The Indigenous World 2022: Brazil
According to data from the Demographic Census conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in 2010, the Indigenous population in the country stands at 896,900, distributed among 305 ethnic groups. There are 274 languages spoken, with 37.4% of Indigenous people over the age of five speaking an Indigenous language at home. In turn, the census revealed that 17.5% of Indigenous people do not speak Portuguese while 76.9% do. The largest ethnic group is the Tikúna, accounting for 6.8% of the Indigenous population. Indigenous Peoples are present across all five regions of Brazil but the northern region is home to the largest proportion (342,800), with the smallest number (78,800) living in the south. Of the total number of Indigenous people in Brazil, 502,783 live in rural and 315,180 in urban areas.[i]
Concern over numerous legislative proposals affecting Indigenous Peoples
The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB)[ii] has filed an international complaint regarding the legislative proposals that are passing through the National Congress, and the danger their approval represents for Indigenous Peoples.
Bill 191/2020 seeks to authorise the exploitation of Indigenous Lands for large infrastructure and mining projects while at the same time establishing compensation for restricted usufruct thereof.
Bills 2,633/2020 and 510/2021 propose legalising large areas of State land that have been illegally occupied in the Amazon. These illegal occupations could be regularised simply by filing an application with the Rural Environmental Registry exempting the properties from restoring native vegetation. In other words, these bills are actually encouraging further invasions and more deforestation. The bills have been approved by the Chamber of Deputies and now await the Senate's approval.[iii]
Bill 3,729/2004 virtually extinguishes the need for environmental licencing of works throughout the country. If approved, it will allow the vast majority of companies to self-licence, overriding the national parameters in which states decide on the process. This is likely to increase the judicialisation of licences along with threats to Indigenous and traditional communities affected by the works, paving the way for deforestation and other impacts both inside and outside protected areas.
Bill 6,299/2002, known as the “Poison Package”, facilitates the approval and use of pesticides in the country. The proposal intends to change the term “agrochemicals” to “pesticides”, thus seeking to disguise the dangers and reduce the link between these substances and their impacts on environmental and human health. If approved, environmental and health agencies would be almost completely alienated from decisions regarding the use of poisons in agriculture. Responsibility would be centralised within the Ministry of Agriculture. In turn, these measures will make it possible to use chemicals that have been banned in other countries due to their implication in numerous diseases. This bill is pending consideration by the full House.
Finally, Bill 5,544/2020 allows the “hunting for sport” of any wild animal in the country, claiming to thus promote the “conservation of endangered species”. Permits would be available to anyone over the age of 21 with no prior criminal record and a collector's, shooter's or hunter's licence. The project does not address how species and quantities hunted in the national territory will be monitored given that the power of the environmental agencies has been curtailed. At the moment, hunting is only allowed in the country to control populations of exotic wild boar. The bill is pending consideration by the Environment and Sustainable Development Committee of the Chamber of Deputies.[iv]
COVID-19 and the Brazilian State’s absence
The Indigenous organisation APIB launched a COVID-19 prevention campaign in 2021 with the messages “Mask up, Bro!” and “Get jabbed, Bestie!”,[v] thus taking into its own hands an important role that should be the Brazilian State’s responsibility, namely that of the integral protection of Indigenous Peoples as established in the 1988 Constitutional Charter. Most of the campaigns and measures for COVID-19 prevention and awareness were implemented by the Indigenous Peoples' union. Funds for vaccination campaigns, sanitary cordons and the purchase of personal protective equipment came largely from donations.
The inclusion of Indigenous Peoples as a priority group in the first phase of the national vaccination plan was also a result of the struggle of the Indigenous movement, mainly through the action of APIB in the Federal Supreme Court (ADPF 709), since the mortality rate for COVID-19 is much higher among Indigenous Peoples than the rest of the population.
