Indian land rights jeopardised in Brazil


Brazilian ranchers, loggers, and local and state governments and squatters all rushed in by the April 8 deadline to file claims against Indian land rights. They were taking advantage of a federal decree on January 8 that gave anyone who thought they had the grounds to challenge Indian reserves 90 days to file a complaint with the Indian agency (FUNAI).

More than 1000 complaints relating to some 70 Indian areas have been filed. State governments in the Amazonian states of Rondonia and Para challenged all of the Indian lands open to contest within their boundaries. Rondonia, the recipient of $167 million from the World Bank for land use zoning and Indian land protection, has called for the reduction of four of its Indian areas.

And IBAMA (the Brazilian Environmental Institute), has challenged more areas (18), covering more land than any other single claimant.

Most environmentalists in Brazil hold that tropical forest in frontier areas of the Amazon is better protected in Indian areas than in conservation units, since IBAMA has approximately one guard for every 6000 square kilometres of reserves.

Land reserved for Indian use accounts for 11% of all land in Brazil. This has fuelled objections from Amazon politicians, development interests and the military, who argue that this is too much land for not enough Indians, who make up only 0.02% of the population.

Advocates of Indian reserves, including the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), respond that the 1988 constitution reserves "lands traditionally occupied" by Indians for their exclusive use in order to prevent the extermination or forced assimilation of the indigenous minority. These advocates also argue that Indian land constitutes important forest reserves in areas of rapid deforestation.

"This is an issue where those concerned with human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development find common ground", said Steve Schwartzman, visiting researcher at the ISA. "Wherever Indians have maintained control over their land, even where they have not had formal recognition, the forest has been preserved and opportunities for sustainable use of rainforest resources still remain."

The 946,000 square kilometres of Indian land in Brazil are nearly all in the Amazon region and are an area more than three times greater than all other types of protected areas put together. Even where indigenous groups have made deals with loggers and miners, as have the Kayapo of Para state, they have kept their areas forested, turning back ranchers and colonists.

There are 215 indigenous groups in Brazil, and perhaps 50 more still uncontacted. Most are small groups (under 1000 people) with growing populations, for whom land rights are the central issue for the future of their cultures.

The new decree was denounced by indigenous and Indian rights organisations as a manoeuvre to roll back land rights won over the last 30 years.

FUNAI has 60 days to prepare responses to the 1000-plus challenges, after which the ministry will have 30 days to decide on the disputed areas. But the minister of justice can then take a further 90 days before taking a final decision to gather new information if he deems it necessary.

The 90-day period could become a pretext to carry out new surveys that reduce existing Indian lands. Since indigenous land is legally public property (to which the Indians have permanent use rights), this could have long-term implications for public lands of all types.
[Abridged from an article by the Environmental Defence Fund/Instituto Socioambiental. Phone: 55 61 248 2439, fax: 55 61 248 6420, email:]