• Indigenous peoples in Brazil

    Indigenous peoples in Brazil

    There are 896.917 indigenous persons in Brazil, distributed among 305 ethnic groups.The main challenge for indigenous people is the threat that new indigenous territories will no longer be established. Permissiveness prevails with hydroelectric and mining companies that directly or indirectly affect indigenous territory.
  • Land rights

    13.8% of the lands in the country have been reserved for indigenous peoples. The majority of these territories are concentrated in the Amazon.
  • Climate

    Permissiveness prevails with hydroelectric and mining companies that directly or indirectly affect indigenous territories. There is also an attempt to gradually deactivate the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) by cutting its financing and its strategic personnel.
  • Governance

    In addition to suffering the slow pace of fulfilment of their rights, now the indigenous peoples are the target of systematic, violent attacks by the Democratic Association of Ruralists (UDR) and by transnational companies that have been granted mining or timber concessions.

Indigenous World 2019: Brazil

According to the 2010 census of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, the Brazilian indigenous population is 896,917 indigenous persons, distributed among 305 ethnic groups, who speak 274 languages. Among indigenous persons over the age of five, only 37.4% speak an indigenous language, while 76.9% speak Portuguese.

The principal indigenous ethnic group is the Tikúna, who comprise 6.8% of the total indigenous population. Approximately, 502,783 live in rural zones and 315,180 in urban zones.1 Currently there are some 713 indigenous areas, with a total area of 117,387,341 ha. This means that 13.8% of the lands in the country have been reserved for indigenous peoples. The majority of these territories are concentrated in the Amazon: 419 areas forming 115,342,101 ha, which represent 23% of the Amazon territory and 98.33% of indigenous lands. The remaining 1.67% is distributed in the regions of the northeast, southeast, and south in states such as Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás.2

Brazil is the South American country with the largest known concentration of indigenous peoples in isolation, principally in the states of Amapá, Acre, Amazonas, Amapá, Acre, Amazonas, Goiás, Maranhao, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima and Tocantins. At present, there are 69 records of the presence of indigenous peoples in isolation in the Amazon region. The Constitution of 1988 recognizes the indigenous peoples as the first and natural owners of the land and guarantees them their right to land. Exploration and extraction of mineral wealth on indigenous lands must be carried out solely with authorization from the National Congress after listening to the communities involved, who must be guaranteed participation in the benefits of the mining activities. Eviction of indigenous peoples from their lands is prohibited. Brazil has signed ILO Convention 169, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007), and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2016).

Indigenous Lands

Of 566 indigenous lands in the country, 44 have been demarcated, 73 have been declared, 13 have been homologated and 433 have been registered. There are 115-interdicted areas.3 During the 1980s, the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, started the process to recognise indigenous lands through a framework of policies concerning national integration and consolidation. The consolidation efforts have targeted communities along the north and northwestern borders of Brazil.

In the 1990s, the legal framework for the demarcation of indigenous lands in Amazonia, as well as for the Yanomami tribe (AM/RR) and the people living in the Raposa Serra do Sol (RR) territory, was established. In other regions of the country, the indigenous communities managed to retain titles to their lands in small and isolated areas, many of which were recognized by the Indian Protection Service (SPI) between 1910 and 1967. These lands were appointed as indigenous reserves. There are 50 such reserves located in the northeastern, southwestern and southern regions, and in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. In the Dourados reserve, in Mato Grosso do Sul, 18,000 people live on 3,560 hectares. The limited size of the reserve negatively affects the indigenous and their livelihoods. Despite constitutional recognition of the demarcation process, and Brazil’s ratification of ILO 169, efforts to demarcate and protect indigenous lands have faltered.4

Over the last 20 years, demarcation procedures have decreased. Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB) has published a statement, which notes that one of the major obstacles for demarcation of indigenous lands is the influence exerted by the congressional rural caucus:

The Parliamentary Rural Assembly, the congressional majority numbering 162 representatives and 11 senators, represents the interests of the corporations and private land-owners in the country, a R$ 440 billion (US$ 118 million) agricultural and livestock business. Most of the congress members in this assembly are also owners of large extensions of land and their campaigns are financed by agroindustry corporations linked to several legislation proposals that restrict the rights of the indigenous communities and criminalize rural reform.5

During the last 20 years, indigenous peoples in Brazil have experienced an escalation of attacks from the rural evangelical caucus, aimed at preventing the demarcation of indigenous lands. From the election of President Lula in 2003, there has been a steady decline in the demarcation of indigenous lands. The administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso demarcated 175 indigenous areas between 1995 and 2002; Lula demarcated 87 from 2003 to 2010; while Dilma Roussef managed only 11 demarcations during her term in office from 2011-2016. Michel Temer did not demarcate any lands during his term from 2016 to 2019.6

Situation of the indigenous communities in  2018

Michel Temer served for two years before a new election was called in October of 2018. On 1 January 2019, the new President, Jair Bolsonaro, the candidate of the evangelical caucus and a former captain of the Brazilian Army, took office.