While Indigenous Peoples were fighting and struggling to combat the disease and trying to obtains medicines other than the chloroquine kits that were being distributed by the government, the Ministry of Health –in which the Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI), forms one of the subsystems of the Unified Health System (SUS)– was continuing through its blind denialism to distribute chloroquine, a medicine that has been condemned in relation to its use in this pandemic.[vi]
There have been four changes in the Ministry of Health since the start of the pandemic as a result of ministers refusing to deny COVID-19. In addition, the State has been taking other decisions that destabilise public opinion: blocking access to pandemic data; distributing chloroquine kits to combat the pandemic; and widely disseminating fake news. When a vaccine did emerge, the President stated his opposition to it.[vii] In addition, there was an intentional cover-up: Brazil suffered 412,880 COVID-19 deaths during 2021. The country has registered a total of 619,056 deaths due to the disease since the start of the epidemic. Last year's records exceed those of 2020, when the total number of deaths was 194,949 people. This makes 2021 the deadliest year for the pandemic.[viii]
The month that recorded the most deaths in 2021 was April, when the country had 82,266 COVID-19 victims. This figure amounts to 19.92% of all deaths from the virus recorded during the year. With progress in the vaccination, December recorded the lowest number of deaths: 4,375. In all, 177 million Brazilians over the age of 12 have now been immunised, of which more than 143 million have completed the vaccination cycle.[ix]
The pandemic situation of Indigenous communities is, however, being exacerbated by developmentalist policies that are targeting Indigenous Lands for mining, agribusiness and cattle ranching activities, timber extraction and hydroelectric plants, all of which represent Brazil's largest exports of raw materials.
The invasion of Indigenous territories is being “permitted” through the dismantling of agencies intended to inspect both these territories and the conservation units. The lack of officials to carry out surveillance tasks thus becomes a justification for the federal government's deafness to the calls of the riverine Indigenous and Quilombola populations.
In what has been virtually a whole pandemic year, data from APIB's National Committee for Indigenous Life and Memory shows that 46,508 Indigenous people became infected and 929 died as a result of COVID-19, directly affecting 161 of the country’s peoples.
The Brazilian Amazon and the extractive industries
Against the grain of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) and the urgency of making commitments to slow down climate change, President Bolsonaro continues to insist on his form of development through destruction. According to the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (Amazon Environmental Research Institute), deforestation in Brazil's biome was 56.6% higher between August 2018 and July 2021 than over the same period between 2015 and 2018.
It appears today that more than half of all deforestation (51%) in the last three years has taken place on public lands, mainly in areas controlled by the federal government (83%). In absolute terms, Non-Designated Public Forests have been the most affected: the deforested area here increased by 85%, from 1,743 km² logged annually to more than 3,228 km². Over the last year, this category of public forest accounted for one-third of all deforestation in the biome.
In proportion to the surface area of the territories, Indigenous Lands showed an average 153% increase in deforestation compared to the previous three years: from 496 km² to 1,255 km². Deforestation in conservation units showed a proportional increase of 63.7%, with 3,595 km² logged in the last three years versus 2,195 km² in the previous three years.[x] The areas most affected are Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia, characterised as the new deforestation frontier in the biome. Amazonas, in fact, moved from third- to second-placed state in terms of deforestation level. It is only surpassed by Pará, the state where the most critical areas of forest loss are located, and which has taken first place since 2017.
These rampant increases in deforestation find their origin in different development proposals: agriculture, cattle ranching, mineral and vegetable extraction. In turn, they generate large migrations into these regions, opening up the space to the entry of various diseases, including COVID-19.
According to estimates from the Brazilian Mining Association (IBRAM), the country's mining production in 2021 grew by about 7% compared to 2020, from 1,073 million tonnes to an estimated 1,150 million tonnes.
The variation in raw material prices on the international market in 2021 boosted the sector's revenue by 62% compared to 2020, rising from R$ 209 billion to R$ 339 billion.[xii]
Iron provided the highest revenue in 2021 (80% more than in 2020); gold 16% more; copper 29%; bauxite 16%; granite 32 % and dolomitic limestone 47% more. Iron ore accounted for 74% of mining industry revenues in 2021 (up from 66% in 2020), followed by gold (8%) and copper (5%).
