“The rights of indigenous people to social organisation, practices, languages, beliefs and traditions are recognised, together with their original rights over the land that they traditionally occupy, and it is the responsibility of the Brazilian Federal Government to demarcate these lands and to ensure that all their heritage is protected and respected.”

Brazilian Constitution, 5th October 1988


In Brazil, Indigenous land demarcation, whether complete or in progress, is a very difficult and precarious process. Although indigenous lands have been demarcated to some extent (starting only in 1961 along the Xingu river, which has now been badly affected in its course by the construction of the Belo Monte dam), the full demarcation of indigenous territories remains incomplete. Indigenous rights were only included in the Brazilian constitution in 1988, at a time when the Yanomami tribe was under attack by illegal gold miners; what emerged to be a genocide was only halted in 1992, with the demarcation of their lands (1). Many indigenous people have also been displaced, creating an additional layer of complexity in resolving land disputes. Indigenous people have been requesting the process to be concluded, as its slowness is allowing a de facto attack on indigenous lands, which many politicians would like to see reduced in size, as they see these as a hindrance to “progress”.


New Brazilian legislation threatening indigenous territories.


Completion of such process might become even more challenging, since on  October 2015, a special commission within the Brazilian congress approved PEC 215/00, a proposal dating back to 2000, to amend the constitution so that FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, the Brazilian government body in charge of protecting indigenous people, would no longer be responsible for indigenous land demarcation, which would be a matter decided by Congress. The proposal was promoted by Osmar Serraglio, a parliamentarian representing the powerful interests of agribusiness, (which control Congress de facto), and would also invalidate all land demarcation negotiations that occurred since 5th October 1988 (2). For the amendment to take effect, a final plenary vote at Congress needs to take place. If it were to pass, opposition politicians are going to appeal the decision on the grounds of its unconstitutionality, and currently the government is said to be against the amendment (3). Opposition against this amendment amongst indigenous people has always been strong, and it comes as an additional threat to their safety and way of life (3).

Another unconstitutional law is being pushed forward (PL 1610/96), to open indigenous territories to mining. There are 44,911 current or planned mining operations in the Brazilian Amazon for the year 2016: 4,181 (~10%) are within indigenous territories (19 already in operation illegally) and 14076 (~31%) are in conservation areas. Overall, 70% are for gold mining (4). Between 2001 and 2011 mining production in Brazil increased by 550% (5). These figures put into perspective the interests at stake behind the legislation proposal, interests that have clearly mapped out the entire rainforest and are just waiting for the go-ahead to plough in.

The combination of these two laws has led historian Carlos Bittencourt, working at Ibase  to declare in an interview “we are witnessing the preparatory moves for the final battle against indigenous people, very close to a complete ethnocide” (4).



UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples meets indigenous peoples’ representatives


Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, met with indigenous peoples and NGOs who presented the issues described above and more, emphasising the ongoing and increasing violence and killings of indigenous leaders and activists. They reported a very common lack of investigation when violence is perpetrated against indigenous peoples, where often a brief visit to the site of an alleged crime is sufficient for the entire issue to be then dismissed. See a full report by CIMI, documenting 138 deaths of indigenous leaders in 2014 compared to 92 in 2007 (6)(7). A preliminary report by the Rapporteur issued on 17/03/2016 is also available, both in English and Portuguese (8)


Traditional territory of the Munduruku recognised by FUNAI


On 19 April 2016 (Brazilian national day of indigenous people), FUNAI finally officially recognised a traditional territory of the Munduruku people along the Tapajós river, based on recommendations made by its own study of the area conducted in 2013 (9). There is a 90-day period for any opposition to this decision to be voiced, after which the President of the Republic/Ministry of Justice should hopefully sign this, and demarcation can be enforced (10). The former President of FUNAI stated that the current resolution was ready in 2013, and that pressure from other governmental agencies blocked its publication (11), because of economic interests such as the development of hydroelectric dams (see below).


