63.8% in rural. Five hundred and five (505) Indigenous Lands (TIs) have been identified. These lands represent 12.5% (106.7 million hectares) of Brazil’s territory and are inhabited by 517,400 Indigenous people (57.7% of the total).

Six of these lands are home to more than 10,000 Indigenous people each; another 107 are inhabited by between 1,000 and 10,000; 291 by between 100 and 1,000; and 83 have no more than 100 people living on each of them. The land with the largest Indigenous population is the Yanomami territory, in Amazonas and Roraima states, with 25,700 inhabitants.1 In Brazil, 37.4% of Indigenous people over the age of five speak one of the 274 Indigenous languages. Brazil acceded to ILO Convention 169 in 2002.

The legalisation of Indigenous Lands is a long bureaucratic process with final approval given by the President of the Republic;2 the following have been ratified by each of the presidents over the last 25 years, indirectly reflecting the public policies of each government in relation to the Indigenous population:

  • Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995 2002) 145 approvals
  • Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003 2010) 79 approvals
  • Dilma Rousseff (January 2011 August 2016) 21 approvals
  • Michel Temer (August 2016 December 2016) 0 approvals
  • Jair Bolsonaro (January 2019 -) 0 approvals 

In 2019, following a conservative campaign, Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) was elected. He has an aggressive authoritarian attitude and is supported by evangelical and landowning groups. His government has the strong support of the army, represented by its vice-president, Retired General Hamilton. Army officers currently hold no less than 325 posts within the federal administration.3

In terms of Indigenous issues, this government has been responsible for one of the most significant setbacks in the demarcation of Indigenous Lands, promoting an integrationist vision that focuses on “civilising” the Indigenous Peoples.

On taking office on 1 January 2019, the president made his position crystal clear with regard to the demarcation of Indigenous territories: “There will be no demarcation of Indigenous Lands under my government.”4 Following this statement, the body responsible for demarcations, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) underwent a series of management restructurings. First, it was transferred to the Ministry of Family, under Damares Alves, a Pentecostal bishop; then, it was assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture under Tereza Cristina Corrêa da Costa Dias, former leader of the rural caucus, before finally returning to the Ministry of Justice under Sergio Mouro. FUNAI’s return to its place of origin was the result of protests by the Indigenous movement, civil society and national and international NGOs. Its return to the Ministry of Justice has not, however, prevented interference from the current government, which appointed National Police Commissioner Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva as its president and began to drain the organisation of it staff with the aim of paralysing all demarcation work or efforts to protect peoples living in voluntary isolation.

While previous governments may not have played a particularly outstanding role in the demarcation of Indigenous Lands or enforcement of Indigenous rights,5 the current government is implementing a clearly “civilising” policy that does not respect these peoples’ autonomy, far less issues of climate change, and which represents a major setback in human and environmental rights. This can clearly be seen in extracts from some of Bolsonaro’s speeches:

“NGOs and the government only encourage the Indian to enter into conflict. When I take office as president not one inch further will be demarcated.”6

“If I were the king of Roraima, with technology, we’d have an economy like that of Japan within 20 years, because the region has everything. But 60% of this production is not viable because of the Indigenous reserves and other environmental issues.”7

“The Indian is gradually evolving; he is a human being like us.”8 “Most of our Indians are condemned to live as prehistoric men in our own country. This has to change. The Indian wants to produce, to grow, he wants the benefits and marvels of science, technology. We are all Brazilians.”9

“This government has no middlemen, no false Brazilians, no false defenders of Indians. We will remove the Indians from slavery, the slavery to which they were subjected by terrible Brazilians and international NGOs…”10

“There is an Indigenous Land on which we need to build a hydroelectric power plant. [Building it] can be done quickly, without middlemen, you don’t need to involve anybody. The government wants it, they want it, that’s an end of it. (...) They will have resources; they will change their lives…”11

At the other end of the spectrum, lawyer Joênia Wapichana was elected federal deputy for Pará in 2019, the first Indigenous woman to achieve this. Wapichana is leading an energetic resistance to the current president’s policies.

