• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: Brazil

Brazil's Indigenous population stands at 896,900 individuals, 36.2% of whom live in urban areas. A total of 505 Indigenous Lands have been identified, covering 12.5% of Brazilian territory (106.7 million hectares). There are 305 different peoples, most of whom live in the Amazon region and speak 274 languages.

It is estimated that there are 115 peoples living in isolation,[1] of which 28 are confirmed and the rest are in the process of being identified.

The dismantling of Indigenous Peoples’ protection policies

Let us begin with a phrase from President Jair Bolsonaro, published in various media outlets: “There will be no demarcation of Indigenous Lands under my government.”[2] The current situation of the Indigenous population could be analysed through their public responses to this but there would not be enough space in this article for all of them.

It should be noted that this government’s entire project rests on a policy that has been implemented since the start of the Republic: one of continuous development, albeit with different nuances depending on the historical moment. In the last two years, the focus has been on agribusiness exports.

This offensive against Indigenous Peoples can be illustrated by the policies of four specific ministries: Environment, Agriculture, Health (which includes the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health-SESAI) and Justice (which houses the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI). These are the key ministries of a clearly developmentalist policy. The abandonment of the Paris Agreement and the consequent departure from the Millennium Development Goals are clear examples of how sustainable development no longer forms part of the Brazilian political agenda. And this agenda directly affects the country’s most vulnerable peoples, such as the Indigenous, Quilombola and riverine peoples.

These four ministries are working jointly to dismantle public economic and social policies, with the consequent result of increased fires in environmental preservation areas, invasions by squatters, logging and other mineral extractors, and increased deaths among the leaders of the Amazon rainforest’s preservation movements and the Indigenous population generally.

In the words of Ricardo Salles, Minister of the Environment: “Since the media's attention is on COVID-19, we can move forward with our standards”.[3] In collaboration with the rural lobby, Salles is accused of deliberately dismantling the environmental control agencies in order to unleash an unrestricted expansion of the agricultural frontier into the north of the country.[4] According to the Climate Observatory, between January and August, the minister allocated only 105,000 reales (R$) to environmental policy, i.e. 0.4% of the budget for climate change-related initiatives, biodiversity protection and urban environmental quality improvements.

With such meagre expenditure and reduced environmental inspections, an environmental disaster is looming. According to the Socio-Environmental Institute, 2020 has been the worst year for Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units since 2008. One hundred and eighty-eight thousand (188,000) hectares of forest have been destroyed in these territories, an area greater than the city of São Paulo, and only surpassed by the almost 200,000 hectares recorded in 2019. This represents 90% more than the average between 2009 and 2018.[5]

These disasters are the consequence of a set of measures that have the end goal of implementing the current government’s development plan, which includes: a freeze on fines collected by the Brazilian Institute for the Environment (IBAMA); harassment of environmental officers and exoneration of the guilty; technical advice given to release illegal wood; legislative proposals that threaten protected areas; a failure to implement the budget for fire inspection and extinction; a decline in prosecutions and seizures for deforestation; defamation of the scientific knowledge of the National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE); a failure of military operations to combat deforestation.

The Indigenous areas most affected by illegal mining operations, the agricultural frontier, and the burning and illegal invasions are: the Xingu basin, TI Munduruku, TI Urubu Branco, TI Manoki, TI Karipuna; and the Conservation Units: Suroeste de Pará, Área de Preservación Ambiental (APA) Triunfo do Xingu. In the words of Mobu Odo, Indigenous Guacamayo and chief of the Cachoeira Seca village: “We are under threat, deforestation will wipe out our territory.”[6]

FUNAI’s role

The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) is gradually losing financial support as well as staff members strategic to the Indigenous Land demarcation policies due to a series of arbitrary dismissals. Policies for the protection of isolated peoples and peoples in voluntary isolation, considered a model for many Latin American countries, are also being dismantled.

Marcelo Xavier, FUNAI’s current president and a former Federal Police Commissioner, is working with the Ministry of Environment and Agriculture to prevent any demarcation of Indigenous Lands, the most prominent example being the timeframe thesis. Defended by the rural lobby, this interpretation holds that Indigenous Peoples only have the right to demarcate lands that were already in their possession on 5 October 1988, the date of enactment of the Constitution, or which were in physical dispute or under proven judicial litigation as of that date.