The publication of the document by FUNAI is said to be the result of the pressure the Munduruku people made on the government (with the support of Greenpeace amongst others), the pressure from the judiciary (Judge Ilan Presser, MPF of the Para state) on FUNAI to stop withholding the publication, and also due to the political crisis in Brazil, with President Dilma Rousseff facing impeachment (17 April 2016) (11) (12). Munduruku chief Karo Munduruku welcomed the recognition, as his tribe had been left to fight off illegal loggers and gold miners with no means or support, and now he hopes it will be possible to enforce protection of his land more effectively (11).


IBAMA suspends the licencing of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam


Again on 19 April 2016, just after FUNAI recognised the above territory, Marilene Ramos, President of IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), informed Valter Luis Cardeal de Souza, director of Electrobras (main firm within the Tapajós Consortium), that the Tapajós dam project licence had been suspended, because of its effect on recognised indigenous lands. This highlights the crucial, and political, nature of the land demarcation process and its immediate implications. The suspension awaits final confirmation by FUNAI with regard to the impact on indigenous people (13).


New Greenpeace reports on dams in the Amazon


Greenpeace has been involved in campaigning against the São Luiz do Tapajós dam and has produced an independent report on the environmental impact of the dam in 2015 (14). The NGO is also gathering support in a petition (more than 200,000 signed as of 23 April 2016) to permanently scrap plans for hydroelectric dams along the Tapajós river, and has released a second report on 13 April 2016 highlighting the negative impact of dams in the Amazon (15).


The Yanomami have to fight once more


Ongoing issues faced by indigenous people even in areas that have already been demarcated are compounded by the difficulties the Yanomami are facing in northern Brazil and southern Venezuela: illegal miners still infiltrate into their territory, and are causing a resurgence in mercury poisoning of the waters, affecting the entire food chain of the Yanomami, to the point that 90% of Yanomami in some villages have high levels of mercury in their blood (16), (17). The tribe have been denouncing illegal mining since 2012 (18). While this is happening, there are many politicians lobbying for a reduction in the territory of the Yanomami, and the army located in the area is causing further disruption in the local communities, and are said to be encouraging prostitution and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.




Looking at these different events side by side, it is apparent that although indigenous people are very determined to keep their land and way of life and have the support of NGOs, scientists, the public opinion, international human rights agencies and at least some of the Brazilian institutions, the agribusiness agenda in its various organised and indirect ways still weighs heavy on the decisions of the Brazilian government and in the way the protection of indigenous people is implemented / ignored. Indigenous people play indeed a crucial role in preserving the rainforest, their role as custodians of the rainforest is, if anything, an understatement.





