Setbacks for Brazil’s Environmental Protection Goals and Protection of Indigenous Peoples

Written by: Sarah Shepro

In the 1500’s, when Europeans first arrived to the South American continent, Brazil was populated by 11 million indigenous peoples, separated into roughly 2,000 tribes. Like many other interactions between Europeans and indigenous peoples in America, this contact led a near-extinction loss, about 90% of the population, and has been followed be years of hardships for the native tribes of Brazil. 

Today, only 240 tribes remain, representing 900,000 people, or 0.4% of Brazil’s total population. Unsurprisingly, the extinction of indigenous peoples is largely related to land loss: 98.5% of reserved land lies in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, which has now become a playground for illegal logging and other invasive activities. Not only has this been detrimental to native communities, but the Brazilian government’s lack of interest in protecting indigenous peoples and their lands has proved to be an immense setback to their Paris Climate Agreement goals, like the reduction of emissions from deforestation in the Amazon to 564 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2020. They also set goals to completely eradicate illegal deforestation by 2030, and replace 46,332 square miles of their forests. 

In 1988, after Brazil ended their military dictatorship, the new government produced a constitution. Many tribes lobbied for increased rights, and managed to secure written protections in the document. The Brazilian Constitution is filled with promises of social rights and environmental protectionism; showcasing the newly flourishing human rights movement of the time. Article 6 promises “[e]ducation, health, nutrition, labor, housing, leisure, security, social security, protection of motherhood and childhood and assistance to the destitute are social rights, in accordance with this Constitution.” But in reality, the Munduruku tribe is vulnerable to illness and death from mercury poisoning in the rivers due to illegal mining that’s been ignored by the government, which they rely on for fishing and drinking water. This is not an anomaly amongst indigenous tribes in the Amazon region. The Guarani tribe has a suicide rate 34 times that of the national average as a consequence of the suffering caused by major land loss. Families who have been forced to settle in roadside camps after being ousted by ranchers and miners have faced incredible loss not only because of the hazards of their displacement, but also because of homicide committed by the ranchers and settlers themselves.

This is evidently not a concern of President Jair Bolsanaro, who is outspoken in his anti-environmental sentiment. He has called “environmental protection laws an impediment to economic growth” and during his campaign, threatened to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which they ratified in 2015. Why would he be concerned? Due to a provision in the 1988 Constitution, the Brazilian government “[is] assured… participation in the results of exploitation of petroleum or natural gas, hydraulic energy sources, and other mineral resources in their respective territories.”  Article 20, section XI of the constitution, legally entitles the state to “lands traditionally occupied by Indians.”  President Bolsanaro shows no signs of changing that anytime soon, stating that “not one centimeter of land will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.”

As a consequence, indigenous tribes are becoming more and more vulnerable, and Brazil is experiencing a huge setback in their climate progress. As the Amazon region shrinks, indigenous peoples are more susceptible to displacement, loss of culture, and loss of life. Tangentially, progress in climate change mitigation has slowed and even started to reverse: “…deforestation and resulting emissions increases [have been] picking up speed again in recent years.” Norway has halved their massive payments helping Brazil safeguard the Amazon due to this reversal; Norway has invested $1.1 billion in the Amazon since 2008. 

Brazil, once a beacon for environmental protection, has been on a backwards track since 2005. Loose property law and the state’s recent economic downturn have propelled this movement, further severing indigenous peoples connection to their ancestral land, especially in the Amazon. However, many tribes remain resilient. A female chief of the Apy Ka’y Guarani tribe led a retomada (re-occupation) of their land lost to a sugar cane plantation; buried on this land are three of her children, her husband, who was murdered by the plantation’s gunmen, another tribal leader, and a shaman. Most recently, members of the Munduruku tribe led a protest against illegal miners and the right-wing government in order to “[p]aralyze illegal mining activity in the indigenous area; clean up the territory and expel all the invaders from Munduruku territory.” The balance of Brazil’s once extraordinary commitment to environmental protection lies within this fight for indigenous rights in a small fraction of the country.