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Over the last 15 years, Brazil has seen an increase in land disputes between its indigenous populations and rural ranchers. Brazil’s indigenous populations have experienced a massive amount of physical and political violence because of these conflicts. Essentially, Brazil’s indigenous populations are facing a land rights crisis. Not only is the government refusing to take any concrete action to protect their indigenous populations, but the government is, in reality, causing harm.

Under both national and international law, Brazil is obliged to protect its indigenous populations from violence and to secure their land rights. Under Brazil’s Constitution, its indigenous populations have a right to their ancestral land. According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, states must prevent any unlawful seizure of their land, territories, or resources. Under ILO Convention 169, Brazil must protect its indigenous populations as well as penalize any effort to seize their land or to strip away their rights. Brazil, therefore, is legally required to protect all aspects of its indigenous territory, but they also are legally required to maintain equal rights and treatment between its indigenous population and anyone in the agro-business itself.

The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) is Brazil’s governmental body in charge of handling policies about Brazil’s indigenous populations.  FUNAI is the primary investigative body for indigenous rights cases as well. President Temer slashed FUNAI’s budget by almost half this past year. Temer, unpopular and amidst a deep corruption scandal, has attempted to enact policy that would be dangerous for indigenous peoples because he has sought support from the politically powerful agro-businesses. The Brazilian supreme court recently ruled against “marco temporal” a standard that would have likely dismissed over 90% of indigenous land dispute claims. The “marco temporal” standard would reject any indigenous land claims unless there is proof that indigenous communities occupied the disputed territory before October 1988, the date Brazil ratified its current constitution. This has not deterred any violence, however, nor inspired any state action. Just last month there were reports of a murder investigation into the killing of members of an uncontacted tribe in the rural area in the Amazon near Columbia. Attacks on uncontacted, remote indigenous populations could spell the end of an entire culture.

In June, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) released a statement about how the rights of Brazil’s indigenous populations are in danger. The OHCHR found that Brazil’s Congressional Investigative Commission wants to strip FUNAI of their responsibility for titling and protecting indigenous lands. Further, the Congressional Investigative Commission released a report that accuses the UN of trying to influence Brazil’s national policies, claiming that the ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are at odds with Brazil’s constitution. The UN is in contact with Brazil’s government and is keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

As such, Brazil has been violating its duty to protect its indigenous populations. Even though Brazil has ignored violence against its citizens, they are bound by international law to protect indigenous populations for forcible seizure of their land. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, states must provide mechanisms to prevent any unlawful seizure of their land, territories, or resources. Further, indigenous populations cannot be expelled from their land; relocation shall not take place without consent, compensation, and (when possible) the option to return to their land. Additionally, under Article 18 of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169, Brazil is obliged to prevent and penalize unlawful trespass, use, or seizure of indigenous land. More importantly, under Article 19, Brazil’s national agriculture policy is supposed to ensure that its indigenous populations receive the same rights as other groups. The most obvious solution is that Brazil needs to increase funding to FUNAI. With the current President in office, however, that seems to be wishful thinking. Brazil’s Congress needs to try President Temer for corruption. He blatantly is pandering to the agro-businesses while ignoring Brazil’s indigenous populations. Brazil’s government has the means to take charge of this crisis before it gets any more out of hand.

Brazil’s indigenous rights crisis is only worsening with time, and the state needs to take responsibility for its people. Not only does the government need to step up and protect its people from violence and wrongful land seizure, but Brazil needs to hold its president accountable for the suffering endured by its indigenous populations. President Temer just avoided a second round of corruption charges in late October 2017. If Brazil’s congress would have voted in favor of a corruption investigation, President Temer would have lost his title to the presidency for at least six months.  Additionally, securing more funding for FUNAI is essential for the protection of Brazil’s indigenous populations. Brazil’s current policy towards its indigenous populations has only perpetuated inequality in the region and, unless they make some changes soon, the land rights crisis will likely continue.

  • SaraBeth Sullivan

    this is a fantastic article! so articulate and well written. Thanks for sharing!