The Free Land protest camp took place in April 2019, a huge Indigenous mobilisation held each year in Brasilia and this year attended by 8,000 representatives from 150 peoples. They called for respect for the rights laid down in the 1988 Constitution and protested at the lack of coordination of Indigenous policy. According to Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara, Bolsonaro’s government is a tragedy for Indigenous policy, which has been completely dismantled, and the president’s rhetoric of “integrating” the peoples is tantamount to the dictatorship years, during which at least 8,000 Indigenous people were killed, according to the National Truth Commission.”12

Consequences of the dismantling of Indigenous policies

Deforestation and fires

The deforestation recorded on Indigenous Lands in the Amazon between 1 August 2018 and 31 June 2019 was 65% higher than over the previous period, being an increase from 260 km² to 429.9 km². This is the highest figure on record since 2009 and represents a 4% loss in total Amazonian biomass.13

According to Article 231 of the Federal Constitution, the Indigenous Lands are assets of the Union and Indigenous Peoples recognise their permanent ownership and exclusive use of the wealth of their land, rivers and lakes. Historically, they are the best preserved areas and play an important role in preventing deforestation of the Amazon.

According to data from the National Space Research Institute (INPE), the highest rate of forest loss was recorded in Ituna/Itatá, with a 650% increase in deforestation (from 15.89 km² to 119.92 km²); in Apyterewa, with a 334% increase (from 19.61 km² to 85.25 km²); and Cachoeira Seca, with a 12% increase (from 54.2 km² to 61.2 km²). The three reserves topping the list are all located in the Terra do Meio region, in the Xingu River basin in Pará, at the heart of what is known as the “Amazon deforestation arc”. Since the start of the year, the Indigenous Lands in this region have been on red alert, with invasions and violence recorded against their native populations. The Ituna/Itatá TI is less than 70 km from the main construction site of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant. The start of the works has resulted in a surge in the region’s rural property market and forest destruction has thus increased exponentially. One of the conditions for constructing Belo Monte was the establishment of a protection base on the Indigenous Land run by FUNAI but this has never materialised.

The worst deforestation of Indigenous Lands took place in Apyterewa and Cachoeira Seca and was primarily related to the theft of timber, according to a survey by the Socio-Environmental Institute. According to data from INPE, Cachoeira Seca suffered the greatest loss of forest (10.6% of its total area), followed by Apyterewa (8%) and Ituna/ Itatá (5.53%).

Widely documented at national and international levels, the fires became as controversial an issue inside the Bolsonaro government as they were outside it. One consequence was that the President of INPE, scientist Ricardo Galvão, was sacked for disclosing data on the fires. In August 2019, INPE recorded almost 31,000 fires. Between September and October, through the efforts of the Logístico-GLO Group, the figure was brought down to 19,900 and then 7,800. In November, once the military had left, the outbreaks increased again to 10,200. In December, a month when fires traditionally die down because of the rains, there was an almost 80% increase on the previous year.

During the course of 2019, satellite imaging recorded almost 90,000 fires in the Amazon, 30% more than in 2018. Over a 10-year period, 2019 was the fourth highest year for number of fires.

According to experts, the fires in the Amazon are caused primarily by people burning to clear an area of forest that has recently been felled. This is why the supervisory bodies need to conduct effective inspections if further fires are to be prevented.14

Land grabbing, illegal mining and theft of timber by invaders continue to be the main issues at the heart of the problem. Others include the infrastructure works, which promote an illegal market in land and timber by encouraging immigration and boosting the local economy. This is why the reduction in inspections, President Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric in favour of deforestation and the attempts to diminish protected areas are all encouraging the fires and simply adding to the historic problems already suffered by some of the country’s most seriously affected regions.

The government’s proposals to change the boundaries of the reserves only encourage the race to steal public lands: it is simply land grabbing. “Fifteen of the 20 conservation units with the largest number of deforested areas have now had proposals to change their boundaries. There is a clear relationship between land grabbing, illegal activities and deforestation within conservation units.”15 According to local sources, land speculation is growing in line with the dismantling of the country’s environmental agencies. The prospect of impunity encourages both expectations of possession and land grabbing.

Unfortunately, the actions of Brazil’s current government run counter to all global environmental concerns. Despite being one of the main environmental protection agencies, the Brazilian Institute of Municipal Administration (IBAM) has like FUNAI suffered staff cuts16 and a reduction in its field inspection operations, all with the excuse of saving money.17 The Brazilian government is interfering in the Fondo Amazonas, which has a total of R$2.2 billion destined, among other things, for maintaining the Amazon Forest, and many Indigenous associations and rural producers and projects focused on traditional economic activities have been brought to a halt.

According to Jair Bolsonaro: “Brazil’s bad image (Brazil) was due to its subordination to these powers (Germany and Norway). They’re not interested in the Amazon Forest. They want her sovereignty and her wealth. We, the Amazon, we have things that other countries don’t. I am surprised to see the (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel announce this (suspension of resources), as if her country were an example to the world in terms of environmental conservation.”18

Ironically, the proposals made by Ricardo Salles, Minister for the Environment, aimed at combatting deforestation, are exactly the same measures that the Norwegian-German Fund was financing (PrevFogo actions, inspection operations such as the Awá operation in Maranhão and the implementation of actions in the Legal Amazon Deforestation Control and Prevention Action Plan, etc.).

