Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November 2014, 15:45 GMT

State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Brazil

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Brazil, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a7eadb46.html [accessed 27 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

As in Bolivia, vulnerable groups in Brazil received increasing attention during 2007 as a result of internal policy developments, but change remained slow. Brazil has a population of approximately 188 million, of whom between 40 and 75 per cent or 65 and 120 million are of African descent.

Historical discrimination against Afro-descendants and indigenous minorities continued to be a major issue in 2007. Although the law prohibits racial discrimination, Brazilians of African and indigenous origin continued to be frequent victims of discrimination in a social climate that tends to downplay ethnicity while still displaying strong prejudices against dark skin colour.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2007 reported that Brazilian women continued to be among the primary victims of international sex trafficking to Europe. According to the Reference Centre on Children and Adolescents (CECRIA), the typical victims were dark-skinned women between 15 and 27 years of age.

The second term re-election of President 'Lula' da Silva in October 2006 was seen as a plus for minorities due to his commitment to social welfare reform. Da Silva won 77 per cent of the vote in his north-east birthplace, which is home to dark-skinned, poorer Brazilians who especially benefit from the government's 'Bolsa Familia' cash-transfer programme.

In 2007 Afro-Brazilians continued to earn less than 50 per cent of the national average income. They also suffered from the highest homicide, poverty and illiteracy rates in a country which the Organization for Ibero-American States (OEI) 'Map of Violence 2006' grades as having the third highest homicide rate in the world and ranks at number one out of 65 countries for death by firearms.

According to human rights NGOs and Amnesty International December 2006 reports, paramilitary-style militias, often composed of active and former police officers, continued to regularly invade and terrorize Rio shantytowns, which historically have large Afro-descendant populations. They also intimidated human rights activists attempting to investigate abuses.

Seriously under-represented in professional positions and in the middle and upper classes of society, in contrast Afro-Brazilians continued to have a significant presence in prisons. According to the Ministry of Justice, Afro-Brazilians in 2007 made up more than 56 per cent of the prison population, while the UN Special Rapporteur on the Judiciary noted (in 2005) that persons of African origin occupied less than 1 per cent of the senior posts in the judiciary and the Public Prosecutor's Office.

Nevertheless, racial discrimination continued to receive more recognition and remediation attempts from the 'Lula' government in 2007. A quota law still under consideration will institute a system of racial preferences for the civil service, private sector and universities. Currently, Afro-Brazilians represent only 16 per cent of the university population. During 2006–7 more than 30 universities voluntarily implemented a quota system.

Efforts to deal with the most vulnerable of the marginalized gathered momentum in mid-2007 as part of the government's Special Secretariat for Racial Equality Promotion Policy (SEPPIR). The agency introduced the Quilombolas Development Programme, which seeks to improve living conditions of communities that are among the most marginalized in Brazil. Initially it will benefit 525 quilombo settlements in 22 of Brazil's 26 states.

Like elsewhere in the Americas, quilombos were colonial-era 'maroon' settlements established by self-liberated Africans who fled to dense jungles or remote mountain regions to escape enslavement and created independent African-based communities.

According to SEPPIR there are 1,170 recognized quilombo heritage communities, but the real total could surpass 3,000. This would represent some 1.7 million people. The highest concentrations are in once inaccessible areas of Bahía (north-east), Pará (north), Mato Grosso (west), Goiás (central) and Minas Gerais (south-east). Qilombos also exist in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Government statistics reveal that 91 per cent of quilombo families in 2007 had monthly incomes of less than US $190, though the national minimum wage is US $204 a month. A 2006 Ministry of Social Development study shows the number of malnourished under-5 children in quilombos is 76 per cent higher than for the child population as a whole. Only 3.2 per cent of quilombo children have access to sanitation.

Quilombos have been recognized since the mid-1990s under Convention ILO No. 169 and the current programme includes granting collective land titles as well as improving roads and providing sanitation, water, education and health services.

Titling is viewed as all-important since some quilombos existed before major cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo were established and eventually became absorbed as poor urban neighbourhoods.

Indigenous groups

According to official government figures Brazil's indigenous population numbers close to 460,000 and belong to 225 'nations'. In 2007 more than half continued to live in poverty in communities where traditional ways of life are increasingly threatened by land development, agricultural expansion and mining.