Temer’s term was plagued by reports of corruption and a major economic crisis. Brazil suffered an unemployment rate of 11.9%7 and disappointing growth. Several corruption scandals involving governmental agencies, business-people and other entities also contributed to the country’s troubled situation. Corruption remains a major hurdle for the indigenous population of Brazil, as it is considered pervasive throughout the public and private sectors.

Even though Temer’s presidency was short, severe consequences followed. His agenda and policies were openly in contradiction with the Constitution of 1988 and the two international conventions ratified by Brazil.8 In 2017, Temer released Opinion No. 001/2017 of the Office of the Attorney General of the Union (AGU), an achievement of the rural caucus that makes the demarcation of indigenous lands unfeasible. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) strongly opposed the opinion. Other measures were adopted by the administration, including the addition of a “time frame” applied in relation to demarcation procedures. According to the rural caucus, only those communities who possessed their land by 5 October 1988, the enactment date of the Constitution, would have a legal claim to the land.

Besides challenging existing land rights laws and precedents, the administration has acted to dismantle the federal agency directly involved in the indigenous land demarcation process, known as FUNAI. In 2018, it received a small budgetary increase – a symbolic gesture, as it does not provide sufficient budget to continue operations. Further, action was taken to influence budget allocation.9 It is estimated that 72% of FUNAI’s budget was allocated to personnel expenses (active and retired, including benefits), 12% to the agency’s structure maintenance and 2% to payment liabilities. Only 14% (US$ 22 million) of the budget is left to support its mandated activities.10

According to Márcio Santilli, former chairman of FUNAI, “This country is suffering the collapse of its democratic system and the indigenous people are suffering the most due to the open attack on their rights.” Dinaman Tuxá, a coordinating member of Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (API), agrees with Santilli, stating that, “This is even more clear since it is known that there exist demarcation procedures which have been completed, no formalities pending, and the government shows no sign of political intent to drive them forward.”11

There is a severe risk of a deterioration of the constitutional rights of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. The government has also threatened to grant access to lands traditionally inhabited by indigenous communities and black communities (also known as quilombolas) to commercial exploitation. To do so, it has indicated that it may revise and even revoke the reports, declaratory ordinances and the indigenous lands homologations which were agreed under the administration of Dilma Rousseff.

The Tierra Libre Camp of 2018 (23-26 April), is the most relevant annual indigenous demonstration in Brasilia. It provides a significant framework for the revindication of the rights of indigenous communities, advocating against the threats posed by the rural, extractivist and mining caucuses. More than three thousand indigenous people, on behalf of over 100 villages, approved a final document that they titled: “Our clamor against the genocide of our people,” which calls for:

  • The immediate revocation, effective immediately, of AGU/Temer Opinion 001/2017.
  • Revocation, effective immediately, of the 95th amendment to the Constitution, whereby the public budget is fixed for the next 20 years; immediate carrying out of the necessary measures to repel invaders from already demarked indigenous lands and effective protection thereof.
  • Demarcation and protection of all indigenous lands, in particular, the lands of uncontacted and recently contacted communities, by institutionally strengthening the
  • Budget allocation, enough resources to enforce the Brazilian Policy for Territorial and Environmental Management of Indigenous Lands12 and other social
  • Basic health care for our people through the Special Indigenous Health
  • A separate quality education policy for our
  • Dismissal of all bills and proposed pieces of legislation adverse to our people and lands.
  • Guarantees from different instances of the Judiciary that the fundamental rights of our people will be
  • That violence, criminalization and discrimination against our people and its leaders will come to an end, by ensuring punishment for those responsible for such behaviour and compensation of all damages caused.
  • Enforcement of the international treaties entered into by Brazil, in particular the ILO 13


The rights of indigenous peoples and quilombolas are constantly threatened. These threats are based on the rationale that indigenous peoples represent a setback for the country’s development in economic, social and cultural aspects.