In the first four months of 2021 alone, the number of applications registered with IBRAM to obtain mining permits in Indigenous areas totalled 4,300 km2, more than the whole of the first year of Bolsonaro's presidency.
The push to adopt the mining law in Indigenous Lands is based on several narratives that the President is supporting through his national development plan: the need to legalise illegal mining in order to ensure the entry of non-Indigenous people into Indigenous areas. According to data from the Mineral Resources Research Company, the largest mineral reserves are located on Indigenous Lands.[xiii]
This same narrative of Bolsonaro claims that the Indigenous population is eager for their economic emancipation (a highly questionable assertion) and has stated that “the Indigenous people themselves are in favour of mining so that they can participate in their economic emancipation”.[xiv]
Emphasis has been placed on gold mining, as this is the second most exported mineral after iron. “Almost 30% of the gold exported by Brazil between 2019 and 2020 –48.9 tonnes– comes from areas of illegal mining; this is due to a combination of inspection failures, unlawful actions on the part of companies and false documentation used to launder gold extracted from protected areas.”[xv]
Illegal mining is generally found on Indigenous territories or in environmental conservation areas, mainly in the Amazon. There are believed to be 321 active and inactive illegal mines, Pará being the area in which most requests for legalisation of mining activities are received. This is a process that has been gaining pace, nefariously, since the first year of Bolsonaro's government, in the Kayapó Indigenous Lands particularly and then in the Mundurukú’s Sawré Muybu Land. Sawré is where the largest proportion of mining applications are concentrated: 14%.[xvi]
In total, there are 97 mining activities there aimed largely at gold, copper and diamond deposits and, to a lesser extent, cassiterite and gravel mining. After Pará come the states of Mato Grosso and Roraima, where the activities are concentrated on Indigenous Lands, including those of uncontacted Indigenous Peoples.
According to Márcio Santilli, from the Socio-Environmental Institute, mining is “repeatedly encouraged by the President himself, through videos, interviews and bills aimed at legalising activities that are prohibited by the Constitution. In the case of the Mundurukú, Kayapó and Yanomami Indigenous Lands, corporate mining has expanded by more than 300% compared to the previous period, taking advantage of impunity, the high price of minerals and the ease, in times of misery, of recruiting people who are willing (...) to wallow in the mud to enrich the gangs.”[xvii]
Data indicate that mining exploration activities on Amazonian territories have grown 91% since the start of 2019. This was the first time since 2013 that demands had increased: previously they had been falling year on year.[xviii] The Yanomami Indigenous Land, located in the states of Roraima and Amazonas, on the border with Venezuela, has seen an alarming increase in the number of applications to extract 40 different minerals. An estimated 21,000 miners are present on their territory, operating illegally.
Even once they are demarcated, these territories are not completely free from threats. Despite having been approved in 1998, the Karipuna Indigenous Land in Rondônia has had more than 10,000 hectares of forest destroyed as a result of illegal logging and land grabbing.[xix]
Agrochemicals or pesticides
In the face of this mining and agricultural expansion, the need for products used in extraction and in the planting of soybeans and other agricultural products for export is resulting in the contamination of rivers, workers, and the people living in the surrounding area. The Ministry of Agriculture approved 723 pesticides for use between 2020 and 2021. There are some 3,000 such products authorised for marketing in all and one-third of these were registered in the first two years of Bolsonaro's government.[xx] Around 10 pesticides a week were launched in 2020, making a total of almost 500 new substances. Approximately one-third of the pesticides approved in Brazil are banned in the European Union, some of them for decades. According to the United Nations, pesticides are responsible for 200,000 deaths from acute poisoning every year and more than 90% of these deaths occur in developing countries, including Brazil.
In addition, mercury is extensively used in alluvial gold mining. This is a highly toxic heavy metal that causes devastating and permanent damage. The data are shocking: the Tapajós River is completely polluted, as is the Mundurukú Indigenous population, according to the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz). This contamination is not restricted only to the Mundurukú, however; it is also present in the following ethnic groups: the Papiú, Waikas, Araças, with 93.3% contamination.
