Indigenous people in Brazil: Global cooperation and the right to life

Mutum-Paraná, tributary to Rio Madeira, Brazil. Caripuna Indians in the bark canoe. Photo obtained from the Göteborg Ethnographic Department’s order. The photo was published in Charles W. Domville-Fife: Among the wild tribes of the Amazons. London 1924, image at p. 64. Source: CC BY-NC-ND 2.5, Okänd Världskulturmuseet.

Indigenous rights violation can be traced back to the days of Colonialism. Ever since the indigenous people have struggled to exercise their right to life. The current political situation in Brazil, under the interim president Temer and his mishandling of environmental issues and needs of indigenous people, emphasises the importance for transforming the current situation. The global development paradigm is embedded in the short-term capitalistic-orientated system which puts the protection of indigenous peoples at the lowest of importance. This article highlights the need for change and transformation in the current processes to create peaceful coexistence – equally for indigenous and non-indigenous people in the global community.

Current situation: Indigeneity in Brazil

According to the NGO Survival International, indigenous peoples nowadays in Brazil currently count for less than 7 percent in comparison to their original sizes at the time of the Conquest in 1500. The Brazilian Demographic Census of 2010 reported that 818.000 people self-identify as “indigenous”. This means an increase in absolute figures compared to from the previous 2000 census, when 734,000 persons self-identified as such. This can be explained by the improved governance of indigeneity and an increase in the civil society’s awareness and support for the needs of indigenous peoples throughout the globe.

Deforestation, monocultures, ongoing clearing of land, land thefts and discriminate governments neglecting the internationally recognised rights of indigenous peoples are only a few of the many threats they face. They result from the interactions between (inter-)national politics and big companies. Indigenous peoples are literally paying the price for supplying goods on the world markets.

The most alarming challenge is the fear of indigenous peoples to become extinct. The fear to disappear physically and culturally is immense and is offering an uncertain future for the upcoming generations. Increasing urbanization forces are pressuring indigenous peoples to choose between the traditional and the capitalized world or making them live in both realities. Also, most land strips, that are suitable for realizing mega projects or extraction of natural resources, are often located on indigenous territories. Realizing projects without obtaining their Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), as required by the international standards, such as the ILO Convention No.169 of 1989 or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) of 2007, is undermining their fundamental rights to health, food and clean water. The indigenous peoples are competing with regional or national governments, who are willing to let big investors using the biodiversity, subsoil resources for exportation, which leads to the loss of their naturally owned territory. The expropriations, which mostly happen without a Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), are contrary to declarative legal achievements of the indigenous social movement, as mentioned above.

NGO’s are playing an important role in raising awareness, providing assistance to and supporting resistance of the indigenous movements. NGOs are meaningful enforcement mechanisms, and they may pressure right-abusers and use the human rights toolkit, to demand -and possibly achieve- a higher quality of life. The above-mentioned UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People represents a major milestone that fuelled the public discourse and led to more aware follow-ups.

Brazilian Politics

Brazil voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2016) and has signed ILO Convention No.169. Their national constitution (1988) recognized the indigenous people as first and natural owner of the land whilst guaranteeing them their right to land.

In 2012 the deforestation in Brazil faced the lowest level since the start of measuring the destruction of the rainforest in 1988. This positive development to preserve the Amazon was mostly promoted by better enforcement of environmental laws and improved surveillance technologies, initiated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president from 2003 until 2010. This period of development showed that sustainable growth within economic growth is possible even without over-exploiting the rainforest. Since 2012, the rate of deforestation is significantly rising again. Dilma Rousseff, the first female Brazilian president, was responsible for the increased deforestation rates, as she considered the gains of the Amazon deforestation more important than sticking to the 2020 goal as adopted in the 2009 National Climate Change Policy. This again led to the threat of indigenous territory as the untouched and preserved Amazon is mostly on their lands.

In mid-2016 she was impeached due to a corruption scandal and then was replaced by the interim president Michel Temer in the end of August 2016. Temer is feared by a lot of alarmed conservationists and climate change activists, because of his promise to promote a more business-friendly agenda to spur growth. The cabinet that Temer conducts includes members with close connections to powerful landowners and agriculture business companies.

Policy Recommendations

The Amazon is shared by nine different nations and Brazil owns 64 percent of it. The decisions of the Brazilian government are most influential for the rainforest, their indigenous inhabitants and world’s nature balance. Politicians should increase pressure on the Brazilian government to adhere to their international duties, e.g., the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 target of reducing deforestation by 80 percent from the level of 1990.

The economic control, which is based on the increasing investment capacities by those governments that are enabled to do it through new intergovernmental trade agreement, is challenging the indigenous peoples’ situation. A restrictive policy on FDI should be considered.

The adoption of political decisions without their consent clearly demonstrates the lack of the recognition and enforcement of their rights. The continuous violations of several international treaties should seriously be addressed by the global community, the United Nations or other intergovernmental human rights protection systems to propitiate favourable politics. Cooperative decision-making, the application of their right to effective participation, creation of alliances with bigger, sustainable impact and the awareness of nowadays complexity needs to be promoted. Only a global cooperation will enable a unique equality, rethink of a global equilibrium, and preserve the endangered life-forms and species.


Sharin Kleeberg, born in Berlin on the 28th of December 1992, works and lives with indigenous tribes in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. She is currently doing her in Master in ‘Global Studies’ at Karl-Franzens University in Graz (Austria) with a special focus on Indigenous Peoples in Latin-America and preparing her field research in October 2018 with the Pataxós in Bahia (Brazil). She is motivated to engage in the Indigeneity discourse by showing different facets of what it means ‘Being Indian’ nowadays, leaving the idealized and suppressed perception of Indigeneity aside. Through that she is raising awareness of the encountered obstacles in socio-economic, political, legal, historically rooted and academic spheres, which only can be put aside, when working together in a holistic manner.