Despite history repeating itself, the government’s firm refusal to take measures has led to an increase in fires that have always historically occurred albeit never with such vigour and such lack of control as in 2019. Brazil was singled out for not meeting its commitments under the Paris Agreement and was severely criticised for defending agribusiness: unsustainable development for which illegal activities are legitimised, ranging from the deforestation of Indigenous territories and the dismantling of conservation units through to the deaths of Indigenous leaders and environmental activists.

In 2019, 164 people died defending their homes, lands and natural resources from mining, logging and agro-industrial projects, according to the annual report of NGO Global Witness.19

Free, prior and informed consultation

“Our commitment to this ministry, and every word is true, is that we are going to transform our mineral assets into mineral wealth because, if we don’t, the rest of the world will.”20 The Minister for Mines and Energy, Alexandre Vidigal, thus reaffirmed the current government’s evangelistic civilising policy. He also stated that mining activity would not go ahead if a particular Indigenous community rejected it, although this did not imply a right of veto. This activity is unconstitutional but President Jair Bolsonaro has already stated that he is in favour of legalising it. “It is my intention to regulate mining,” he stated in September. “Even for the Indigenous Peoples. They must have the right to explore for gold on their land.”21

According to the Socio-Environmental Institute, requests for mining concessions now cover approximately 28 million hectares, or onethird of the area of the Indigenous Lands. They include 55 kinds of mineral; 70% of them being for gold exploration. The 532 requests in the Yanomami TI represent 40% of its territory. There is also great interest in the Menkragnoti TI, in Pará and Mato Grosso (393 requests), and in the Alto Río Negro TI in Amazonas (387). Mineração Silvana has the most requests for concessions on Indigenous Lands (735), followed by Vale (216).22

According to Joênia Wapichana: “If you want to have mining in another place outside of the Indigenous Lands, with rules, controls and inspections, then we can talk. Punching the table to say that mining is the solution to everything is not a rational attitude,” she said.

The Volta Grande do Xingu mining project, owned by the Canadian min ing company Belo Sun Mining Ltd, aims to become the largest open-pit gold mine in the country. The different problems with the project include the magnitude of its impact on a region only recently affected by the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant, a project that is in the monitoring phase until at least 2025 due to the environmental instability the plant has been causing. So while Belo Monte means that exploration of the Volta Grande Project is environmentally highly dangerous, Belo Sun also represents a new element to be considered by Belo Monte, less than 9.5 km from the Paquiçamba Indigenous Land. The Belo Sun company announced on its website that 39.767 megatons of rock would be removed over the next 11 years; however, the studies given in the environmental licence only anticipate the removal of 2.78 megatons.23

Socio-environmental impacts: the Volta Grande do Xingu mining project plans to use cyanide to treat the minerals – a substance that is highly toxic to both soil and water sources – and the company’s environmental studies note a high risk of the dam breaking during the operating and closure phases. Notable among the impacts are a change in the reproductive cycle of the wildlife, changes in the traditional use and occupation of the territory, contamination or intoxication by toxic substances, deforestation and/or fires, a lack of/irregularity in authorising environmental licences, a lack of/irregularity in the demarcation of the traditional territory, contamination of the water sources and contamination of the soil.

According to the Constitution and resulting legislation, mineral exploration on Indigenous Lands has never been regulated. These lands belong to the nation and are under the permanent ownership of the Indigenous people who occupy them. However, there are different property regimes. Underground deposits are subject to concession, provided the activity has been approved by Congress and the Indigenous people share in the profits. With regard to mining on Indigenous Lands, Article 231(3) of the 1988 Constitution establishes that “use of the water resources, including for energy, exploration and extraction of the mineral wealth of Indigenous Lands may only be undertaken with the authorisation of Congress, having first heard the communities affected and ensured their participation in the benefits of the mining, in accordance with the law”. However, almost 30 years have past since the 1988 Constitution was enacted and this issue has still not been regulated by Congress; nor is there any law governing or establishing the specific conditions for undertaking mining activities on Indigenous Lands.24 In 2019, the Regional Court ordered the suspension of Belo Sun activities until free, prior and informed consultation had been conducted, in line with the existing legal protocol. The same court cited the consultation protocol implemented by the Juruna (Yudjá) of Paquiçamba Indigenous Land.