Although this is a major public health problem, there are no public policies in place to ban the use and import of so many chemical products. Quite the contrary, the “Poison Package” has been under discussion in the Chamber of Deputies since 2002. Bill 6299/2002 was introduced almost 20 years ago and approved by a special committee in 2018. With or without majority approval, however, the proposal to expedite the authorisation of new pesticides in the country is already in full swing, only pending consideration by the full House, as detailed above.
National Congress urgently called upon in process to speed up development: pending legislation
According to the Federal Prosecution Service, there are 4,073 applications for mining licences pending on Indigenous Lands in the Legal Amazon and 3,114 have been “blocked”. Prosecutors report that the most affected Indigenous Lands in the region are those of Alto Río Negro, where applications exceed 174,000 hectares, and the Medio Río Negro I land, with requests accounting for in excess of 100,000 hectares.[xxi]
The pressure from national and international mining companies together with the agricultural lobby in Parliament tallies entirely with President Bolsonaro's political will to expand the export frontier for raw materials.
National Congress is proceeding with debates related to this issue by means of 17 Constitutional Ammendment Projects (PECs) in the Chamber of Deputies and three in the Senate. In both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, 148 matters were detected relating to mining in November 2019. This reveals the extent to which parliamentarians have mobilised around this issue in the National Congress. In turn, it should be noted that 14% of this total corresponds to mining operations on Indigenous Lands. Within the Executive Branch, there are proposals from the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Ministry of Economy that target Indigenous Lands as a priority. The result of these pressures is Bill 191-2020, sent by the Executive Branch to National Congress, regulating mining, oil and gas production, and electrical power generation on Indigenous Lands.
The demarcation of Indigenous territories is an extensive and complex problem, marked by different disputes. The laws that inaugurated their regulation date back to the 1960s and 1970s, namely the Mining Code of 1967 and the Indian Statute of 1973. While parts of both laws are still in force, the 1988 Federal Constitution set new parameters for these issues.
The 1973 Indian Statute permits certain forms of subsoil exploitation on Indigenous Lands in cases of “great national interest”, defined as cases involving lands that contain “subsoil wealth of significant interest to national security and development”. Only 10 years later, Decree 88,985 established that subsoil exploration in these areas could only be conducted using mechanised mining, in accordance with the requirements established by FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) to protect the interests of Indigenous heritage.
The Federal Constitution recognises collective rights and breaks with the principle of integration. According to Article 231 of the 1988 Federal Constitution, Indigenous reserves are “lands traditionally occupied by Indigenous people, inhabited by them on a permanent basis, used for their productive activities, essential for the conservation of the environmental resources necessary for their well-being and for their physical and cultural reproduction.” Indigenous populations do not, however, have a formal power of veto, despite the fact that this right is provided for in ILO Convention 169, ratified by Brazil, and which establishes the State's obligation to consult Indigenous populations in advance, in a free and informed manner, prior to decisions being made that may affect their property or rights.
April has historically been marked by political protests on the part of the Indigenous communities. For 17 years they have been converging on Brasilia to claim their acquired rights. Despite April 2021 being a turbulent month, with increased COVID-19 rates, Indigenous people went to Brasilia to fight for their right to survive with dignity. In the face of a racist government with clearly anti-democratic positions, the movement had the following slogans: “Our right to exist”, “Indigenous lives matter”, “Indigenous emergency” and “We choose not to die”.
For two weeks, Indigenous Peoples from different ethnic groups around the country protested in front of the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia against the approval of Bill 490 of 2007[xxii] and the lack of assistance in relation to COVID-19.
The Indigenous struggle in the face of climate change
The Indigenous presence at COP26 was extremely important as it presented to the world the debacle of the Indigenous situation: in addition to being affected by the pandemic without any protection from the federal government, their complaints were silenced, those who denounced the uncontrolled entry of miners/farmers or the intense deforestation were sanctioned, and access was given freely to Indigenous Lands, threatening the existence of peoples who account for only 0.49% of the Brazilian population.
