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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Brazil

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Brazil, 6 July 2011, available at: [accessed 12 December 2017]
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.

Brazil is a federal republic with a population of approximately 192 million. The law requires that 30 per cent of the candidates registered by each political party must be women. In 2010, voters elected Dilma Rousseff of the left-wing Workers' Party (PT) to a four-year term, making her the first woman to be elected president in Brazil's history. Indications at the end of 2010 were that the new Rousseff government would have a greater female presence. The new cabinet includes nine women out of a total of 37 members, who will hold key positions, such as planning, social development and the environment. None of these women, however, are from indigenous or African descendant backgrounds.

Of greatest potential significance to indigenous and African descendant communities is that the female-led Planning Ministry will now have direct control over large public works projects in Brazil (this was previously the responsibility of the President's Chief of Staff), including municipal-level infrastructure projects in areas that they inhabit.

Indigenous concerns

Government estimates are that half of Brazil's indigenous people continue to live in poverty in communities whose traditional ways of life are threatened on a variety of fronts. These include land development, agricultural expansion and urbanization. In a country report published in 2009, James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, noted the absence of an effective mechanism for consultation with Brazil's indigenous peoples on the planning of major development projects, such as large-scale mining, and highway and dam construction. There was also inadequate attention to indigenous people's health care and educational needs.

One particularly controversial project is the massive Belo Monte Amazon rainforest hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, an Amazon tributary. The US $17 billion dam in the northern state of Pará will be the world's third-largest after those in China's Three Gorges and the Itaipu on the Brazil-Paraguay border. It will require excavation of earth and rocks in the ecologically highly sensitive Amazon region on a scale similar to that of building the Panama Canal. The government argues that the dam will be vital to economic growth; however, critics counter that flooding 500 sq. km of rainforest will permanently kill trees, damage fish stocks and wildlife, and force the displacement of indigenous peoples (such as the Xinguano).

The Belo Monte dam project was actually started in the 1990s but abandoned amid widespread local and international protests. Within Brazil, the project's resurgence has triggered a huge outcry from a united front made up of indigenous peoples, scientists and the Movement of People Affected by Dams, which claims to represent 1 million people displaced from their land. The Environment Ministry indicated that the land to be flooded would be a fraction of the 5,000 sq. km originally planned and would not cause the displacement of indigenous peoples. However, this does not apply to indigenous communities inhabiting lands that are not demarcated as tribal territory. Residents still stand to lose their homes and complain that they were not properly consulted over the project.

Environmental rights groups from around the world have pointed out that promoting energy efficiency could cut demand by 40 per cent over the next decade, which would be the energy equivalent of several Belo Monte dams. Biologists have also warned that diverting part of the river to run the turbine generators will dry out a curve of the waterway called Volta Grande, whose riverbanks are inhabited by indigenous peoples and thousands of small farmers, who will see a massive reduction in fish, river turtles and other staple foods.

Countering these objections, Brazil's Ministry of Mines and Energy has projected that the country's electricity consumption will rise by 5.9 per cent annually until 2019, and determined that economically competitive hydroelectric supply will be the main source of power in the country. With two-thirds of Brazil's hydroelectric potential located in the Amazon jungle region, all indications are that hydroelectric plants will continue to be built there and that indigenous groups in the Amazon region will continue to see large expanses of water submerge their ancestral lands.

Rights of indigenous women

Brazil appears to be taking steps to develop mechanisms that will promote and protect the rights of indigenous women and ensure their inclusion in decision-making processes. For instance, the government's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), which is responsible for indigenous affairs, has created a special new internal structure which is led by indigenous women and has a specific budget and mandate to develop a gender action plan.

In November 2010, a National Meeting of Indigenous Women for the Protection and Promotion of their Rights was held in the province of Mato Grosso and attended by 80 delegates. This was the culmination of a round of seminars organized across Brazil during 2010 by the Secretary of Policies for Women and FUNAI. All together, 457 indigenous women from different indigenous communities attended the preliminary seminars. Among the proposals advanced at the national meeting was an amendment to Draft Law No. 2057/91, which is pending in Brazil's House of Representatives and which aims to modify and revise the country's so-called Indian Act (Law No. 6.001/73). The amendment would introduce a gender and generational dimension to all programmes and policies affecting indigenous peoples in Brazil. The proposal also calls upon the state to adopt appropriate measures, in consultation with indigenous peoples, to ensure that indigenous women, children and the elderly enjoy full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination. This reflected acknowledgement that violence against women cannot necessarily be addressed within the traditions of indigenous communities, and may require support from mainstream laws and organizations.

The 80 indigenous women delegates suggested that FUNAI and key government departments, including the Ministries of Justice and Human Rights, the Secretariat for Policies for Women, and the Presidential National Commission on Indigenous Policy (CNPI), should all collaborate with the indigenous movement to ensure that Draft Law No. 2057/91 is included in the 2011 agenda of Brazil's House of Representatives.


There are approximately 90 million Afro-Brazilians, representing almost half the national population. During 2010, they continued to be significantly under-represented in government, professional positions, and the middle and upper classes. The majority of Afro-Brazilians continued to exist as a virtual 'lower caste', and during 2010 notably disrespectful attitudes and daily social pressures continued in conscious as well as unconscious efforts to maintain this caste relationship.

Consequently, during 2010 Afro-Brazilians – especially those with dark skin – continued to experience a higher rate of unemployment and lower wages that averaged approximately half those of people with pale skin. Afro-Brazilian women were doubly disadvantaged, since according to the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE), women in Brazil in general are often paid less than men, with women workers receiving on average 64 per cent of men's wages. Moreover, there is a sizeable education gap related to Afro-Brazilian ethnicity, which continues to fuel negative stereotypes regarding the capabilities of Afro-Brazilians as a group and to keep many in the ranks of the poor. According to Feminist Africa, only 6 per cent of employed Afro-Brazilian women had completed 12 or more years of schooling, compared to 23 per cent of employed Euro-Brazilian women.

In recent years, some of these issues have prompted Afro-descendant women in Brazil to become more politically active. Since 2001, Afro-Brazilian women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have formed at least one-third of the National Council of Women's Rights in Brazil, and have been able to achieve some success in lobbying the state to redress racial and gender inequities. This has included pressuring the government to implement affirmative action and other policies that are designed to increase Afro-Brazilian access to education and jobs, and to disaggregate race- and gender-based data on health, education and wages.

Afro-Brazilian women's NGOs have also effectively made the case for incorporating ethno-cultural factors in public health delivery and disease diagnosis. This reflects the prevalence of certain specific medical conditions within Afro-Brazilian populations, including type-2 diabetes, uterine tumours, hypertension and sickle-cell anaemia. In addition, maternal mortality rates are much higher among Afro-Brazilian women than among Euro-Brazilian women.

However, despite being very involved at the family and community levels, the activism of Afro-Brazilian women's NGOs has not translated into political power at the national level. Part of the problem – besides the existence of a discriminatory mainstream political structure – is that Afro-descendant women's NGOs have been unable to mobilize mass grassroots support and instead have focused more attention on lobbying for policy change.

In addition to infrastructure development, it should be noted that the Planning Ministry will also be responsible for the Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC), a programme of infrastructure and social investment, including cash transfers to poor families for child health and education. The programme enjoys great popularity among low-income groups, of which African descendants make up a sizeable majority. The programme has helped 30 million of Brazil's 198 million people to escape poverty (according to UN figures). Besides promoting a greater feeling of social inclusion, it helped to give the outgoing Lula administration an 80 per cent approval rating.

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