  1. Sued, Lucas. Os conflitos acerca da demarcação de terras indígenas [Internet]. JusBrasil. 2015 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://suedlucas.jusbrasil.com.br/artigos/203413790/os-conflitos-acerca-da-demarcacao-de-terras-indigenas
  2. Agência Câmara Notícias. Sem consenso, PEC da demarcação de terras indígenas está pronta para votação [Internet]. 24 Horas News. [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://www.24horasnews.com.br/noticias/ver/sem-consenso-pec-da-demarcacao-de-terras-indigenas-esta-pronta-para-votacao.html
  3. José Coutinho Júnior; Vivian Fernandes. ‘O meu povo está sofrendo genocídio no Brasil’, afirmou líder indígena em audiência na OEA [Internet]. CIMI. 2015 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://cimi.org.br/site/pt-br/?system=news&conteudo_id=8428&action=read
  4. Alana Almeida; Silvia Futada; Tatiane Klein. Ucs e Tis na Amazônia são afetadas por mais de 17,5 mil processos de mineração | Amazônia [Internet]. Amazonia.org. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://amazonia.org.br/2016/02/ucs-e-tis-na-amazonia-sao-afetadas-por-mais-de-175-mil-processos-de-mineracao/
  5. Carlos Bittencourt. Novo marco regulatório da mineração e o silêncio socioambiental. 2013 Sep.
  6. Rangel, Lúcia Helena. Violence against Indigenous Peoples in Brazil – 2014 Data. CIMI; 2015 Sep.
  7. Kessler, Rebecca. Indigenous Brazilians under threat from killings and resource projects: UN Rapporteur [Internet]. Mongabay. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://news.mongabay.com/2016/04/indigenous-brazilians-under-threat-from-killings-and-resource-projects-un-rapporteur/?n3wsletter
  8. ONU Brasil. Relatora especial da ONU sobre povos indígenas divulga comunicado final após visita ao Brasil [Internet]. ONU Brasil. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 24]. Available from: https://nacoesunidas.org/relatora-especial-da-onu-sobre-povos-indigenas-divulga-comunicado-final-apos-visita-ao-brasil/
  9. Bruna Cerqueira Sigmaringa Seixas; Pedro Rocha de Almeida e Castro, Igor Nicolau Richwin Ferreira. Relatório Circunstanciado de Identificação e Delimitação da Terra Indígena Sawré Muybu (Pimental) / PA. FUNAI; 2013 Sep.
  10. Daniela Chiaretti. Ibama suspende licenciamento da hidrelétrica de São Luiz do Tapajós [Internet]. Valor Econômico. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://www.valor.com.br/brasil/4532501/ibama-suspende-licenciamento-da-hidreletrica-de-sao-luiz-do-tapajos
  11. Farias, Elaize. Funai reconhece território tradicional Sawré Muybu dos Munduruku [Internet]. Amazonia Real. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 22]. Available from: http://amazoniareal.com.br/funai-reconhece-territorio-tradicional-sawre-muybu-dos-munduruku/
  12. Miranda, David. The real reason Dilma Rousseff’s enemies want her impeached [Internet]. The Guardian. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/21/dilma-rousseff-enemies-impeached-brazil
  13. G1 Pará. Ibama suspende licença ambiental da hidrelétrica de São Luiz do Tapajós [Internet]. Pará. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: http://g1.globo.com/pa/para/noticia/2016/04/ibama-suspende-licenca-ambiental-da-hidreletrica-de-sao-luiz-do-tapajos.html
  14. Renata Nitta; Luciano N. Naka; Philip M. Fearnside; Bruce R. Forsberg; Leandro V. Ferreira; Maria Teresa Fernandez Piedade; Sheyla R. M. Couceiro; Jansen Zuanon; Albertina Lima; Enrico Bernard. Barragens do rio Tapajós: uma avaliação crítica do Estudo e Relatório de impacto Ambiental (EIA/RIMA) do Aproveitamento Hidrelétrico São Luiz do Tapajós. Greenpeace Brasil; 2015 Oct.
  15. Greenpeace Brasil. Hidrelétricas na Amazônia: um mau negócio para o Brasil e para o mundo. Greenpeace Brasil; 2016 Apr.
  16. Istituto Socioambiental I. O povo Yanomami está contaminado por mercúrio do garimpo [Internet]. Istituto Socioambiental. 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 23]. Available from: https://medium.com/@socioambiental/o-povo-yanomami-est%C3%A1-contaminado-por-merc%C3%BArio-do-garimpo-fa0876819312#.eeaxajtl2
  17. Paulo Cesar Basta; Sandra de Souza Hacon; Claudia Maribel Vega Ruiz; José Marcos Godoy; Rodrigo Araujo Gonçalves; Marcos Wesley de Oliveira; Ana Maria Machado; Helder Perri Ferreira; Davi Kopenawa Yanomami; Reinaldo Wadeyuna Ye’kwana; Jesem Douglas Yamall Orellana; Cristiano Lucas de Menezes Alves; Maurício Caldart. Avaliação da exposição ambiental ao mercúrio proveniente de atividade garimpeira de ouro na terra indígena Yanomami, Roraima, Amazônia, Brasil. Fiocruz, ENSP; PUC-RJ; ISA; HAY; APYB; 2016 Mar.
  18. Itirio Hoariwë; Luis Shatiwë; Acayajuana Silva; Ciro Borges; Virginio Posiewë; Miguel Medina. Declaration of Horonami Yanomami organization about illegal mining in the Upper Ocamo region. Horonami Yanomami Organisation (HOY); 2012 Sep.