“Who will defend us if not ourselves?” Indigenous people and rainforests under renewed attack in Brazil

Socio-environmental protections in Brazil are being dismantled whilst the world is distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Forests in the Amazon, home to 1 million indigenous people, have been subject to fires and deforestation as the current government administration seeks to reverse hard-won gains for indigenous and environmental rights. These fragile rights exist in tension with agribusiness and industrial development in Brazil, which appear to have the support of the government under its current president, Jair Bolsonaro.

The Brazilian constitution enshrines the rights of its indigenous people to live in the Amazon rainforest, which also serves to protect these areas from environmental damage. However, whilst protected in theory, the reality is that these indigenous zones are under constant threat of destruction, from cattle-ranches to dams and gold and copper mining. Now with coronavirus sweeping through the deforested areas, indigenous tribes face a health threat similar to that which previously decimated their ancestors during the colonial era.

The indigenous people of Brazil have undergone a long struggle for their rights. Active campaigning throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s led to constitutional reform, namely the 1988 constitution following the end of military dictatorship. Article 231 of the constitution explicitly recognises indigenous people’s right to demarcation of the land that they inhabit, referring to ‘original rights to the lands they traditionally occupy’. These rights are protected under the constitution, in particular with regard to the exploitation of natural resources on the land and protecting them from forced removal.

However, these rights have been challenged by commercial interests and clashes between indigenous people and illegal miners have often been marked by violence. This was particularly prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s, with an estimated 15% of the Yanomami people killed during this time. This era of free-for-all gold mining was characterised by thousands of garimpeiros searching for gold by hand, using picks and shovels. The Serra Pelada gold mine in the 1980s was a notorious example of the scramble for natural resources. Concerns for indigenous people and the environment was cast aside, and the Yanomami people’s limited rights on the land, excluding land ownership, were unable to stand in the way, their lives threatened as well as their cultural heritage. 

Now gold mining has returned to Brazil, with two Yanomami tribesmen killed in June 2020 by gold miners. Not only are these miners destroying the forest, using mercury and hoses which pollute the land, they are also bringing with them infections including Covid-19, further killing dozens of Yanomami people. With memories of the Haximu massacre in Venezuela in 1993, NGOs are calling for a halt to mining to protect the Yanomami people from further death and destruction. 

In 2007 the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was adopted, formally granting rights to indigenous people under international law. The declaration recognises the human rights of indigenous people and their right to self-determination. The declaration also states that indigenous people should not be subject to genocide or violence, nor to forced assimilation or the destruction of their culture. However, Bolsonaro has said that ‘not a centimeter’ of land will be demarcated to indigenous people under his rule. In March 2020, a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting was held in Geneva to discuss the concerns of NGOs and indigenous representatives that the current government was encroaching on these rights, including putting the indigenous people at risk of genocide. Their concern is primarily the threat of violence from illegal gold miners, the garimpeiros, who have been responsible for previous violations. 

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic rages, the Brazilian administration has begun to issue executive orders effectively deregulating the existing socio-environmental protections. Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, was quoted in May 2020 as saying that that the pandemic was an opportune time to “run the cattle herd”, which is taken as meaning that as the pandemic distracts, agricultural business could benefit from environmental legislative amendments effectively deregulating the space and making it easier to commercially exploit the land. The comment was condemned by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. The executive orders issued by the administration include an effective amnesty to those who have previously committed illegal deforestation as well as concentrating power in the Minister of the Environment, who has, it seems, made his position clear.

Another recent bill brought forward by the Brazilian government in February 2020, PL 191/2020, proposes to regulate mining and hydroelectric power projects such as dams in the indigenous zones. Effectively the legislation will legalise the activities which are currently illegal in the region, due to indigenous rights protections. Under the current administration, mining and agribusiness applications to the National Mining Agency have increased, in particular since the bill was presented to Congress. The bill could be seen as granting a green light to agribusiness in Brazil, whilst undermining indigenous rights enshrined in the constitution. The Munduruku people made a declaration of resistance on December 18 2020, stating their opposition to the proposed law, describing it as a ‘Death Bill’. They singled out the Brazilian multinational mining company Vale as one of the main culprits responsible for the destruction of their land. Vale also owns the Brumadinho dam, which collapsed in 2019, resulting in the death of an estimated 260 people who were living downstream. 

The Brumadinho dam disaster illustrates the lack of regulatory oversight of hydroelectric projects in Brazil. The collapse of the Fundao dam in Mariana, which was operated by Samarco, resulted in iron ore pollution of the Rio Doce river, killing 19 people as well as destroying the town of Bento Rodrigues. These dams were constructed to contain the waste from mining, and consist of soluble materials, rendering them more susceptible to collapse. This is another example of the hastened and destructive way in which materials are exploited by mining companies in Brazil. 

Brazil accounts for one third of the world’s rainforest, but under the current administration, deforestation has increased at an alarming rate. In 2020 alone, deforestation rose by over 9%, with some 11,000 sq km (2.7 million acres) of rainforest destroyed. Given the size of the Amazon rainforest, this will have an impact on carbon emissions both for Brazil and globally. 

One of the main causes of deforestation in Brazil is cattle ranching. Demand for beef production has resulted in deforestation in the region, although there have been attempts to regulate this space. Sustainable farming NGOs such as Allianca da Terra encourage good farming practice through the promotion of certifications of good environmental standards. Another organisation, cattle ranching management and partnership firm Pecsa, renews existing degraded cattle ranches and encourages more efficient farming to reduce deforestation. The Brazilian Forest Code also requires landowners to maintain 80% of the land as forest, however, the threat of illegal deforestation remains. 

The current Brazil administration is under pressure to comply with the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which Bolsonaro had previously threatened to withdraw from. Brazil carries a large responsibility for global carbon neutrality goals, although its government considers these international pressures as a challenge to its sovereignty and freedom to develop. It now looks unlikely that Brazil will meet its targets to cut over 30% of its carbon emissions by 2025 along with zero illegal deforestation. This, coupled with the incursions on indigenous rights, has led some to suggest that investors impose a trade boycott on Brazil and governments impose sanctions. Warnings have come from supermarkets in the UK such as Tesco that they might not stock Brazilian products if deforestation continues at the current rate. 

Brazil has made progress on its socio-environmental protections in the last few decades, however its current trajectory is downwards in this regard. Emboldened by the current government’s rhetoric, illegal mining and deforestation continues unabated. The cultural heritage and way of life for indigenous people, long fraught with difficulties, is now under threat more than ever. The forests which they inhabit may soon have a free pass for mining companies should the latest bill be enacted. The current constitutional protections for indigenous people and environmental regulation may soon be mere lip service if government policy continues in this direction.

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