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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014 - Brazil

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 3 July 2014
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014 - Brazil, 3 July 2014, available at: [accessed 23 November 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's huge population – nearly 200 million – is largely made up of Afro- and Euro-descendants, with indigenous peoples and Japanese-descendants also forming sizable communities, though both under 1 per cent. According to the 2010 national census, 50.7 per cent of Brazilians identify themselves as preto (purely Afro-descendant) and pardo (mixed-race). The majority of these are descended from the estimated 3.7 million people imported from Africa to Brazil as slaves. Though Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888, making it the last country in the Americas to do so, widespread intermarriage between different groups and the lack of formal segregation in the post-abolition era has meant that it was subsequently presented as a 'racial democracy' without discrimination based on ethnicity. However, beginning in the 1970s, the Movimento Negro or Black Movement began to condemn 'racial democracy' as a false concept.

Indeed, this representation has been increasingly questioned by critics in recent years, who have highlighted the ongoing reality of discrimination and repression experienced by particular ethnic groups. The severe inequities faced by Afro-descendants are reflected in every area of their lives, from health and education to employment and wealth. Average incomes for black households are just 43 per cent those of white households, for example, while average life expectancy for Afro-Brazilians is almost seven years less than for white people. According to the National Network for Social Monitoring and Health of the Black Population, black women are even given less anaesthesia during normal childbirth. Half of all Afro-Brazilians are also illiterate, with 40 per cent not having completed elementary school. Politically, too, black people remain heavily under-represented. Out of 81 senators, only one self-identifies as black; just one of the 38 members of President Dilma Rousseff's cabinet is black.

Nevertheless, there has been some evidence of progress. The Supreme Court President is, for the first time, a black person. A large proportion of the 30 million Brazilians who have left poverty over the past decade are black. Most importantly, more and more Afro-Brazilians are going to court about racism and winning settlements. There are more signs of ongoing cultural change: on the agenda of an employees' strike that stopped banks in October 2013, one of the demands of trade unions was the allocation of at least 20 per cent of vacancies to black employees. These are signs of a broader re-evaluation of racism in Brazil and a growing commitment to addressing its underlying causes.

Brazil has also begun to roll out a range of initiatives to combat discrimination in the labour market. Since 2012, for example, public universities have been obliged to set aside half of their places for public high school students, largely aiming to benefit blacks. In November 2013, Rousseff presented a bill for introducing a 20 per cent quota for Afro-descendants in the federal public administration. Similar measures have also been taken up by some states, sometimes with even higher quotas. Parliament is currently discussing a 33 per cent quota for blacks in the lower chamber, a provision that would initially last for two decades.

In spite of these measures, what commentators have described as a 'dictatorship of whiteness' persists in Brazil, evident in literature, television programmes, magazine stands and even store window displays. This cultural dominance is especially pervasive in mass media. Activists and researchers have repeatedly criticized the roles assigned to blacks in television shows and soap operas, arguing that they reinforce established stereotypes that marginalize or silence them. Until 2013, when the Afro-Brazilian journalist Maria Júlia Coutinho was appointed to the role, one of the largest TV stations in Brazil, Rede Globo, had never featured a black TV personality presenting the weather. This widespread and systematic exclusion is why the main theme of the 2013 National Conference for Racial Equality in November was equality and representation in mass media.

This bias is especially evident in the fashion and beauty industry. In the north-eastern state of Bahia – considered the centre of Brazil's African-oriented culture – the organizers of the Miss Bahia 2013 beauty contest were criticized for fielding only two black women out of a total of 30 participants. While one of the black contenders was subsequently crowned the winner, the incident was seen as another example of the routine under-representation of black women. In November, Rio Fashion Week's representatives, following previous controversies and protests led by the NGO Educafro, reportedly signed an agreement to ensure that a minimum of 10 per cent black models were included in the event. Other incidents during the year also highlighted the continued marginalization of black women from mainstream fashion platforms.

Although until 1951 there was no formal recognition of discrimination in its law, Brazil has more recently developed a legal framework to tackle the issue. In 1988, a new Constitution finally included different clauses related to racial discrimination, making it a crime subject to penal law, while also establishing state protection for indigenous and Afro-Brazilian cultures. Law 7716 on racism was passed the following year, criminalizing a range of discriminatory practices. In 1997, the law was extended by parliament to include racist hate speech.

Despite this, however, hate speech remains widespread as a result of the continued marginalization of the Afro-Brazilian population. Numerous reported cases during 2013 illustrated the regular occurrence of discrimination or abuse in a variety of everyday contexts, including stores, shopping malls, restaurants and supermarkets. A number of incidents of online hate speech also gained attention during the year. One of the most controversial cases was a racist advert with a photo of two black children on an online shopping website, offering 'blacks for sale' for less than a dollar. Troublingly, some incidents were allegedly carried out by staff and personnel in institutional locations such as hospitals and schools. In March, a political uproar also ensued when the federal House of Representatives elected a right-wing member, Marco Feliciano, as President of the Human Rights and Minorities' Commission. He had tweeted derogatory statements about Africa, among other denigrating remarks. According to the Commission website, Feliciano no longer holds the position.

A number of high-profile violent incidents occurred during the year. These included, in March, the beating of a young Afro-Brazilian girl in Brasilia by other girls for being black. The case attracted much media coverage and shortly afterwards the city government created the Disque Racismo (Dial Racism) hotline. The service received hundreds of calls within the first fortnight of its operation. In April, a 71-year-old black man was beaten into a coma by a suspected neo-Nazi group, who assaulted him while he worked as a car guard. He died of his injuries two months later. In October, another elderly Afro-Brazilian was killed by a policeman after an argument in a bar where he allegedly objected to the other's use of a racist description of him. These cases highlight the ongoing reality of discrimination that the non-white population experiences, despite many positive measures in recent years.

Indigenous peoples also continued to struggle against entrenched discrimination during 2013. Many groups have found themselves on the frontline of Brazil's rapid development, including the expansion of farmland into community territory. In May, following pressure from interest groups, the government announced that it would widen decision-making over the demarcation of ancestral lands to involve agricultural representatives – a move denounced by indigenous activists as undermining their land rights. Later that month, the eviction by police of a group of indigenous Terena from a ranch in the western Mato Grosso do Sul state, recognized as part of their ancestral territory in a 2010 court ruling, ended with the death of one protester. Following their reoccupation of the land, another protester was injured by unidentified gunmen. Tensions between farmers and indigenous groups continued throughout the year. At the year's end, both sides were reportedly dissatisfied with the government's attempts to broker an agreement.

In addition to the ongoing destruction of tribal forests by illegal loggers, indigenous groups have also been impacted by government-led development programmes such as the controversial Belo Monte dam. In May, following local demonstrations at the site, a number of journalists covering the protests were reportedly expelled from the area. However, in October a regional federal court – the first of its kind in the country – put construction on the project on hold, announcing that a new environmental permit would not be issued until the project satisfied certain environmental criteria. However, the ruling was overturned five days later. Quilombola also struggled to secure their land rights in the face of encroachments by a bauxite mining company. In Rio de Janeiro, ahead of preparations for the 2014 World Cup, demonstrators calling for the protection of a small indigenous museum next to Maracanã football stadium were forcibly expelled by police. Land and resource conflicts have often pitted indigenous peoples against farmers, developers, illegal loggers and other groups. In June, the Indigenous Missionary Council announced that rising numbers of indigenous people had been killed since 2002, with 452 deaths between 2002 and 2010, compared to 167 between 1995 and 2002.

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