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The Amazon rainforest is under threat by the policies implemented by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Over half of the greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil are attributed to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which is crucial to the absorption of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Under Bolsonaro’s government, the widespread activities of illegal logging and the burning of Indigenous lands have made agricultural and mining projects easier to expand. 

Bolsonaro has continuously enacted policies that weaken environmental regulations and prevent Indigenous communities from receiving federal recognition of their territories. To justify the destruction of the Amazon, Bolsonaro has repeated the narrative that Indigenous peoples should be removed from their ancestral homelands or assimilated into Brazilian society, despite the evidence of many uncontacted Indigenous tribes. This rhetoric is reminiscent of the Portuguese colonial legacy in Brazil and the argument by colonial powers that Indigenous lands would be better put to use by private landowners and companies. 

Weakening Environmental Regulations

Bolsonaro has been vocal about his stance on environmental issues through his use of rhetoric that discredits the work of environmental organizations and denounces the efforts of civil society activists. He has maintained the opinion that “native Brazilians have too much land” and perceives Indigenous territories as “an obstacle to agri-business.” This rhetoric has encouraged criminal networks to log the rainforest illegally and consequently has provoked violence against Indigenous land defenders. Similarly, Bolsonaro has advocated for increasing mining operations on Indigenous lands to exploit the mineral wealth from the Amazon to alleviate poverty. However, there is clear evidence that illegal mining activities leak contaminated substances into the ground, soil, and water, posing significant health risks for Indigenous communities forced to consume contaminated water and food sources. 

Justice Cármen Lúcia, a judge on the Brazilian Supreme Court, argued that Bolsonaro’s environmental policies caused an “unconstitutional state of affairs” for the climate crisis. Since assuming office in 2019, Bolsonaro has approved 57 acts of legislation which decrease the scale of environmental protections. Furthermore, under Bolsonaro, the number of invasions and illegal seizures of Indigenous lands has tripled. Although the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) invested 82.5m Brazilian Real to monitor the Amazon and prevent the incursion of Indigenous lands, their money did little to achieve that. Bolsonaro has repeatedly threatened to cut funding to FUNAI, going as far as cutting the government’s environmental spending by 24%. 

Making Indigenous Communities Disappear

Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of fighting climate change in Brazil, confronting vast criminal networks that seek to strip Indigenous communities from their land without governmental protection. In doing this, land rights defenders and their families face great danger and often receive death threats or are killed for opposing deforestation efforts. Over 300 people were killed in the past decade over land conflicts within the Amazon. However, perpetrators of these threats and murders are rarely ever convicted.

One avenue that Indigenous activists have taken to protect their ancestral lands from illegal loggers and corporate interests is to have them legally demarcated. Demarcation is the process that enables Indigenous peoples to establish their legal right to a territory of land within Brazil. The purpose of demarcation is twofold: to reduce deforestation through regulations that protect the environment, and to preserve Indigenous cultures. However, due to its lengthy and restrictive bureaucratic process, many Indigenous territories have not yet been officially demarcated. Presently, these lands hang in limbo and are legally unprotected from being seized by outsiders.

In 2020, FUNAI issued Normative Instruction 9, a regulation that enables private landowners to obtain property certificates for territories so long as they are not federally demarcated as Indigenous land. This regulation meant that any regions which were not yet demarcated would be at risk of invasion and appropriation by private landowners. In December 2021, FUNAI established that it would not protect any lands that had not yet received demarcation. Thankfully, the Brazilian Supreme Court revoked this decision, arguing that it would invite more illegal loggers and ranchers to invade the land without consequence. 

Currently, over 200 Indigenous territories in Brazil have initiated the demarcation process, but they have not yet been finalized. As promised by Bolsonaro, no new Indigenous territories have been demarcated by his government. The current legislation prioritizes the wealth of extractive businesses over the preservation of Indigenous livelihood and environmental conservation, confirming Bolsonaro’s attempt to erase Indigenous peoples from the Brazilian Amazon.

Violence against Uncontacted Tribes

Another path to legal protection for Indigenous territories is to obtain a Land Protection Order (LPO). LPOs temporarily prevent external groups from seizing land in the process of official demarcation. However, LPOs regularly expire and upon each renewal are often contested by powerful agriculture and mining businesses. Presently, LPOs protect the territories of seven uncontacted tribes and 1 million hectares of rainforest. 

Over one hundred uncontacted tribes in the Amazon intentionally isolate themselves from mainstream Brazilian society; however, only 28 are officially recognized by FUNAI. Activists fear that the increasing invasions of Indigenous territories will remove these communities entirely. There are currently two men left from the Indigenous Piripkura community who reside on their ancestral territory in Mato Grosso state. Since their first contact with non-Indigenous settlers in the 1980s, this community has been resisting the illegal encroachment of loggers and ranchers. Out of all of the Indigenous territories within Brazil, Piripkura land has been the most deforested

Similarly, the Ituna Itatá territory is threatened by encroachment. There is interest within the government to delegate these lands for private profit. Zequinha Marinho, a senator with connections to mining and ranching lobbyists, requested that Bolsonaro not renew the LPO that protects the Ituna Itatá territory. He has repeatedly defended illegal loggers and land grabbers operating on Indigenous lands and has likened climate change to “folklore.” Known as the “ruralist caucus”, almost half of the sitting senators and deputies are connected to the “ruralist” lobby of agribusiness, logging, and mining. These officials aim to expose the uncontacted tribe to invaders to legitimize the exploitation of their resource-rich lands. 

Brazil’s Colonial Legacy 

The rhetoric employed by Brazilian officials mirrors the Doctrine of Discovery implemented by Portuguese colonists upon their arrival in the Americas to justify their claims to Indigenous lands. Under public international law, the Doctrine of Discovery allowed colonial powers to acquire terra nullius, lands perceived as vacant but inhabited by Indigenous communities. Under colonial rule, the doctrine was the foundation for Indigenous genocide and justified the dispossession of the people who lived on these lands for centuries. 

Similarly, Bolsonaro’s government and FUNAI, the agency that is supposed to protect Indigenous peoples in Brazil, view the Amazon the same way Portuguese colonists did – as a land without people that can be put to better use by more “civilized” societies to create profitable industries and economic growth. Bolsonaro aims to make Indigenous communities disappear from the Amazon completely. He has repeated violent rhetoric towards Indigenous peoples in Brazil, including a 1998 statement that it was a “shame that the Brazilian cavalry hadn’t been as efficient as the American one, which exterminated the Indians.” 

The 2022 Brazilian Elections

Fortunately, the issues of climate change and Indigenous land rights are on the table for the Brazilian elections taking place this year. Brazilians will have the opportunity to elect leaders that prioritize environmental policies and the protection of Indigenous territories. The first round of voting on October 2, 2022, resulted in a relatively equal split between right-wing President Bolsonaro and the former left-wing President Lula da Silva. Surprisingly, Bolsonaro outperformed the polls, demonstrating the strength of the far-right across the country and reinvigorating his base of voters – Evangelical Christians, agriculture businesses, and the mining industry. 

The second round of voting, taking place on October 30 will be crucial as environmental and Indigenous activists fight to elect a government that will enact environmental policies and protect Indigenous sovereignty. Without legislative and legal protection, there is a risk that we will witness the genocide of Indigenous communities and entire cultures within the Amazon.

Edited by Bethlehem Samson

Alex Senchyna

Alex (she/they) recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with a B.A. in International Studies and History and currently works in refugee resettlement. Their interests include human rights law, migration...