Amid political turmoil in Brazil, what will become of indigenous rights?

by Luiz Carlos Joels
Tuesday, 31 May 2016 10:38 GMT

A Brazilian Indian boy draws on the ground during a protest where Indians from various parts of Brazil occupy the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia April 16, 2013. They are protesting against a proposed constitutional amendment which gives power to Congress, rather than the Executive Branch, to decide on the demarcation of indigenous lands and reserves in Brazil. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino (BRAZIL - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY CIVIL UNREST)

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What can Indigenous Peoples in Brazil expect from these times of rapid political change and constant turmoil? Is it possible that the new interim government will reverse the damaging trends of the previous government - now removed from power, waiting for an impeachment trial? Or is it likely that it will be business as usual, or even worse?

Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Brazil have been going through the worst phase since the end of military rule in the 1980s: their leaders are murdered and arrested with impunity, demarcation of Indigenous Peoples’ lands in the country are at a 30-year low, and hydroelectric plants continue to be planned in indigenous territory despite the controversies surrounding the Belo Monte dam. 

This may come as a surprise to some, as just a decade ago Brazil was leading the way in securing rights for Indigenous Peoples. Brazil was one of the first to include protections for indigenous rights in its constitution, and to ratify International Labour Organization Convention No. 169, which gives Indigenous Peoples the right to be consulted before the implementation of any projects that affect their livelihood. Brazil has also titled over 191 million hectares of indigenous land, or around 23 percent of the country, but titling activity dropped sharply in recent years. 

Dilma Rousseff´s government systematically sought to dismantle protections for Indigenous Peoples’ lands and territories, and violence against Indigenous Peoples has grown significantly, often as a result of conflicts over land. Global Witness reported that at least 454 people have been killed for environmental activism and advocacy for Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Brazil since 2002. The failure to adequately address this issue is a step backwards for human rights, forest conservation, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

Is it likely that the new interim government of Brazil will reverse this trend? Times of change can create an atmosphere of hope, and there are people in the interim government that are earnestly concerned with Indigenous People´s rights. However, there are forces within Congress – and also in the interim government - who seek to weaken indigenous rights. They are pressing for the approval of legislation that establishes more flexible rules for mining on Indigenous Peoples’ lands and makes it more difficult to recognize indigenous territories by putting the final decision in the hands of Congress. They also talk about reversing the creation of some indigenous territories, although this is unlikely to be approved by the Supreme Court. Over the last decade, these groups have learned to organize politically and have successfully bartered their votes in exchange for Dilma Rousseff´s abandonment of indigenous rights.

These are concerning times, but I can see a better path forward for us. I can see a path where we respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in doing so protect the largest rainforest on earth. For the past 11 years, the MegaFlorestais group – which includes leaders of forest ministries representing 65 percent of the world’s forests – has gathered to discuss forest management. We have learned what works and what doesn’t. Forests are critical to the battle against climate change, but they are under greater pressure than ever from illegal logging, industrial pressures, corruption, competing claims, and a changing climate. 

Addressing these issues – and promoting economic investment, sustainability, and social equality – requires forest governance to go beyond government. In order to address poverty and environmental issues, we need to engage local communities and Indigenous Peoples in decisions that affect them and their lands. It will be impossible to conserve the world’s forests without securing the rights of the peoples who have managed them for centuries. Our agencies therefore had to learn collaborative approaches, which have been test driven in Mexico, Nepal, and the United States. 

I have seen first-hand the impact that secure community rights can have. When I was the Director of the Brazilian Forest Service – and indeed throughout my career in forestry – I saw Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities with legal rights to their territory successfully protect, preserve, sustainably manage, and even restore their forests, particularly in the Amazon. Brazil’s slide backwards in terms of indigenous rights is a significant lost opportunity, as research demonstrates that secure rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities is a key solution to climate change by way of forest conservation. Where the forest tenure of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities has been secured in the Brazilian Amazon, the deforestation rate is 11 times lower than in non-community forests, and carbon storage is therefore much higher. 

With the climate change agreement in Paris, governments have made a stronger commitment than ever to tackle climate change. But new research reveals that Brazil – along with 167 other countries around the world – has failed to include a significant focus on community tenure in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which will determine how it approaches climate change mitigation and adaptation. Brazil knows the impact of securing indigenous rights – the world’s most forested countries all know this – so now is the time to move forward with protecting indigenous rights, not to dismantle the progress the country has made. 

This is a time of political change in Brazil, fast and furious, but the battle is long from over. This week, one of the most active adversaries of indigenous rights, Senator Romero Jucá, resigned his post as Minister of Planning after only 10 days, amid a corruption scandal. I still have hope that the current trends on Indigenous Peoples’ rights will be reversed. I can’t see a better way for us Brazilians to respect human rights, or contribute to the battle against climate change.

Dr. Luiz Carlos Joels is an experienced forester with a Ph.D. in geography. He has worked for over 30 years in the Brazilian Amazon on issues relating to forests, traditional communities, the environment, rural development, science and technology. He was previously employed by the Amazonas State Agricultural Extension Company, World Wildlife Fund, the Brazilian Institute for Research in the Amazon, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Brazilian Forest Service, where he served as director. Dr. Joels has also participated in National Councils on the environment, forests, biodiversity, Agenda 21 and deforestation control. He resides in Rio de Janeiro where he works as an independent consultant and volunteers with Amazonian NGOs.