Director and Professor of the Intercultural Indigenous Faculty of UFGD
Belonging to the Guarani and Kaiowá people
Matheus de Carvalho Hernandez
Professor of International Relations and Master in Borders and Human Rights
Head of the Office of International Affairs at UFGD
Brazilian indigenous people are in desperate need. Suffering from a lack of food, medical care, education, and access to public services, they are victims of the justice system's racism and their lands have been devastated by vested interests. They face a formidable challenge in confronting influential reactionary groups who have convenient connections to those in power.
Certainly, when reading this sad description, the reader may think of the inhumane situation of the Yanomami, which Brazil and the world have been watching in horror since the beginning of 2023. Regrettably, the Yanomami predicament represents merely the most apparent manifestation of a pervasive structural challenge confronting the majority of Brazil's indigenous populations. It is crucial to note that when we use the term "Brazilian indigenous peoples," we do so deliberately to underscore the fact that there are indigenous communities facing similar adversities to the Yanomami, and who are dispersed throughout Brazil, not solely confined to the Amazon region, which has historically received greater global scrutiny.
The situation, for example, of the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul is also perilous and cruel. This reality is the result of the historic violence and extermination imposed by colonizers and by non-indigenous occupation fronts in the region, which is today considered a border (with Paraguay). At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the trend in regional development was extermination disguised as a “civilizing project." Because of this, reserves were split up into small areas so that traditional lands could be cleared to make room for non-indigenous settlers. The government demarcated eight reserves, totaling 3600 hectares, a very small space to house large indigenous populations, who quickly felt the difficulties of surviving in the reserves.
It became hard for the native people of the area to find places where they could live with respect and according to their own customs. Furthermore, these small reserves never offered enough resources to feed themselves and live a full life. Additionally, quick contact with the surrounding communities led to labor exploitation, epidemics, misery, and many other difficulties were imposed.
Consequently, in the late 1970s, the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples initiated a movement to reclaim their ancestral lands, known as "retomada." The areas of this “retomada” movement are where indigenous families can settle in a planned manner and inhabit portions of the land that they were compelled to vacate earlier in the 20th century. However, these reclaimed territories have often witnessed egregious violations of indigenous rights, with leaders facing persecution and even murder, which periodically gain the attention of both Brazilian and global media outlets.
The systematic murder of numerous traditional leaders among indigenous peoples in Brazil has regrettably been met with a marked lack of attention from the Brazilian justice system. This disconcerting trend has engendered an atmosphere wherein various forms of violence against indigenous peoples, including the Guarani and Kaiowá communities, are increasingly normalized. A prime example of this is found in the city of Dourados, which ranks as the second-most important city in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul and is a key center of Brazilian agribusiness. Notably, Dourados also hosts the largest indigenous reserve in Brazil. Unfortunately, local businesses are known to mistreat and neglect indigenous peoples, who are commonly perceived as potential thieves or beggars.
Indigenous communities residing in Mato Grosso do Sul, and indeed, in many other Brazilian states, face a troubling lack of attention from local and state public authorities. As a result, these communities are deprived of access to essential services, including paved roads, potable water, sanitation, and adequate housing, which has contributed significantly to an increase in diseases such as dysentery and malnutrition, especially among children. For example, in the city of Dourados, indigenous areas are encircled by monoculture plantations that cultivate crops like soybeans, corn, and sugarcane, utilizing pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides, all in the pursuit of enhancing productivity for the international market. Such practices cause significant environmental detriments and have a direct impact on families, as springs and other sources of water are contaminated by agrochemicals, posing a threat to the drinking water and food preparation needs of indigenous peoples.
The traditional faiths of indigenous communities have likewise been subjected to systematic assault, with new non-indigenous religions, particularly those of the theo-Pentecostal persuasion, stigmatizing traditional faiths as satanic. Such religions have penetrated these communities and converted their members, often promoting extremist notions and engendering radical positions that lead to violent attacks against traditional leaders. Shockingly, in some instances, these attacks have even resulted in the incineration of so-called indigenous prayer houses. These violations are not episodic, but structural to the relationship that the Brazilian State has historically nurtured with indigenous peoples, even after the enactment of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution.
The basic rights of Brazil's native peoples are written into the country's 1988 Constitution, which includes protecting their traditional lands and showing respect for their different communities. However, these constitutional protections have historically been disregarded, even after the Constitution's adoption. It's important to keep in mind that different presidential administrations have dealt with this issue in different ways. Unfortunately, the tenure of Jair Bolsonaro (2019–2022) represented a significant setback for the rights of Brazil's native population.
