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The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil

TUC report
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Environmental Protection and Indigenous Rights

Brazil is home to over 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, a unique and invaluable ecosystem that accounts for 10 per cent of the earth’s biodiversity and absorbs five per cent of all carbon emissions. The Bolsonaro government represents an existential threat to the Amazon, as well as to other key bioregions such as the Pantanal wetlands and the Cerrado grasslands. Experts are warning that the Amazon is close to a “tipping point”, where the rainforest’s ecosystem will be unable to support itself, leading to irreversible environmental transformation, destruction of biodiversity and a dramatic aggravation of the global climate threat. 88 What gains were made in environmental preservation in Brazil prior to 2016 have since been rapidly undone by the Temer and Bolsonaro governments.

Brazil’s environmental crisis cannot be separated from Indigenous struggles. As Sonia Guajajara, leader of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and 2018 Vice Presidential candidate for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), explained:

  • 88 Editorial, “Self-Determination and Health”, The Lancet, Vol 396, August, 2020: 361

 In fact, there is no separation, it is much more than just a relationship. The struggle for Indigenous rights is the environmental struggle, and vice versa. Because when environmental legislation is deregulated, Indigenous lands are also at stake. And our fight for territory is the fight for... the defence also of our bodies, of our identity, of our way of life. So we, Indigenous peoples, are unable to dissociate the environmental struggle from the Indigenous struggle. For us it is a single struggle.

Sonia Guajajara, leader of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and 2018 Vice Presidential candidate for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL)

The evidence would support such a claim.  A 2019 UN-backed report from Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services affirmed that Indigenous peoples have a wealth of knowledge and practices that governments should draw from in developing their environmental policies. Globally, while lands controlled by Indigenous peoples face increased degradation due to climate change, those same territories saw slower rates of environmental decline.89  According to the Lancet, “Indigenous groups hold customary control of around a quarter of the earth’s surface, an area that contains around 80% of the earth’s biodiversity. But national governments legally recognise only a fraction of that control.” Instead, they allow rainforests to be exploited and degraded in diverse ways. In the case of Brazil, the Bolsonaro government is actively encouraging such activities, with devastating effects. 90

This Chapter details how the centuries-long struggle in Brazil for Indigenous survival and land has gained new urgency in recent years, and how this struggle has, as Guajajara explained, become inextricably intertwined with the struggle to protect the environment and prevent runaway climate change and biodiversity destruction.

The advance of the extractive frontier

Brazil’s Indigenous peoples have been subject to over five centuries of violent colonisation, and, despite continual resistance and important victories in winning civil and land rights, these historic patterns continue to this day. Indeed, in recent years, strategies of encroaching on Indigenous lands and rights have evolved in worrying new ways. Often with implicit state support, extractive activities, such as illegal mining and logging, along with land-grabbing for agribusiness activities, have pushed deeper into the Amazon, driving displacement and environmental destruction. While such activities are often carried out by local actors, Sonia Guajajara emphasised the role played by the federal government and Congress:

  • 89 IPBES, “Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating”, May 6, 2019
  • 90 Global Witness, “Defending Tomorrow”, July 2020

Today the main threat is [...] the Bolsonaro government itself. This alliance with big business, mining companies, agribusiness, the timber industry, which are articulated - with the parliamentary caucus in congress - to change Brazilian legislation. This economic project is toxic for Indigenous peoples.

Sonia Guajajara

Indeed, Bolsonaro has pledged to legalise mining in Indigenous territories, having sent a bill to Congress and held several high-profile meetings with illegal mining bosses. 91 Budget cuts to the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Renewable Resources (IBAMA), the main environmental protection agency, and political attacks against the National Institute of Spatial Research (INPE), which monitors deforestation, have further contributed to the atmosphere of impunity. As a direct result, deforestation rates have soared in recent years.