This thesis, one of the greatest threats to the legalisation of Indigenous Lands, is defended by FUNAI’s president thus: “(...) it will serve to stop encouraging Indigenous people to form cooperatives in order to develop economic activities on their lands. One of our priorities is mining activities,” he is quoted as saying, citing a bill that has been underway in Congress since February regulating this initiative.[7]

According to one of the executive coordinators of Articulación de los Pueblos Indígenas de Brasil (APIB), Dinaman Tuxá, “Agribusiness has taken over FUNAI is contaminating Indigenous policy. It is doing so within the very institution that should be protecting Indigenous Peoples.”[8]

The “timeframe thesis”,[9] proposed by then President Michel Temer, was a resounding, strategic and clearly unconstitutional blow to the process of approving Indigenous Lands. According to anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha:

The rural lobby wants the demarcation limit to be 5 October 1988, the date of enactment of the Constitution. Indigenous people can only apply for areas they occupied on that date. And yet forced evictions of Indigenous people were taking place in Mato Grosso do Sul and western Paraná in the 1940s, and this does not invalidate their right to the land.

Along the same lines, Eloy Terena of APIB argues:

The time frame thesis is unconstitutional. When the Constitution was enacted in 1988, it did not give a specific date. It recognised the Indigenous Peoples’ original right to the lands traditionally occupied by them. At no point does the Constitution restrict their right to land occupied on that date.[10]

If the timeframe is regularised by decree, it opens up the possibility of making numerous Indigenous Lands that have not yet completed their formal procedures unviable. There is still a great need for land demarcation. According to data from the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI), 63% of Indigenous Lands are not legalised. In other words, of the 1,290 Indigenous lands, 821 are in a precarious situation because they do not have demarcated boundaries. Most of these have not even commenced their legalisation procedures.

The following are the numbers of Indigenous Lands approved during the different presidential terms:

  • 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): 1 approval.
  • Jair Bolsonaro (January 2019 - to date): 0 approvals.

This constant decline in approvals of Indigenous Lands during each presidential term reveals the increasing lack of relevance of these peoples, now considered the major obstacle to Brazil’s neoliberal development project.

It is precisely against this backdrop of extreme vulnerability, invasions and fires, that the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc in Indigenous territories.


Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health and COVID-19

This strategy of “civilising Indigenous Peoples” also involves the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI), which reports to the Ministry of Health and is linked to the Unified Health System. Despite being responsible for primary care, this policy of dismantling is also taking place during the pandemic. The strategy is being repeated: lack of resources, layoffs or transfers of technical staff, allegations of corruption to discredit NGOs working in the sector, a ban on hiring more doctors and biomedical staff, all leading to the running down of the system. It is against this backdrop that COVID-19 has reached the Indigenous Peoples.

By 23 January 2021, Brazil had recorded a total of 215,299 deaths and 8,755,133 cases of COVID-19 and was still noting a daily average of 1,293 new cases. With respect to the Indigenous population, these cases are increasing and, although they are less documented, according to APIB there are 46,677 confirmed cases, with 931 deaths and 161 affected.

In the midst of this national catastrophe, which is the result of a policy based on denial and false narratives, and which fails to recognise the state of emergency in which Brazil finds itself, President Bolsonaro is acting as one of the main agents of scientific counter-information, denying the protocols of the World Health Organization (WHO) and calling the pandemic and its terrifying case load “a light flu”.

On 10 July, the president signed Bill 1142/2020 into law. This recognises Indigenous, Quilombola and other traditional peoples as “extremely vulnerable groups” during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, he vetoed excerpts of the text that stipulated that the government was obliged to provide “access to drinking water”, to distribute basic food baskets and “hygiene, cleaning and disinfection materials to the peoples free of charge”. In addition, the law does not guarantee “the emergency supply of hospital and intensive care beds” and nor is there an obligation to purchase “ventilators and blood oxygenation machines” for these communities.[11] Other presidential vetoes have included those requiring the government to release emergency funds for Indigenous health, to facilitate access to emergency aid for Indigenous and Quilombola peoples, and to install Internet in the villages. According to the Executive, these and other measures have been vetoed because they create a “mandatory expense” without demonstrating “their respective budgetary and financial impact, which is unconstitutional”. Congress, which has the final say on vetoes, could still override them.

In addition, Regulatory Instruction No. 9/2020[12] allows for the regularisation of non-indigenous invasions onto Indigenous lands that have not yet completed their recognition process, which is prohibited by the Federal Constitution. This measure may lead to a rampant increase in invasions and transmission of COVID-19.

The virologist Marcus Barros, one of the national reference points for infectious diseases, states that the delays in making decisions about these peoples is serious and worrying:

Indigenous people are more sensitive to any viral disease. If a common flu can completely destroy them, imagine a pandemic with a new respiratory virus the consequences of which are not yet known. It is a very dangerous situation, a death foretold.

Gersem Baniwa, one of the founders of the Foro de Educación Escolar y Salud Indígena (Foreeia-AM) points out that the relations established between the federal government and Indigenous Peoples reflect the lack of priority given to the attention, prevention and care of Indigenous people:

There is no place for specifics on the global agenda. The main concern is the global, national and regional scenario, with a strong economic bias. Indigenous populations remain invisible.

