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Assessment for Amazonian Indians in Brazil

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Amazonian Indians in Brazil, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 30 July 2016]
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 Facts
Area:    8,511,965 sq. km.
Capital:    Brasilia
Total Population:    169,806,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Indigenous people are only 0.02% of the population and are very isolated from the rest of Brazilian society. Highly dependent on the land and environment of the Amazon for their way of life, culture, and traditions, they live in mineral-rich areas that are being developed by non-indigenous people for gold mining, timber production, oil production, and agriculture. Though much of the land is designated as reservation land, over 100 Yanomami have been killed and many more have died from diseases introduced since the discovery of oil. Violent conflict has been increasing since the mid to late-1980s and it appears that it will persist due to the lack of enforcement of laws that would prohibit movement into (or development within) indigenous reserves (REB01-03 = 3; PROT01-03 = 2). Indians are not considered full Brazilian citizens, which has allowed non-indigenous people to discriminate against them as "less than full people." Such social prejudices have contributed to violence between the two groups. Violence against the indigenous appears likely to persist, as does indigenous mobilization against ranchers and settlers on their territories. Likewise, non-indigenous people are mobilizing against the Indians in these areas. Apart from the state-based organization FUNAI, the organization of indigenous peoples seems likely to remain local, as there are over 200 groups in very remote areas. Therefore, Indians are expected to continue organizing at the grassroots level, or in conjunction with international organizations.

Analytic Summary

Most Brazilian indigenous peoples live in the Amazonian and central regions of the country (REGIONAL = 1), in the states of Amazonas, Roraima, Acre, Rondonia, Tocantins, Goias, Mato Grosso, and Mato Grosso Do Sul State. They live in small communities, missions, national parks (Brazil has four), and government-designated reserves . Most live in rural or wilderness areas and are semi-nomadic, agricultural laborers, or hunters-gatherers (GROUPCON = 3). Many in the deep Amazon lived in isolation from non-indigenous people until the development of the timber and gold industries in the late 1970s. The National Indian Foundation FUNAI estimates that there are over 233 indigenous groups within Brazil, speaking more than 100 native languages (LANG = 2). Many of the social and cultural traditions of these groups are local and tribally based. The largest groups include the Guarani (who number over 20,000) and the Yanomami (over 18,000), also known as the Yanomamo. Other large indigenous groups include the Baniwa (5,000), the Guajajara (10,000), the Kaimbla (11,000), the Kaingang (18,000), the Kaiwa (14,000), the Terena (15,000), and the Ticuna (12,000). More than three fourths of indigenous peoples live in social groups of 1,000 or fewer people. Indigenous social and political organizations are primarily local, with grievances usually focused on group-specific issues. Brazil's indigenous groups share ethnic and cultural ties with groups in Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Religious practices vary depending on the degree of indigenous peoples isolation of from missionary settlements. Like most Brazilians, many indigenous peoples are Roman Catholic, though some groups practice shamanism and others incorporate both religious forms (BELIEF = 2).

After Portuguese conquerors arrived in the 1500s, Indians were enslaved. They were freed in 1831, seven years after independence. An 1845 government decree regulated the "civilizing mission of the Indians," creating an administrative body to regulate indigenous matters. In 1850, Brazil established laws to protect indigenous lands and form reserves that guaranteed limited land rights to Indians. In 1906, a law was passed which founded the public service department for Indians, the Indian Protection Service and Localization of National Workers (SPI). The military dictatorship of 1967 terminated the SPI, creating the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI), which still exists today. In 1982, the Xavante Indian Mario Juruna was elected federal representative by Rio de Janeiro state. That same year, federal reserves were established in the Amazonian state of Maranhao. In 1987, gold was discovered on land inhabited by the Yanomami. Since then, their land has been consistently invaded by non-indigenous settlers and miners. Many of the Yanomami have become ill or died after exposure to diseases brought by non-indigenous people (MIGRANT = 2). By law, non-indigenous people are not permitted on land designated for the indigenous and must be removed.

In 1988, a new democratic constitution was formulated, which recognized "the unique social organization, customs, traditions, languages, and beliefs" of indigenous peoples. They are granted land rights based on their production needs, preservation of the environment, and their physical and cultural survival. Indians also have the right to "express their opinion" about the use of natural resources on their lands; any use that harms Indian populations is forbidden. The new constitution sparked significant indigenous mobilization, though not at the national level. "Indian lands" are not completely autonomous-- the land is owned by the state, but held solely for use according to indigenous traditions. Individual private ownership of Indian lands is not permitted under Brazilian law. The constitution also guarantees native language education, but does not specify how the provision would be implemented. Indigenous peoples are the poorest members of Brazilian society (ECDIS03 = 3). Traditional dress and indigenous traditional practices are socially discriminated against. Because lighter skin color is socially preferred, high-level government and private sector positions are dominated by persons of European descent (POLSTAT = 5). During the 1988 constitutional reforms, many groups petitioned against the inclusion of Indians and protection of indigenous land.

Though the government considers FUNAI as the legitimate representative of indigenous interests at the national level, this designation is hotly contested by many indigenous peoples (GOJPA03 = 3). Political action by Brazilian Indians is often revealed at the tribal level (COHESX9 = 3). Violent confrontations with landowners, miners and others persist, as these outsiders continue to encroach on Indian lands (DEMSTR99 = 10). Moreover, the Cardoso government was ambivalent (at best) in regards to the relationship between indigenous groups and the Brazilian state (POLDIS00-02 = 4). These attitudes were most clearly demonstrated by the violent suppression of protests at the 500th anniversary of the European discovery of Brazil (2000), and the president's subsequent apology. The Lula government in 2003 has been more accomodating and enacted a few remedial policies, though social discrimination against the indigenous remains pervasive in every sector of society (POLDIS03 = 3).

Over the past half-decade, the Catholic Church's Indigenous Council and others have also protested incidents of near-slavery for some indigenous groups. While the practice does not appear widespread (in absolute terms), forced servitude has been discovered in rural and frontier settings throughout the country.


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"Brazil: Who Pays for Development?" Cultural Survival Quarterly. 13 (1) 1989.

Mares de Souza, Jr., Carlos Frederico. "On Brazil and Its Indians." In D.L. VanCott. Indigenous Peoples and Democracy. New York. St. Martin's Press. 1994.

Psacharopoulos, George and Harry Anthony Patrinos. Indigenous People and Democracy. Washington,D.C. The World Bank. 1994.

Yanomami, Davi Kopenawa. "Letter to All Peoples of the Earth." Cultural Survival Quarterly. 13(4).1989: 68-69.

Lexis Nexis, all news reports, 2001-2003.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Brazil 2001 - 2003.

Latin America Weekly Report, February 18, 2003, "Lula's Year 1 Reform Package," Date accessed: 11/30/2004.

** Other sources utilized were from the Reuters and Inter Press News Services.

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