Resisting such attacks is a dangerous business. Bolsonaro and his supporters routinely attack NGOs, claiming they invent or exaggerate environmental disasters. The President has even accused environmentalists and Indigenous people of starting the forest fires that have raged across Brazil over the last two years.92   On the ground, Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmentalists. In 2019, 24 environmental activists were murdered, with 90 per cent of the killings occurring in the Amazon region. In 2018, meanwhile, 138 Indigenous people were murdered by groups encroaching on their territory.93

Bolsonaro’s environmental policies are fast turning Brazil into an international pariah. In August 2021, eight countries sent a letter to the Brazilian government threatening to cut imports if Brazil failed to adopt effective measures against deforestation. 94 Following the election of Joe Biden in the United States, Bolsonaro also faces a president in the White House that he has dismissed as “obsessed about the environment”.95 In response to criticisms of his policy towards the Amazon, Bolsonaro responded at the UN by saying it was a "fallacy" to describe the Amazon as the heritage of humanity and a "misconception" that its forests were the lungs of the world, and that his critics “called into question that which we hold as a most sacred value, our sovereignty."96

Deforestation

Since 2018, deforestation has increased to historic levels. In 2020, 11,000 km2 were lost, representing a twelve-year high and a 9.5 per cent increase from 2019. In the same year, the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, lost a staggering 28 per cent of its entire wetland biome to forest fires.98  While the fires were due in part to drought during the first part of 2020, the effects are intensified by illegal deforestation, arson by cattle ranchers, and a lack of state resources and planning to combat the fires.

Brazil’s savannah––the Cerrado Region––has been even worse hit by deforestation. While in the Amazon 70 per cent of the forest is located on public land, and rural producers are legally required to preserve 80 per cent of the forest on their properties, the Cerrado is largely owned by private landowners. 99 The area is Brazil’s agricultural heartland and home to the sources of three of South America’s largest river basins. It has already lost half of its natural ecosystem to cattle grazing and big money crops like soy and corn.

An area seven times larger than Greater London was lost to deforestation in Brazil between August 2019 and July 2020, most of it in states of the Amazonian and Centre West regions. 100 Meanwhile, in southern Brazil, by 2019 only 27.3 per cent of the original Atlantic Rain Forest still remained. Such loss of vegetation leads to heightened probability of drought, and Brazil’s major population centres in these regions face a growing threat to their water supplies.101

According to a recent report from the NGO Global Witness, Brazil’s largest beef companies, JBS, Marfrif and Minerva, have been directly linked to more than 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of illegal deforestation in the state of Pará alone.102 Some of the world’s largest financial institutions including Deutsche Bank, Santander, Barclays, HSBC, the World Bank and BlackRock have received criticism for providing over $9 billion in investments and loans to these companies.

Impunity as state policy

It is clear that the government is actively enabling mass deforestation by systematically defunding environmental protection agencies and dismantling oversight mechanisms.

Bolsonaro has cut the budget for operations to prevent environmental crimes by 24 per cent. As a result, the number of fines issued by IBAMA, the country’s main environmental protection agency, has declined at an alarming rate. Brazil’s National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) saw its budget cut by 40 per cent in 2020 alone. 103  The Ministry of the Environment also stands accused of deliberately underspending its budget. According to Rodrigo Agostinho, leader of the environmental caucus in Congress, "the latest cuts threatened to completely paralyse environmental agencies.”104

 Bolsonaro has also intervened directly to undermine oversight mechanisms. After taking office, he dismissed 21 of the 27 regional IBAMA supervisors, replacing them mostly with military police officers. Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked the National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE), claiming their monthly data “did not match reality”, and even fired the Institute’s director. As key environmental institutions have been attacked, the armed forces have taken a more central role in environmental policy, in the Amazon region in particular. Vice President and ex-general Hamilton Mourão has been tasked with leading the investigation of environmental crimes through the recently established Amazon Council. CENSIPAM, the Defence Ministry’s Management and Operational Centre for the Amazon Protection System, meanwhile, is responsible for enforcement. According to reports, the military’s efforts at tackling deforestation have been characterized by disorganisation, incompetence, and even wilful negligence.105

According to academic João Roberto Martins Filho, an expert on the Brazilian armed forces, the military traditionally sees itself as the “protectors of the Amazon” against the enemies of the nation, and “with the arrival of Bolsonaro [in 2019] to the presidency, military men trained in the 1960s and 1970s came to power with the vision that the Amazon needs to be exploited. They see the region as a mineral resource to be extracted, rivers to generate hydroelectricity, forests to become timber, and soil to be transformed into pasture, soy or any other export crop.” 106 Echoing such a vision, Bolsonaro has claimed on numerous occasions that environmental protection agencies are standing in the way of the country’s development. 