Made up of deputies and senators, Indigenous organisations and civil society, the Frente Parlamentario Mixto en Defensa de los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas [Joint Parliamentary Front in Defence of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] organised in July with a list of 196 signatures. The Map of the World's Indigenous Peoples sent to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, recommended that, in the face of the pandemic, countries should prioritise concrete measures to ensure the protection of Indigenous Peoples and the creation of an emergency fund. The map was submitted on the last day of the Free Land Camp (ATL) programme, 30 April 2020.[13]

The manifesto produced by the Alliance of Indigenous Parliamentarians of Latin America asks WHO to consider:

Indigenous Peoples as the population most exposed and vulnerable to COVID-19; to guarantee food security and access to basic sanitation and health services, as well as other social and economic rights during the period of the pandemic; and to ensure the involvement and participation of Indigenous organisations and their representatives in the planning and execution of actions against COVID-19.

In Brazil, attention is drawn to the dismantling of the health system when it comes to guaranteeing protective equipment for professionals who care for Indigenous people, the insufficient support measures for communities, which requires moving from the villages to the cities where there is greater transmission of the virus, and the invisibility of Indigenous people living in the cities in epidemiological reports related to COVID-19. In addition, during the pandemic, the government issued Regulatory Instruction No. 9/2020, which allows for the regularisation of non-indigenous encroachment onto Indigenous Lands that have not yet completed their recognition processes, which is prohibited by the Federal Constitution. This measure may lead to a rampant increase in invasions and transmission of the virus to Indigenous people, including those living in voluntary isolation.[14]

On the one hand, Indigenous Peoples are living through one of the most dangerous and intimidating moments due to constant government offensives, as represented by the rural and evangelical lobbies, which are promoting land invasions, and a lack of respect for the Indigenous rights ratified by Brazil, questioning rights deriving from the 1988 Constitution and denying the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other, we can say that this is the most challenging time, and yet it has resulted in a strengthening of the Indigenous movement and an unprecedented increase in Indigenous candidates in this year's elections for city and local councils. The number of Indigenous mayors has increased from 6 to 8 compared to the 2016 elections, while the number of councillors has increased from 168 to 179. We are facing a completely new paradigm.[15]

In relation to Indigenous organisations, we would like to highlight the work of APIB, which has been fundamental in fighting the excesses and violations of the traditional peoples’ constitutional guarantees, and its documented campaign of denouncing the state's abandonment of them in the face of COVID-19.[16]

In July of this year, APIB, together with six political parties, took a case to the Federal Supreme Court (STF) for Non-Compliance with Fundamental Precept No. 709, demanding health protection actions for Indigenous Peoples due to the coronavirus. According to this action, “The COVID-19 mortality rate among Indigenous Peoples is 9.6%, while among the Brazilian population in general it is 5.6%.”

The injunction was approved by Minister Luís Roberto Barroso in July and endorsed by the full STF in August. As a result, the Union was obliged to develop a COVID-19 control plan for Indigenous Peoples that established sanitary cordons around 33 lands with the confirmed presence of Indigenous people in isolation (without contact with the surrounding society) and also made it possible to contain and isolate invaders, potential disease spreaders.

According to writer and activist Ailton Krenak and Indigenous leader Joziléia Kaigang:[17]

One of our victories was the approval, in August, by the Supreme Court, of the lawsuit for breach of constitutional precepts (DPF 709), which forced the government to implement a plan to address COVID-19 within 30 days, guaranteeing sanitary cordons and the isolation of Indigenous Lands.

“This was a great victory,” continued Kaigang. In addition, Krenak pointed out that:

The native peoples have increased their capacity for debate, intervention and external coordination, mainly by allying themselves with Europe and other countries in a struggle that needs to be further scaled up.

Joziléia adds:

With the support of civil society, both Brazilian and international, and through companies and civic groups, we have implemented a set of combined actions that our government has unfortunately failed to carry out.

On the other hand, Indigenous organisations denounce the fact that the implementation of sanitary cordons is continuing at a deplorable pace and that personal protective equipment (PPE) and tests are insufficient. According to the STF minister:

Despite the spread and lethality of the virus, it is incredible that after almost 10 months of pandemic, the Union has not achieved the minimum: a plan with its essential elements. It is a situation that continues to put the lives and health of Indigenous Peoples at risk.

This negligence is paid with the lives of Indigenous people. In the Yanomami Indigenous Land alone, the coronavirus has increased 250% in three months. In some regions, there has been community transmission of the disease due to miners operating in the area illegally.

Together with five other political parties, CONAQ (National Coordinating Body for Rural Black Quilombola Communities) proposed ADPF No. 742 (Argument for Non-Compliance with a Fundamental Precept) to combat COVID-19 among the Quilombola. To date, however, this case remains with the office of Minister Marco Aurélio, and the preliminary application has not yet even been examined.


