Brazil: The mega-projects violating indigenous rights


“If anything should happen to me or my brothers, let it be known that it was the police, sent to the village by the Minister [of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo]. The order to kill me came from [Federal] Deputy Geraldo Simões.”

It is with these words that Rosivaldo Ferreira da Silva, known as Chief Babau – one of the leaders of the indigenous Tupinambá people living on the southern coast of the state of Bahía in Brazil – ended a letter that was made public on 24 March 2014.

The indigenous community has denounced the threats and attacks by officers of the National Public Security Force, the federal police and the army, in association with politicians tied to the agribusiness and hotel sectors.

Landowners and indigenous people mobilising to recuperate their land are locked in an intense dispute.

In August 2013, the homes of indigenous families were set on fire; on 3 September, an indigenous man was shot dead and on 8 November three others were stabbed to death.

The Tupinambá case is a prime example of the systematic violation of indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil, which has prompted harsh criticism of the indigenous policy being pursued by the Rousseff government.


Military occupation

Tupinambá land has been under military occupation since 28 January, by order of the justice minister. In February, President Dilma Rousseff ordered the sending of some 500 soldiers to the area, with the purported aim of trying to “maintain law and order” and to “bring peace” to the region.

According to the Tupinambá, however, the security forces are behaving like private security officers on the payroll of groups and individuals opposed to indigenous rights, creating a climate of terror.

“The children are frightened to death of the police and the helicopter [that hovers over the village every day]. They think they are going to take them away; they run and cling on to us,” says Gliceria Jesús da Silva, a teacher in Tupinambá.

A 14-year-old girl was reportedly raped, on 22 March, by a group of policemen as she made her way home after taking part in a minga [voluntary, cooperative work project traditionally carried out for the common good of the community].

The Tupinambá have faced several episodes of state violence in recent years.

In 2009, for example, federal police officers tortured five members of the indigenous community with electric shock devices, as confirmed by an expert report of the Forensic Medicine Institute. In 2011, an indigenous man had to have his right leg cut off after being shot by a plainclothes policeman.

Between 2010 and 2011, at least four Tupinambá leaders were unlawfully imprisoned.

The process of demarcating the indigenous land of the Tupinambá de Olivença – which stretches over 47,000 hectares of the Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlántica) – began in 2004.

It has not yet been completed, thus violating the legal timeframe set.

Anthropologist Patricia Navarro de Almeida Couto, who lectures at the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana (UEFS) and researches for the Research Programme on Indigenous Peoples in the Northeast of Brazil (PINEB), has been conducting studies in conjunction with the Tupinambá community since 2001.

“It is vital that the federal government complete the regularisation of the indigenous land as quickly as possible, to allow indigenous people to live peacefully on their traditional land and to bring a definitive end to the conflicts in the region,” she emphasises.



In Brazil, the rights of indigenous peoples, the Quilombolas [descendants of escaped slaves] and other traditional peoples and communities afforded guarantees – the right to land, primarily – by the 1988 Federal Constitution, have become the target of an offensive led by deputies and senators from the Bancada Ruralista, the Congressional bloc representing landowners and agribusiness interests.

They are in the process of promoting several bills and constitutional amendments that violate the international instruments signed by Brazil, such as Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Last year, Dilma Rousseff’s government, which is growing ever-closer to agribusiness and the corporations in the mining and energy sectors, ordered the interruption of the process of demarcating indigenous lands and land reform, as well as the processes underway to create environmental conservation units and recognise Quilombolo land rights.

The suspension of these processes has intensified the conflicts.
According to the latest edition of the report on violence against indigenous peoples published on a regular basis by the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI), at least 60 indigenous people were murdered in Brazil in 2012.

The report also lists 120 cases of threats, including death threats, and 1,024 attempted murders.

More than 60 per cent of the murders over that period took place in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The main targets were the Guarani Kaiowa people, whose plight is particularly disturbing.

“They are the second largest indigenous group in the country and live on very small plots of land that are under siege by agribusiness,” underlines Spensy Pimentel, a researcher at the Centre for Amerindian Studies (CESTA) and lecturer at the Universidade Federal da Integração Latino-Americana (UNILA), who has been working on the Guarani Kaiowa case for ten years.

“Dozens of communities are waiting for the demarcation of their lands. Meanwhile, the quality of life on the old reserves is deteriorating year after year, with murder and suicide rates comparable to the world’s most problematic regions.”

“At the same time, the elite in Mato Grosso do Sol are completely insensitive to the situation. The result is tragic.”


Hydroelectric plants

Pimentel points to the government’s “chronic lack of sensitivity when it comes to respect for those who do not fit in with the developmentalist project”.

“It is seen as a bad thing if you live in the countryside and have no ambition to go to the city, to live in a favela and become part of the emerging middle class.”

The violations of indigenous peoples’ and other traditional communities’ rights abound within the context of the infrastructure mega-projects, such as the hydroelectric plants, waterways, ports, and highways being built, often in the Amazon region.

On 7 November 2012, the indigenous village Teles Pires, located in the state of Pará and inhabited by Munduruku, Kayabi and Apiaká peoples, was violently attacked by the federal police.

Adenilson Kirixi Munduruku, aged 32, died after being shot in the legs and the head. To date, no one has been held responsible.

The incident took place within the framework of an operation to combat illegal gold mining. According to indigenous reports, however, illegal mining was a pretext for action aimed at intimidating them.

The indigenous peoples in this area are mobilising to stop the controversial construction of hydroelectric plants in the Tapajós river basin, as part of a federal government initiative.

One of their chief complaints is the failure to respect their right to prior consultation, as established by ILO Convention 169.

“A weapon of war is being used to keep indigenous and traditional communities from protesting,” observes geographer Mauricio Torres, who has been studying the land disputes in Pará for over ten years.

“The infrastructure works are not designed to benefit indigenous and riverside communities: these communities are considered obstacles to development.”

A corridor for the export of soya is being established in Pará. Private groups have been awarded mining concessions covering practically all the land of the indigenous and traditional communities in the Tapajós river basin.

Logging concessions have also been awarded for public forests and the impact on these communities is equally devastating.

Only two obstacles need to be overcome to be able to go ahead with mining mega-projects: the lack of power and a legal framework for mining on indigenous lands and environmental conservation units.

“On the power front, hydroelectric plants are being built, whilst Dilma’s government is pushing the regulatory framework through Congress as fast as it can.”

“They want to weaken the communities to make it easier to build them [the power plants]. But we will never agree to trading our lands for peanuts,” a member of the Munduruku community, who asked to remain anonymous, told journalist Ruy Sposatti, who documented the repressive operation carried out in Teles Pires for the CIMI report on violence against indigenous communities.

“Whatever they do only strengthens our resolve.”