Indigenous rights

This extractivist orientation towards the Amazon and other environmentally significant regions is a key driver of historic violence against Indigenous groups and environmentalists in Brazil. The National Truth Commission Report estimated that the Brazilian army killed at least 8,350 Indigenous people during the military dictatorship107 , while untold thousands were forced off their lands, tortured or enslaved. Martins Filho adds that “the military sees the Indigenous as a threat to Brazilian sovereignty”. They fear that “their territories, with [the] help of the international community, could one day become independent. This is madness of course, but it is what they believe until this very day.”108

Bolsonaro has never hidden his hostility towards Brazil’s Indigenous communities, adopting a discourse that, according to Sonia Guajajara, “foments a hate campaign [...] which ends up inciting practices of racism and actual violence”. She told us that his government’s discourse has persuaded parts of Brazilian society to believe that “Indigenous territories [are] unproductive areas and need to be taken away from the Indigenous peoples to serve the economy.”

Indeed, one of Bolsonaro’s campaign promises was to assimilate Indigenous Brazilians by allowing large-scale farming and commercial mining on reservations. Illegal miners and loggers who invade Indigenous reservations are some of the government’s most fervent supporters. In response to this agenda, two human rights organisations have reported Bolsonaro to the International Criminal Court for genocide against Brazil’s Indigenous population. 109  The government has also sought to limit Indigenous territorial claims to lands occupied in 1988, the year the constitution went into effect, thereby effectively legitimizing the past 500 years of colonisation and facilitating present and future land grabs by the agribusiness sector.

The arrival of Covid-19 in Brazil has been seen by the government as an opportunity to carry out its plans on Indigenous lands -­ both by allowing the virus to decimate vulnerable indigenous communities and by distracting the media and international community from government sanctioned land-grabs. Brazil’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Bolsonaro government failed to protect Indigenous communities from the pandemic, instructing the government to put in place an emergency plan to protect these communities and remove invaders from their territories. However, the government simply refused to issue such a plan and FUNAI underspent funds allocated to it to protect Indigenous communities from Covid-19.110 As many have noted, the spread of Covid-19 to Indigenous territories mirrors the devastating history of disease that ravaged the native populations of the Americas. 110

  • 91 Reuters Staff, “Brazil suspends raid on illegal miners in Amazon indigenous land”, Reuters, August 7, 2020
  • 92 BBC, “Amazon fires: President Jair Bolsonaro suggests NGOs, to blame, BBC, 21 August, 2019
  • 93Global Witness, “Defending Tomorrow”, July 2020
  • 94 Spring, J and Paraguassu, L, “Eight European countries urge Brazil to take action on Amazon deforestation”, Reuters, September 16, 2020
  • 95 https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/brazil-president-bolsonaro-says-…
  • 96 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-49815731 [/f]

    Meanwhile, the effects of climate change on Brazil are devastating. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the Southern regions will see intense volumes of rain concentrated in only a few days, while the poorest regions of Brazil, the Amazon and Northeast, will suffer from severe droughts and extreme temperatures. This can already be seen in worsening patterns of flooding, droughts and ever more frequent wildfires. The Brazilian Report, Brazil set to be devastated by climate change”, August 9, 2021

  • 98 Alves, R, “The Brazilian biome suffering more than the Amazon”, The Brazilian Report, July 24, 2020
  • 99 Alves, R, “The Brazilian biome suffering more than the Amazon”, The Brazilian Report, July 24, 2020
  • 100 Mongabay, “Amazon deforestation tops 11,000 sq km in Brazil, reaching 12-year high”, Mongabay, November 30, 2020
  • 101 Zanon, S, “Deforestation in the Amazon is drying up the rest of Brazil: Report”, Mongabay, August 7, 2020
  • 102 Global Witness, “Beef, Banks and the Brazilian Amazon”, December 2020
  • 103 https://www.vox.com/world/21273709/brazil-coronavirus-indigenous-people…
  • 104 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/24/bolsonaro-slashes-brazils-environment-budget-day-after-climate-talks-pledge
  • 105 McCoy, T, “Bolsonaro sent soldiers to the Amazon to curb deforestation. Here’s how the effort failed.”, The Washington Post”, January 8, 2021
  • 106 Speetjans, P, “Long entrenched Brazilian military mindset is key to Amazon policy: Expert”, Mongabay, 26 October, 2020
  • 107 Watts, J and Roch, , “Brazil’s ‘lost report’ into genocide surfaces after 40 years”, The Guardian, 29 May, 2013
  • 108 Ibid
  • 109 Brazil Indigenous group sues Bolsonaro at ICC for ‘genocide’”, Al Jazeera, August 9, 2021
  • 110 a b Reuters, ‘Dispute over COVID-19 deaths pits indigenous Brazilians against gov't’, 6 May 2021.
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