Indigenous people have described the Bolsonaro government's tenure (2019-2022) as a dark period for official indigenous policy in Brazil. During this time, the government dismantled programs aimed at providing aid and promoting sustainability in indigenous territories. Institutions such as the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI) were manipulated and used by the administration to undermine indigenous rights, rather than protect them. The government also prohibited the social and collective participation of indigenous peoples in the planning and formulation of concrete actions, and appointed military personnel to manage anti-indigenous policies.
One of Bolsonaro’s campaign proposals in 2018 was to strictly adhere to not demarcating a centimeter for indigenous populations. Incidentally, made this statement during a visit to Mato Grosso do Sul, to the total satisfaction of the agribusiness sector. Bolsonaro also supported the invasion of indigenous lands in the north of the country, such as the Yanomami territory in the Amazon. But the Amazon wasn't the only biome attacked by the reformed captain's government. During his presidency, for example, he also encouraged the destruction of the Pantanal, a unique biome located in the center-west of Brazil.
In the central part of Brazil, where the Pantanal and the Cerrado – a vast tropical savanna ecoregion – are most common, indigenous people were encouraged (or threatened) to rent out their land. This was the case with the Parecis, the Guarani, and the Kaiowá. Leasing native lands for soybean farming, for example, creates a new way of organizing that is different from the old way by putting families in different ranks based on their ability to buy things.
The Brazilian government handled the COVID-19 pandemic with criminal incompetence and corruption: each village and indigenous community was left to make their own sanitation barriers to protect themselves. The federal government denied the vaccine’s efficacy and the reality of a pandemic, which made it hard for indigenous communities to believe how serious the situation was and hampered proper quarantine and isolation. Due to the slow vaccine rollout, many indigenous people in Brazil got sick and died. In response, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) asked the Federal Supreme Court to investigate Bolsonaro's genocidal actions against indigenous people. This pressure forced the government to prioritize vaccinating indigenous people.
Amid these violations, the Brazilian court was close to approving a policy that said the only lands that would be considered indigenous lands would be those where indigenous people were living in 1988, when the constitution was passed. What became known as the Time Frame Thesis was an insult to the memory of the indigenous people's ancestors, since the time frame assumes that violence and the loss of indigenous land were never a problem in the past. Also, if this thesis were true, many of the killings of indigenous leaders would be ignored. Furthermore, if this thesis were proved true, many of the killings of indigenous leaders would be ignored. In any case, the revolution is still going on in Brazil, both in the justice system and in other parts of society.
During Bolsonaro's time in office, landowners armed themselves in a way that made them a constant threat to indigenous people and prevented the retakes (retomadas) from moving forward. An example of this were the attacks by a “caveirão” tractor mounted by landowners in Dourados, a case that also gained national and international repercussions. FUNAI, which could legally move forward with the process of demarcating many indigenous areas (including Guarani and Kaiowá areas that had already been declared but were not yet recognized as indigenous lands), was deliberately slowed down, making this legal process of regularizing traditional lands impossible.
Despite the numerous challenges and adversities they faced, including the hostility of the Bolsonaro government, indigenous communities in Brazil have demonstrated remarkable resilience and determination in fighting for their rights, even on a global level. They have valiantly resisted the atrocities perpetrated by the government and have implemented effective mobilization strategies and campaigns. One noteworthy example is the international "Indigenous Blood: No More Drops" campaign, spearheaded by APIB and other organizations, including those representing indigenous women. This campaign has garnered international attention and support. The movement gained traction in the national and international media, particularly after the then-Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, stated during an internal government meeting that media attention should be used to "run the cattle," which referred to a hastening of the disruption and dismantling of legislation on environmental issues such as deforestation in the Amazon and indigenous issues.
The strength of the indigenous peoples' fight could be seen, for example, in the way SESAI was taken down. During Bolsonaro's time in office, when the federal government put an army general who didn't believe in vaccines or strategic immunization policies in charge of the Ministry of Health, indigenous people took to the streets to protest. In Mato Grosso do Sul, for example, the Guarani and Kaiowá blocked highways and showed up in large numbers on social media to protest the dismantling of SESAI and FUNAI.
Many nationally and internationally renowned artists, such as DJ Alok, began collaborating with indigenous artists to create indigenous music videos to make the agenda more visible to Brazilian society in general. The indigenous rap group Brô MC’s, from Dourados, performed on large stages, such as at Rock in Rio. As the young indigenous woman Txai Surui pointed out at COP26, once it aligned with global efforts to promote climate change mitigation and the safeguarding of indigenous lands through demarcation and defense, the Brazilian indigenous agenda secured international backing.