Ferrogrão. Almost 1,000 km long, commencing in the grain-producing region of Sinop (Mato Grosso) and reaching as far as the port of (Pará), Railway Line 170 – known as Ferrogrão – aims to consolidate Brazil’s new rail export corridor through the Northern Arc. The route will pass through more than 20 protected areas in the Xingu and Tapajós basins, including the Baú and Menkragnoti TIs. Together with highway BR-163, Ferrogrão will intensify conflicts over the land and exacerbate the socio-environmental impacts that are still being felt in the region due to the highway.25

Pesticides. In 2019, 325 pesticides were launched in Brazil. They contain 96 active ingredients, 28 of which are not marketed or registered in the European Union. Thirty-six of them are not marketed or registered in Australia, 30 are not marketed or registered in India and 18 are not marketed or registered in Canada. The Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) estimates that the use of pesticides and harmful chemical products results in around 193,000 deaths a year across the world. Most are due to contamination during application of the products and their dissemination in the water and air.

Since 2005, the Indigenous population has been denouncing the contamination of their communities with pesticides. The Indigenous Ra, who live on the Tocantins National Reserve, have complained about contamination of the rivers they use to drink and wash in, caused by the soya plantations that now extend as far as the boundaries of their community. “The situation is deteriorating because the soya reaches right down to the river banks,” says Schiavini. “Both the Indigenous people and the communities are surrounded by soya.”26

In September 2019, the Federal Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into the impact of pesticide use on Indigenous Lands in the Brasnorte region, 580 km from Cuiabá. The investigation was initiated because the Rikbaktsa people, who live on the banks of the Juruema River, were complaining of itching and of the presence of pesticides in the food and water they use on a daily basis.

The aim of the investigation is to identify the synergistic impact of the use of pesticides on the Indigenous communities and on the region’s environment over the period January to October 2019.


This reactionary and authoritarian landscape, democratically legitimised by the fact that the president of Brazil was elected with 55.1 % of the vote, is endorsing attitudes that are contrary to the system that elected it. The threats to national and international NGOs, the confrontation with the Indigenous population, the clear support for sectors that are against sustainable development: these are all threats to the nascent Brazilian democracy. Our democracy, forged following long years of military dictatorship, is now at risk. The arbitrary way in which laws are being applied is a significant danger that must be borne in mind.

Official rhetoric has the power to feed and support the actions of those interested in the illegal occupation and exploitation of the Amazon, expanding the frontiers of agribusiness, mining exploration and the construction of hydroelectric plants and continuing the Growth Acceleration Plan (PAC). “A huge part of the current deforestation is taking place in the protected areas, which are bearing the brunt of this devastation. Previously, there were few expectations of owning these lands. However, by decreeing an end to, or a drastic reduction in, fines while at the same time supporting a system that recognises illegal properties, the current government is simply legitimising this kind of attitude.”27

The current president’s clear position, supported by the landowning and evangelical sectors, is becoming one of the greatest setbacks in the history of Brazil’s recent democracy. The situation is worsening by the day and only civil society, with national and international support, can reverse it.