Current President Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign was marked by rhetoric and actions which served to attack and disregard the rights of indigenous communities. During his campaign, he made the following statement which strongly reflects his assimilationist approach:

The indian [indio (pt)] wants to become part of the society. I was played a dirty trick by some sectors of the media. I will repeat it here. The indians want electricity, physicians, dentists, Internet, and they want to play soccer. They want what we want. [...] Here in Brazil, some people advocate to keep the Indian in reserves as if they were animals in a zoo. I do not want that. I want to treat the indians as human beings and citizens.14

In response to this statement, Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB) released a detailed letter:

We do not accept to be treated as inferior beings, as your Excellency’s statements seem to suggest. We are only different, and it is the Federal Government’s obligation, according to the Constitution, to respect our “social organization, customs, languages, beliefs and traditions” (article 231 of the Constitution). Therefore, we repudiate your disparaging and limited view in considering us as zoo animals […] Mr. President, over the last few days, the media has broadcasted a number of statements by you about the indigenous issue, including statements that damage the image and the dignity of our people and communities, which are a deep concern to us since they show disregard for our constitutional rights on one hand, and an assimilationist indigenism, retrograde, authoritarian, judgmental, discriminating, racist and integrationist view which had been banished from our country for more than 30 years by the Constitution of 1988.15

It is clear that the current president has an integrationist policy in mind. He has repeatedly called into question the lawfulness of legislation which recognises indigenous peoples and their rights. The administration continues to unconstitutionally threaten the demarcation procedures of indigenous lands, including those which have previously been enacted, and its rhetoric serves to justify prejudice and discrimination against indigenous communities by accusing them of being an obstacle that hinders the country’s progress.16

Bolsonaro visited Mato Grosso do Sul, the state covering the third largest indigenous population in Brazil, where the greatest territorial conflicts between indigenous communities and non-indigenous landowners have taken place. There, he visited Dourados, Brazil’s most populated indigenous reserve, where he made the following statement:

Non-governmental organizations and the Government incite the indian into conflict. If I take over the presidency of the Republic, there will not be another centimeter for demarcation. In Bolivia, we have an indian who is president, why do they need land here?17

The outlook for the future is dire. Indigenous organisations view this administration and its rhetorical approach to indigenous rights as one of the worst crises of disrespect and deterioration of human rights.

Notes and references

  1. Government of Brazil, ”No Brasil, população indígena é de 896,9 ” Available at: http://bit.ly/2Et2QHX
  2. See Povos Indígenas no Brasil, ”Demarcações.” Availabe at: http://bit. ly/2EusfBh
  3. Anthropological, historical, agricultural, mapping and environmental studies are being conducted to justify the identification and demarcation of indigenous lands. Demarcated lands are published in the Official Gazette. They are under analysis by the Ministry of Justice for issuance of a Declaratory Ordinance to establish traditional indigenous occupation. Declared lands have obtained the issuance of the Declaratory Decree by the Minister of Justice and are authorized to be demarcated physically, with the materialization of landmarks and georeferencing. Homologated lands have their limits materialized and georeferenced, whose administrative demarcation was approved by Presidential decree. Registered lands that were registered before a notary public on behalf of the country in the Asset Department of the Union after gaining approved status. Interdicted lands are subject to use and access restrictions to protect isolated indigenous communities. See FUNAI, at: http://ly/2EqB0w4
  4. FUNAI, 2014. ”Bases Legais.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2ErPpYS
  5. Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do “PEC 215.” Available at: http://bit. ly/2EuR1RT
  6. Instituto
  7. See Government of Brazil, ”Desemprego cai para 11,9% no terceiro trimestre de 2018, aponta IBGE.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2Eli5Te
  8. International Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal
  9. See INESC , ”Orçamento 2018: Funai respira, mas não se recupera.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2EpckUD
  10. See INESC, ”Direitos Indígenas: entre desmontes, oportunismos e resistência.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2EuunJh
  11. See Instituto Socioambiental, ”Com pior desempenho em demarcações desde 1985, Temer tem quatro Terras Indígenas para ” Available at: http:// bit.ly/2EuLPNx
  12. The GATI Project (2006) was funded by the Global Environment Fund for conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use of forests (US$ 6 million+ national contribution). Available at: http://bit.ly/2EqBP88
  13. For full statement, see “Agradecimentos pelo apoio ao ATL 2018,” available at: http://bit.ly/2Tb8Krw
  14. See Brasil de Fato, ”Povos Indígenas a Bolsonaro: “Não Admitimos Ser Tratados Como Seres Inferiores.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2Et9OwH
  15. See Folha De S. Paulo, ”Bolsonaro e índios: erros do presidente eleito sobre Funai e reservas.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2EqAIp1
  16. See Dourados News, “Bolsonaro: ‘Se eu assumir, índio não terá mais 1cm de terra’.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2Ep9dw6


María de Lourdes Beldi de Alcántara is an anthropologist and a visiting professor at the department of Medical Anthropology of the São Paulo Medical School. She also coordinates the Support Group to the Guarani Youth of Mato Grosso do Sul (Grupo de Apoyo a la juventud Guaraní del Mato Grosso del Sur, GAPK/AJI).



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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