The National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI), a government agency, reports that Brazil's indigenous people continue to face disease and poor healthcare, loss of native culture and recurring incursions, especially in rainforest regions.

Since 1988 Brazil has set aside roughly 12.5 per cent of the country's total land area and 26.4 per cent of the Amazon basin for the indigenous population. However, there was continued evidence in 2007 of eroding government concern over indigenous land rights.

According to April 2007 articles in the Christian Science Monitor and Scientific American, veteran advocate for the protection of isolated indigenous groups, Sydney Pössuelo is reported to have publicly criticized the director of FUNAI for suggesting that indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon may have too much land.

This largely matches the attitude of Brazil's powerful elite, who seek even more Amazon deforestation and land enclosure for cattle and large-scale agriculture. Ranchers, land-grabbers, miners and loggers have already destroyed nearly one-fifth of the Brazilian rainforest. Brazil's National Institute of Space Research reported in October 2007 that the annual Amazon deforestation rate has fallen to the lowest on record, but more than 17 per cent of the original tree cover has already been eliminated and what remains continues to disappear.

Violent land wars between indigenous groups, ranchers, companies and farmers, increased in 2007, continuing to reflect what a local NGO, the Pastoral Land Commission, described as a 10-year high in indigenous murder rates. Killings were mostly related to land disputes. Rural activists were specially targeted.

In September 2007 the indigenous Yanomami of Brazil's Amazon rainforest increased protests against a draft mining law that may force them to expose their currently state-protected communal lands to international mining companies. Mining on indigenous lands in Brazil is currently prohibited, however the draft law once again allows mining of indigenous territories, with Yanomami lands likely to be the most affected.

According to the Instituto Socio-ambiental, the 'Lula' government has created 15 million hectares of environmental conservation areas in Amazonia, some of which had been demarcated for indigenous groups since 1992. Environmental monitors point out, however, that a large proportion has already been surveyed or explored by mining companies. This could mean a repeat of the cycle of deforestation and disease first suffered by Yanomami in the mid-1970s, during construction of Brazil's Northern Circumferential Highway, when nearly 20 per cent of the Yanomami died from lack of immunity to unfamiliar diseases.

Brazil biofuel

As a world leader in ethanol production, biofuels from agricultural crops are important in the country's long-term economic vision. Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research reports that local scientists have developed a new variety of soybean that is expected to flourish in rainforest climates like the Amazon.

Indigenous small farmers in Brazil are steadily being pushed off lands cleared for soy production, sometimes violently. This is also affecting Afro-descendant and indigenous 'nutcracker' women, who, as of August 2007, continued fighting to retain access to the babaçú palm tree; native to the Brazil forest.

The babaçú palm grows wild in the 18.5 million hectare forest area extending across four states between the Amazon and the semi-arid north-east of the country. The 20-meter-tall palm tree has multiple uses according to the United Nations University. Among them are cattle fodder, natural medicine, house construction, basketry and fuel. The flesh of the nut is eaten or made into oil for cooking, lubrication, as well as soaps and other cosmetics.

Babaçú gathering dates back to pre-Columbian times. It now represents a major income source for half a million mostly Afro-descendant and indigenous female Quebradeiras who gather and process the babaçú nut. However large-scale land appropriation is now making it increasingly difficult for women to access babaçú forests.

Since the 1980s, industrial farmers have been acquiring and enclosing vast parcels of primary land where the babaçú grows, and they now intend to clearcut and burn the forest to breed cattle or grow soybeans for biofuel. They especially want to stop indigenous and Afro-descendant collectors from traversing the forested areas, even though the babaçú nut just falls to earth and otherwise remains unused. Deterrents include erecting barbed wire fences or hiring gunmen.

The Interstate Movement of Babaçú Coconut Breakers (MIQCB) has been trying to negotiate access with the local, regional and national governments, and discussing the laws for free access to the babaçú forests. They have also held the government accountable for illegal logging and forest destruction.

Some researchers see potential in the babaçú palm for biofuel, but industrialists lack interest because of supply logistics and difficulty in processing the nut. Nevertheless, NGO and university projects in 2007 continued trying to attract Afro-descendant and indigenous Quebradeiras women toward using babaçú for agrofuel. Collectors can earn more selling the multi-use nut than from processed oil. They are also well aware of the effects of the soybean and sugarcane industries on independent farmers and remain uninterested in turning babaçú into a corporate biofuel activity.

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