In a speech to the 74th UN General Assembly in September 2019, President Bolsonaro repeated one of his electoral promises: no more demarcation of Indigenous Lands. Fourteen percent (14%) of Brazilian territory is currently demarcated as Indigenous Lands. “I want to make it clear: the area already demarcated as Indigenous Lands will not increase to 20%,” the president stated. He also criticised Indigenous protection organisations, accusing them of manipulating ethnic leaders, and directly attacked Kayapo Chief Raoni Metuktire.[18]

This statement is contrary to the challenges facing the world and the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the set of programmes, actions and guidelines that guide the work towards sustainable development being led by the United Nations.

Bolsonaro is continuing his predatory vision of development, which is a huge setback for human and Indigenous rights in Brazil. Never before has the 1988 Constitution been so denigrated. All Brazilian citizens are being insulted and only with full exercise of citizenship will Brazil be able to place itself on the global agenda in the struggle for the preservation of biomes, respect for cultural diversity and economic and social equality.


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


This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] See https://pib.socioambiental.org/pt/Onde_estão_os_isolados%3F

[2] “Bolsonaro quer acabar com demarcação de terras indígenas.” Minas State, 6 November 2018. Available at: https://www.em.com.br/app/noticia/internacional/2018/11/06/interna_internacional,1003269/bolsonaro-quer-acabar-com-demarcacao-de-terras-indigenas.shtml

[3]“Ministro do Meio Ambiente defende passar 'a boiada' e 'mudar' regras enquanto atenção da mídia está voltada para a Covid-19.” G1, 22 May 2020. Available at https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/05/22/ministro-do-meio-ambiente-defende-passar-a-boiada-e-mudar-regramento-e-simplificar-normas.ghtml

[4] “Política ambiental de Ricardo Salles é alvo de críticas de ambientalistas, empresários e ex-integrantes do governo”. G1, 19 July 2021. Available at: https://g1.globo.com/fantastico/noticia/2020/07/19/politica-ambiental-de-ricardo-salles-e-alvo-de-criticas-de-ambientalistas-empresarios-e-ex-integrantes-do-governo.ghtml

[5] Destruição de áreas protegidas na Amazônia explode com Bolsonaro”. Instituto Socioambiental, 22 December 2020. Available at: https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/noticias-socioambientais/destruicao-de-areas-protegidas-na-amazonia-explode-com-bolsonaro

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Daniela Chiaretti and Marcos de Moura e Souza, “Especialistas atacam nova política da Funai”. Valor Econômico V21, 17 June 2020. Available at: https://www2.senado.leg.br/bdsf/bitstream/handle/id/575249/noticia.html?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[8] Ibidem.

[9] The so-called timeframe thesis is an action of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) that holds that Indigenous Peoples can only claim lands they already held on 5 October 1988.

[10] Daniela Chiaretti and Marcos de Moura e Souza, “Especialistas atacam nova política da Funai”. Valor Econômico V21, 17 June 2020. Available at: https://www2.senado.leg.br/bdsf/bitstream/handle/id/575249/noticia.html?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[11] Joana Oliveira. “Bolsonaro veta obrigação do Governo de garantir acesso à água potável e leitos a indígenas na pandemia”. El País, 8 July 2020. Available at: https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2020-07-08/bolsonaro-veta-obrigacao-do-governo-de-garantir-acesso-a-agua-potavel-e-leitos-a-indigenas-na-pandemia.html

[12] Instrução Normativa Nº 9/2020 da Funai promove segurança jurídica e pacificação de conflitos

[13] Assesoria de Comunicação do Cimi. “Povos indígenas divulgam documento final do Acampamento Terra Livre 2020”. Conselho Indigenista Missionário, 30 April 2020. Available at: https://cimi.org.br/2020/04/povos-indigenas-documento-final-atl-2020/

[14] Ibidem.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Juliana de Paula Batista and Tiago Moreira dos Santos, “Defesa judicial dos direitos indígenas avançou em 2020”. Instituto socioambiental, 4 January 2021. Available at: https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/blog/blog-do-ppds/defesa-judicial-dos-direitos-indigenas-avancou-em-2020

[17] “Vitórias e derrotas em um ano desafiador para os indígenas”. Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência, 4 December 2020. Available at: http://portal.sbpcnet.org.br/noticias/vitorias-e-derrotas-em-um-ano-desafiador-para-os-indigenas/

[18] Andreia Verdélio. “Em discurso na ONU, Bolsonaro destaca riqueza da Amazônia”. Agencia Brasil, 24 September 2020. Available at: https://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/politica/noticia/2019-09/em-discurso-na-onu-bolsonaro-destaca-riqueza-da-amazonia



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