Will Brazil’s Bolsonaro protect more than 100 uncontacted indigenous communities?

Members of an uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian state of Acre in 2012. Image courtesy of Agência de Notícias do Acre.Members of an uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian state of Acre in 2012. Image courtesy of Agência de Notícias do Acre.

Protecting the environment is becoming the subject of a strong domestic debate in Brazil—especially after two recent dam disasters raised questions about how to achieve economic development while preserving natural resources and protecting rural populations. On that account, the country’s new far-right government has given mixed signals, struggling to reconcile its business-friendly rhetoric with the need for stricter environmental standards. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church prepares for its Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, to take place Oct. 6 through 27.

Challenges to a comprehensive plan for Brazil’s environmental ambitions include the presence of a significant indigenous population—a 2010 national census found that some 817,000 Brazilians fit that description. They are gathered in more than 300 indigenous communities, mostly located in Brazil’s vast Center-North.

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The number of uncontacted indigenous groups among these hundreds of communities is probably larger than most people imagine. The country still has more than 100 indigenous tribes that have remained isolated from modern civilization—uncontacted—either by their own choice or simply because they have not yet been directly approached by people from Brazil’s European-descent or pardo, as people of mixed racial origins are known here, communities. Members of activist, religious and scientific institutions monitoring uncontacted peoples worry about the preservation of their rights and lands and, above all, their survival.

The country’s National Foundation for the Indigenous (Funai), a government agency, is organizing the largest expedition in 20 years aiming to make contact with isolated groups. The journey will begin at the Javari Valley on the extreme west of Amazonas State.

The bureau estimates that there are 107 isolated tribes, but the figure has been increasing as new expeditions are undertaken and technology improves over the years. The Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), linked to the country’s Catholic bishops conference, calculates there are 112 uncontacted peoples.

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For many of these small groups, remaining uncontacted is a survival strategy.

Fiona Watson, advocacy and research director of Survival International, notes that researchers have verified the existence of 20 to 40 communities of uncontacted natives in Brazil; these are the ones considered in public policies. For the nonverified tribes, there is merely evidence or signs of their existence. “Their situation often varies, but usually the uncontacted or recently contacted groups are very reduced in number,” she says.

Survival International is an advocacy group workingon behalf of tribal people all over the globe. For many of these small groups, remaining uncontacted is a survival strategy. The gradual expansion of Western society onto their lands in Brazil—through the construction of highways, agriculture fields, and wood and mineral extraction efforts—has destroyed most of the subsistence agriculture these previously isolated communities relied upon. The encroachments have transmitted diseases to which they were not immune. Disease outbreaks also occur when religious groups informally break in to isolated communities to assist or evangelize the tribes.

Some uncontacted groups are composed of survivors and descendants of tribes that had otherwise been annihilated or communities that had been enslaved by colonizers. “Since the 1970s there was an enormous wave of colonization in those regions, and this has had a huge impact on indigenous peoples. The number of uncontacted peoples is higher where there was less deforestation,” Ms. Watson notes. In these areas, she says, the uncontacted indigenous communities are less likely to be subjected to violent attacks from individuals seeking to exploit their land, some hired by mining and agricultural interests, which she described as “genocidal.”

In the past, it was part of Brazil’s public policy to force contact with indigenous peoples in order to restrict their habitation to land assigned by the government. “These tribes know that, historically, contact with white people has brought them problems.”

Uncontacted peoples are defined as not having “entered into a sustained relationship” with neighboring tribes or the national society, Ms. Watson continues. “You can have sporadic contacts, even with the use of translators. But that doesn’t really constitute contact. Every uncontacted tribe in the world—and that includes those of other places, like in India—knows there is an outside world,” she says. “These are very observant and curious people.”

Precisely because these groups are isolated and constantly threatened by farmers, miners, squatters and even hit men hired by farming or mining bosses, it is a duty of governments and the armed forces to guarantee their protection and the preservation of their culture, according to Ms. Watson. She says that these tribes have the right to remain uncontacted. Disease and violence remain their two biggest threats. Protecting against encroachment on their lands is, therefore, “fundamental.”

Some uncontacted groups are composed of survivors and descendants of tribes that had otherwise been annihilated or communities that had been enslaved by colonizers.

CIMI report clarifies that these “free peoples” can be found in different situations: living in unprotected areas and on land already set aside for indigenous groups, or sharing lands with contacted indigenous peoples. They may be settled in nature reserves or moving between countries, as their informal territories often cross borders.

According to Gilberto Vieira dos Santos, the adjunct-secretary of CIMI, the situation of indigenous peoples has improved in Brazil since 1988, when the current federal Constitution was approved. “That was the end of a tutelage system. Indigenous peoples became again protagonists of their own history,” he tells America. “Our team helps identifying uncontacted peoples, but our work includes making sure their decision to remain without contact is respected.”