Bolsonaro did not attend COP26 but there was an extensive Indigenous agenda and a strong presence on the part of Brazilian Indigenous leaders who, in turn, passed on the message of the Tarumá Charter: Declaration of the Indigenous Peoples of the Brazilian Amazon in the face of the climate crisis, drafted days before COP26.[xxiii]
The climate crisis is directly related to the greed over Indigenous Lands, combined with the legal erosion of Indigenous and environmental rights, that is taking place in Brazil. The time we are living in, in which a virus has stopped the world and affected the routine of billions of people from all social classes and different cultures, is fundamental to thinking seriously about the need to respect the socio-biodiversity of our territories. In Brazil, however, the current government’s anti-environmental, anti-climate and anti-Indigenous policies are lethal. Our territories, which rightfully belong to us, are being invaded by prospectors and loggers; villages are being surrounded by cattle and soybean farms; rivers are being polluted with pesticides and mercury; the Amazon rainforest is on fire, turning everything to ashes; and governments and economic funds continue to financially support this unbridled greed, an economy of destruction that is killing and destroying both life and the planet.
The constant bills and PECs being drafted by political/economic lobbyists with the approval of, or created by, the President of Brazil (in the case of the PECs) are endangering the survival not only of Indigenous Peoples but of an entire expanse of flora, fauna and rivers that can never be restored. The plotline and agreements have been designed together so that there is no dissonance in the applicability of the developmentalist project, marked by its flat earthism, and its global warming and pandemic denialism.
Maria de Lourdes Beldi de Alcântara is a medical anthropologist from the School of Medicine of the University of São Paulo. She is also the coordinator of AJI/GAPK Indigenous Youth Action.
This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here
Notes and references
[i] Government of Brazil. http://www.brasil.gov.br/governo/2015/04/populacao-indigena-no-brasil-e-de-896-9-mil
[ii] Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB). Dossiê internacional de denúncias dos povos indígenas do Brasil [International File of Complaints from Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples]. Brasilia, Brasil: Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), August 2021. https://apiboficial.org/files/2021/08/DOSSIE_pt_v3web.pdf
[iii] Author’s emphasis.
[iv] Borges, André. “Especialistas ambientais veem judicializção e riscos em proposta que retira licenciamento do Ibama.” Estadão, February 4, 2022 https://economia.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,especialistas-ambientais-veem-judicializacao-e-riscos-em-proposta-que-retira-licenciamento-do-ibama,70003969872
[vi] Silva, Líllian O. P., Emanuele A. Alves and Joseli M. R. Nogueira. “Conquências do uso indiscriminado de antimicrobianos durante a pandemia de COVID-19.” [Consequences of the indiscriminate use of antimicrobials during the COVID-19 pandemic]. Brazilian Journals of Development 8 No 2 (2022). https://doi.org/10.34117/bjdv8n2-128
[vii] Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Nelson Teich, Eduardo Pazuello (active army general) and Marcelo Queiroga (current minister).
[viii] Mões, Malu. “COVID-19: Brasil encerra 2021 como 12º país em morte por milhão.” [COVID: Brazil ends 2021 as the 12th worst country in deaths per million.] Poder360, January 2, 2022. https://www.poder360.com.br/coronavirus/covid-brasil-encerra-2021-como-12o-pais-em-morte-por-milhao
[ix] Tadeu, Vinícius. "Brasil chega a 80% do público-alvo vacinado com duas doses contra a COVID-19." [Brazil achieves 80% of the target public vaccinated with two doses against COVID-19]. CNN Brasil, December 28, 2021. https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/saude/brasil-chega-a-80-do-publico-alvo-vacinado-com-duas-doses-contra-a-covid-19/
[x] Gandra, Alana. “Produção do setor mineral cresce 7% em 2021 e faturamento aumenta 62%.” [Mineral sector production grows by 7% in 2021 and revenues by 62%]. Agência Brasil, February 1, 2022. https://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/economia/noticia/2022-02/producao-do-setor-mineral-cresce-7-em-2021-e-faturamento-aumenta-62
[xi] Alcântara, Mária deLourdes. “El dilema colonial de Brasil: minería del oro y deforestación en la Amazonía” [Brazil’s colonial dilemma: gold mining and deforestation in the Amazon]. Indigenous Debates, November 1, 2021. https://debatesindigenas.org/notas/137-dilema-colonial-de-brasil.html
[xii] IBRAM. “Exportação de minérios foi crucial para manter saldo da balança comercial positivo em 2021.” [Mineral exports crucial to maintaining a positive trade balance in 2021]. IBRAM, February 2, 2022.