Throughout Bolsonaro's tenure as president, indigenous communities in Brazil fought back on a global scale against the government's aggressive actions, which contradicted the country's constitution and various international human rights treaties. These efforts included numerous events held at the United Nations in both Geneva and New York, as well as in the Inter-American System of Human Rights, the European Parliament, and at embassies and consulates worldwide. The plight of Brazil's indigenous peoples received widespread attention in newspapers across the globe, with frequent coverage of the systematic violation of their fundamental rights.
A small but interesting sample of this relentless incidence among Brazilian indigenous peoples can be seen in the number of recommendations made on the subject in the most recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN that Brazil underwent at the end of last year. The UPR is a way for the UN Human Rights Council to help countries talk to each other about how to improve human rights in the country under review. Of the more than three hundred recommendations received by Brazil, almost fifty dealt with indigenous rights and came from countries in all regions of the world. This demonstrates how the struggle and articulations of Brazilian indigenous peoples reverberated around the world.
Indigenous struggles and movements did, in fact, generate national and international repercussions and forced indigenous issues into Brazilian party politics during the disputed 2022 elections, even if they fell far short of what was necessary and desired. Two indigenous people were elected, one from São Paulo, Sônia Guajajara, and the other from Minas Gerais, Célia Xakriabá. These victories signal the beginning of a new era in the fight against indigenous disenfranchisement, in the rebuilding of indigenous policy in the country, and in the way Brazilian society sees native people. Sônia Guajarara, for example, was elected by the most populous state in the country with many votes, suggesting that many non-indigenous people support the indigenous issue, either because of their inclination towards the agenda specifically or because more and more voters are concerned about the environmental and climatic reality of Brazil.
These indigenous struggles and articulations were an essential part of the anti-Bolsonaro movement built in the 2022 presidential election, from which Lula emerged victorious. When the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT) candidate won, it was clear that the democratic parts of Brazilian society had their hopes dashed. Indigenous struggles and expressions were essential in the formation of the alliance that defeated far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil's 2022 presidential election. The election results demonstrated that the victory of Lula, the Workers' Party candidate, did not necessarily translate into immediate relief for all marginalized communities, including indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities' struggles have persisted despite their involvement in the anti-Bolsonaro movement. Their fight for land ownership, cultural preservation, and fundamental human rights is continuing and will need the dedication of many in Brazilian society for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it can be argued that indigenous peoples are no exception to the challenges facing Brazilian democracy, as they still face serious barriers to achieving equality, justice, and recognition of their rights as citizens of Brazil.
There is indeed something to celebrate initially. Lula created a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, which had never been done before, and put the newly elected federal deputy Sônia Guajajara in charge of it. He also put an indigenous person in charge of FUNAI for the first time in history, Joenia Wapichana. But what can we expect from this new ministry, and what should be its attributions and priorities?
The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples must seek, firstly, the reconstruction of indigenous policies that were destroyed by the past government, while also rearticulating the inclusion of indigenous peoples in their ethnic, age, regional, and gender diversity in the management of these policies. The constitutional guarantees of indigenous school education, health care, and social assistance are some of the priorities that must be headed by the newly created Ministry, not necessarily as an executor of such policies but rather as an official actor to claim such policies within the federal administration. Also, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples shouldn't be afraid to talk with international investors in an assertive way. It should remind them, especially European and North American investors, of their roles in the production and consumption chains that end up hurting territories and indigenous people. The expectation, therefore, in relation to the new ministry but also to the new federal government is that a policy system be structured with the knowledge and capacity to deal with the diversity of indigenous peoples and their respective demands and rights.
It is crucial for the new government, through its ministries like the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, to be able to set up a sustainable territorial management system that protects indigenous peoples and their lands from invaders like miners and loggers in the Amazon instead of attacking or ignoring them. But another fundamental issue is not necessarily linked to the Amazon alone; that is, it concerns the demarcation of the traditional territories of non-Amazonian Brazilian peoples, such as the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, cited here several times.
Regardless of the official role of the ministry and public authorities in general, there is something that the Brazilian indigenous peoples have always taught us – and have continued to teach us even following the adversity of the Bolsonaro government – we need to keep the flame of struggle burning not “only” for indigenous rights, but for the survival of democracy, humanity, and the planet.