However, he says that under former President Michel Temer, in 2017, the federal government determined that indigenous peoples would only have rights to a territory if they were living there before Oct. 5, 1988, the date of the promulgation of the Brazilian Constitution. That decision “legitimizes decades of violence and expulsion of many of the peoples who today seek to return to their traditional territories,” Mr. dos Santos says, adding that risks for uncontacted communities have increased over the past two years.

He also notes that the process for establishing the boundaries of protected lands for indigenous communities has always been very slow. There are five bureaucratic steps from the identification of lands to their “homologation,” the declaration that those lands actually belong to the state and, therefore, are national reserves which can be set aside for indigenous people.

“To give you an idea, lands...claimed by indigenous peoples, but without any concrete action taken by the Brazilian state, add up to around 537 [tracts]. If we consider those that have had relative progress, this number jumps to 847,” Mr. dos Santos explains. But “the demands of these peoples are still pending in most cases.”

The ascendancy of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency and his far-right administration present more challenges to grassroots advocates for uncontacted groups. At a campaign rally in 2017, Mr. Bolsonaro said: “If I become president, there will not be one square centimeter of land demarcated for indigenous reserves.” Trying to send a more conciliatory message, his environment minister, Ricardo Salles, visited a tribe in the state of Mato Grosso in February—his first time at an Amazonian site.

The president’s opinions may have legitimized invasions of indigenous lands and threats to uncontacted tribes.

Mr. Salles believes it is possible to incorporate indigenous lands into a modern production system. “We were at the Harvest Festival of the Parecis indians, who plant and produce with great skill, demonstrating that they can integrate with the agribusiness without losing their origins and traditions,” the minister posted on Twitter.

Mr. Salles’s pro-business approach has been strongly criticized by environmentalists. Meanwhile, Bento Albuquerque, Mr. Bolsonaro’s minister for mines and energy, pledges to open indigenous lands to mining interests. The affected indigenous communities will be consulted, he said, during a mining convention in Canada, but they will not have veto power over new development.

Ms. Watson worries that the overarching interest of Brazil’s new president is the review of previously set-aside lands and streamlining the process of opening protected land to private interests. At this year’s world economic forum in Davos, he tried to reconcile a pro-market approach with global sustainability concerns. “He said that to an international audience, but he keeps another discourse for a national audience. Pressure within Brazil, but also international pressure, will be important,” she says, in mitigating the president’s ambitions.

In her view, the president’s opinions may have legitimized invasions of indigenous lands and threats to uncontacted tribes.

“There is evidence that some people felt emboldened in land invasion. There has been lots of attacks,” she says, noting that Funai’s president, Franklimberg de Freitas, had to make an emergency trip to Rondonia State after an escalation of violence between indigenous Karipuna and Uru Eu Uau Uau peoples and armed squatters.

Although this is not a new problem, CIMI estimates that the invasion of indigenous lands have increased about 150 percent since Mr. Bolsonaro’s election. “There were already problems with the Karipuna and the Uru Eu Uau Uau, in Rondônia, but this year we have it with the Guajajara and the Awá Guajá, in Maranhão; the Pankararu, in Pernambuco; and several other [states],” says Mr. dos Santos. He also criticizes Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent decision to give the Agriculture Ministry the final word on land demarcation for indigenous people.

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One of the most influential institutions in the Amazon and other regions where indigenous peoples are settled, the Catholic Church has been promoting the interests of indigenous people in different ways. Since the 1960s, in the context of the Second Vatican Council, Jesuits, Salesians and laypeople have engaged in a process of inculturating the Gospel in the region. “As a church, we participate in the struggles, pains and the joy of these peoples,” Mr. dos Santos notes. CIMI was founded in 1972.

“Our presence is respectful. We prize the leading role of peoples through an interreligious, intercultural dialogue. We are a ‘church going forth,’ as Pope Francis asks us to be. This is our main job,” he says.

Every year, the Brazilian bishops’ conference launches a Lenten campaign to encourage reflection on a social issue. This year’s theme is “Fraternity and Public Policies,” and Mr. dos Santos sees an opportunity to “think about the setbacks” on public policies for indigenous peoples in recent years. He believes the church can help increase public awareness of policies that are potentially harmful to indigenous communities.

For him, the Synod on the Amazon will be a chance to highlight the value of indigenous traditions. “They should have a special place in the reflections [at the synod], since they are the first inhabitants and caregivers of [the Amazonian] biome,” he says. “Pope Francis expressed his concern and care with these peoples already in the encyclical ‘Laudato Si’,’ but also in his trip to Puerto Maldonado, after hearing them with great attention. He knows these are among the most threatened ones.”

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