Notes and references

  1. “2010 Census” Instituto Brasileiro de Geografía e Estatística (IBGE). Accessed 13 February 2020: https://censo2010.ibge.gov.br/noticias-censo?busca=1&id=3&idnoticia=2194&t=censo-2010-poblacao-indigena-896-9-mil-tem-305- etnias-fala-274&view=noticia
  2. See the approvals process at: funai.org
  3. “Bolsonaro amplia presença de militares em 30 órgãos federais”. Folha de S. Paulo. Accessed 13 February 2020: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ poder/2019/10/bolsonaro-amplia-presenca-de-militares-em-30-orgaos- shtml
  4. “Bolsonaro quer acabar com demarcação de terras indígenas”. Estado de Minas, 6 November 2019. https://www.em.com.br/app/noticia/ internacional/2018/11/06/interna_internacional,1003269/bolsonaro-quer- acabar-com-demarcacao-de-terras-indigenas.shtml
  5. See IWGIA Yearbook
  6. Moretto, Adriano & Almeida, Gizele “Bolsonaro: “Se eu assumir, índio não terá mais 1cm de terra”. Dourados News, 8 February 2018: http://www. com.br/dourados/bolsonaro-se-eu-assumir-indio-nao-tem- mais-1cm-de-terra/1074774/
  7. Notícias UOL, 6 August 2019
  8. https://br.noticias.yahoo.com/verificamos-bolsonaro-nao-disse-que-os- indios-nao-sao-pessoas-sao-animais-133542379.html. “Look, in Bolivia they have an Indian as President”. “Why do we have to keep them prisoner on reserves in Brazil, as if they were animals in a zoo?” he asked. At the same time, Bolsonaro said there was no sense in transforming an area twice the size of the state of Río de Janeiro into a reserve for “9,000 Indians” as had been the case for the Yanomami Indigenous Land.
  9. Ibid
  10. ”Bolsonaro defende exploração de terras indígenas e chama ONGs de picaretas. Exame, 17 April 2019: https://exame.abril.com.br/brasil/bolsonaro- defende-exploracao-de-terras-indigenas-e-chama-ongs-de-picaretas/
  11. Tajra, Alex ”Bolsonaro recebe índios após criticar evento e defende exploração em terras”. Universo Online, 17 April 2019: https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ ultimas-noticias/2019/04/17/bolsonaro-indigenas-funai-exploracao-de-terras. htm
  12. Girardi, Giovana ”Questão indígena domina discurso de Bolsonaro na ONU; lideranças criticam”. Estadão, 24 September 2019: https://politica.estadao. br/noticias/geral,questao-indigena-domina-discurso-de-bolsonaro-na- onu-liderancas-criticam,70003023618
  13. According to preliminary data from the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), on the Terra Brasilis
  14. “Focos de queimadas na Amazônia aumentam em 2019, informa o Inpe”. Jornal Nacional, 8 January 2020: https://g1.globo.com/jornal-nacional/noticia/2020/01/08/focos-de-queimadas-na-amazonia-aumentam-em-2019- informa-o-inpe.ghtml
  15. “Na Amazônia, a floresta está à venda”. Socio-Environmental Institute, 6 December 2019: https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/noticias- socioambientais/na-amazonia-a-floresta-esta-a-venda
  16. Twenty-one of IBAMA’s 27 regional superintendents were fired by the Minister for the Environment. In 2019, the Ministry for the Environment announced a 24 % cut in IBAMA’s budget, 15 % in the inspection sector and 29 % in the fire service. This resulted in a 22 % reduction in the inspection operations planned for 2019. In addition, the Specialist Inspection Group (FMAM), considered IBAMA’s elite squadron, remained virtually inactive despite formally remaining in existence..
  17. As a result, the Fund’s donor countries, Norway and Germany, threatened to cut fund disbursements and to end the initiative if the Brazilian government continued supporting the Fund being managed by the National Social and Economic Development Bank (BNDES).
  18. “Discurso de Bolsonaro causa apreensão na comunidade internacional”. Correio Braziliense, 19 August 2019: https://www.correiobraziliense.com.br/app/ noticia/politica/2019/08/19/interna_politica,777904/discurso-de-bolsonaro- causa-apreensao-na-comunidade-internacional.shtml
  19. “Mais de 160 ativistas do meio ambiente foram assassinados em 2018”. Universo Online, 30 July 2019: https://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/ afp/2019/07/30/mais-de-160-ativistas-do-meio-ambiente-foram- assassinados-em-2018.htm?cmpid=copiaecola
  20. “Entenda a polêmica em torno da mineração em terras indígenas”. National Geographic, last accessed November 2019: https://www. nationalgeographicbrasil.com/meio-ambiente/2019/11/entenda-polemica-em- torno-da-mineracao-em-terras-indigenas
  21. Ibid
  22. Ibid
  23. ”Mineração Volta Grande (Belo Sun)”. Last accessed 13 February 2020: https://org.br/obra/mineracao-volta-grande-belo-sun
  24. Sion, Alexandre ”Mineração em Terras Indígenas”. Instituto Minere, 17 March 2019: https://institutominere.com.br/blog/mineracao-em-terras-indigenas
  25. https://medium.com/@socioambiental/nós-respeitamos-vocês-queremos- que-vocês-nos-respeitem-c1816af2145d. The Kayapó-Menkrãgnoti document comprises another 11 consultation protocols implemented by Indigenous populations and traditional communities in Brazil. Each publication, produced autonomously and independently, is an important tool for internal strengthening that helps to guarantee the rights of these peoples. Copies of the protocols for the Wajãpi and Juruna (Yudjá) and for the peoples of the Xingu Indigenous territory were passed around during the meeting in Kamaú.
  26. Navarro, Silvio “Índios denunciam contaminação de rios por agrotóxico”. Folha de S. Paulo, 13 March 2005: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/folha/brasil/ ult96u67919.shtml
  27. Idem. 

Maria de Lourdes Beldi de Alcântara is a medical anthropologist with the FMUSP. She is also the coordinator of Indigenous Youth Action (AJI/ GAPK).


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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