[xiii] Salomon, Marta. “Garimpando com o cocar alheio.” Revista piauí, July 1, 2021. https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/garimpando-com-o-cocar-alheio/
[xv] Reuters. "Quase 30 % do ouro exportado pelo Brasil pode ser ilegal, mostra estudo.” [Almost 30% of the gold exported by Brazil may be illegal, study shows]. Exame, August 30, 2021. https://exame.com/brasil/quase-30-do-ouro-exportado-pelo-brasil-pode-ser-ilegal-mostra-estudo/
[xvi] Bonilha, Patricia. "Cacique Karipuna reivindica à ONU punição de empresas que violam terras indígenas." [Chief Karipuna demands the UN sanction companies that violate Indigenous lands]. Greenpeace, October 24, 2018. https://www.greenpeace.org/brasil/blog/cacique-karipuna-reivindica-a-onu-punicao-de-empresas-que-violam-terras-indigenas/
[xvii] Instituto Socioambiental. “Bolsonaro promove a mineração predatória.” [Bolsonaro promotes predatory mining]. Instituto Socioambiental, December 16, 2021. https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/blog/blog-do-isa/bolsonaro-promove-a-mineracao-predatoria
[xix]Salomon, Marta. “Garimpando com o cocar alheio”. Revista piauí, July 1, 2021.
[xx] Lage, Mariana. "Recordista em liberações, governo Bolsonaro autoriza 51 novos agrotóxicos apenas em julho." [Record in new releases, Bolsonaro's government authorises 51 new pesticides in July alone]. Manuelzão, August 3, 2021. https://manuelzao.ufmg.br/recordista-em-liberacoes-governo-bolsonaro-autoriza-51-novos-agrotoxicos-apenas-em-julho/
[xxi]Saiba Mais - Agência de reportagem e jornalismo independente. “Pedidos para explorar mineração em Terra Indígena é ilegal, diz MPF-AM.” [Requests to explore mining on Indigenous Lands are illegal, says MPF-A]. Comitê Nacional em Defesa dos Territórios Frente à Mineração, February 13, 2019. http://emdefesadosterritorios.org/pedidos-para-explorar-mineracao-em-terra-indigena-e-ilegal-diz-mpf-am/
[xxii] Dantas, Carolina. "Por que os indígenas protestam em Brasília? Entenda o PL 490, projeto que muda a demarcação de terras." [Why are the Indigenous Peoples protesting in Brasilia? Find out about Bill 490, a bill that changes territorial demarcation]. G1 Globo, June 23, 2021. https://g1.globo.com/natureza/noticia/2021/06/23/por-que-os-indigenas-protestam-em-brasilia-entenda-o-pl-490-projeto-que-muda-a-demarcacao-de-terras.ghtml
[xxiii] APIB. “Carta de Tarumã: Declaração dos povos indígenas da Amazônia brasileira frente à crise climática.” [Tarumã Charter: Declaration of the Indigenous Peoples of the Brazilian Amazon in the face of the climate crisis]. APIB, October 29, 2021. https://apiboficial.org/2021/10/29/carta-de-taruma-declaracao-dos-povos-indigenas-da-amazonia-brasileira-frente-a-crise-climatica/