According to official figures, African descendants represent almost half of Brazil's approximately 190 million population; the true figure is likely to be higher.

During 2008, besides continuing to experience historical societal discrimination African Brazilians continued to be remarkably under-represented in the government, professional positions, and the middle- and upper-income groups. They experienced a higher rate of unemployment and earned average wages approximately half those of a white worker. In part this may be linked to a continuing gap in the area of education.

African Brazilians average just 6.4 years of schooling and the illiteracy rate among African descendants over 15 years of age is 20 per cent compared to just 8 per cent for Euro-descendants. In the area of higher education the US-based Chronicle of Higher Education reported that, while 45 per cent of the country's people defined themselves as either black or mixed race (pardo) in the 2000 census, only 17 per cent of university graduates are of mixed race and only 2 per cent are black.

Under the government of President Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula) there is now explicit legal state opposition to racism, and public policies against discrimination. In addition, the increase in social mobility – partly due to the still hotly debated affirmative action policies – continued to promote some improvements in African descendant education during 2008.

Federal universities such as the prestigious Rio Branco training university run by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have continued to implement admissions quotas and affirmative action programmes, and the federal government has mandated the teaching of African and African Brazilian history in high schools and universities.

Favela containment

These initiatives are yet to have a significant multiplier effect in the lives of the majority of the country's African descendants. In the 800 low-income favelas (shantytowns) of Rio de Janeiro, which have large African Brazilian populations, human rights observers in 2008 continued to report on the indiscriminate use of force by police. Few killings are independently investigated and perpetrators are seldom prosecuted.

In 2008 Amnesty International and local NGOs claimed that in these marginalized urban areas, which contain over 2 million residents, law enforcement continued to be characterized by large-scale armoured 'invasions' by police units that inevitably result in human rights violations.

Moreover so-called 'militias' have continued to expand and now control over 100 of the city's favelas. Made up mainly of off-duty or former law enforcement officers, they take community policing into their own hands but have come to engage in similar illegal activities to the drug traffickers they were formed to confront. Militias tend to enjoy the tacit support of the police, who regularly fail to investigate 'social cleansing' killings and other violations, and often do not conduct operations in the militia-controlled communities.

Indigenous Brazilians

Brazil's National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) estimates that there were 460,000 indigenous persons in 225 communities living on demarcated lands, and an additional 100,000 to 190,000 dwelling outside these territories, including in urban areas.

More than half of Brazil's IP live in poverty and under constant threat from expanding agricultural, mining and other development projects. In 2008 indigenous leaders continued to criticize the government for failing to protect their lands from encroachment, and for not devoting sufficient resources to health care and other basic services such as education.

In Brazil the three levels of formal education are the responsibility of the government and the right of indigenous societies to a 'specific, intercultural and bilingual scholastic education' is constitutionally guaranteed and established in the 'Directives for a National Policy of Indigenous Scholastic Education'.

Indigenous education is currently provided to approximately 165,000 students in 2,332 schools. In 2008 the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC) announced the addition of some 400 new schools at a cost of nearly US $8.5 million. This is expected to provide an additional 15,000 places and benefit 90 indigenous groups.

Twenty state and federal universities in Brazil reserve places for indigenous persons and, according to the MEC in 2008, there were nearly 5,000 indigenous university students, or approximately 1 per cent of the national university student body.

FUNAI also has an Education Department that supports the training/development of teachers and technicians in a culture- and identity-preserving intercultural education programme. There is also a programme which supports indigenous students to continue their studies at urban-based schools.

In an effort to ensure cultural content in indigenous education, FUNAI has organized seminars and meetings between teachers and indigenous leaders, including the 3rd Meeting of Oral and Written Languages of Indigenous Societies, and the 2nd Seminar on Indigenous School Education.

Indigenous schools in Brazil differ from their mainstream counterparts by having more culturally related content. Classes may be given in more than one language and they are usually geared to the demands of each indigenous community.

For example, environmentally sensitive agriculture, or agroecology, is included in the village secondary school curricula of some municipalities. This is aimed at bolstering local production and drawing on the resources of traditional knowledge.

MEC also has a directorate of Education for Diversity and Citizenship that is responsible for ensuring that schools are located in indigenous villages as a way to revitalize the local culture and to maintain young people in their communities.

Community initiatives

The establishment of indigenous schools in Brazil has come about after decades of independent effort by rights activists and groups to promote indigenous education. Moreover the issue of indigenous education in some areas is closely tied to ethnicity and land rights, especially because many teachers take on leadership roles in their villages.

On the Brazil-Paraguay border, in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, where indigenous Guaraní ancestral lands were taken over by big cattle ranchers, the search for better education is closely linked to the struggle for Ñanderú Marangatú (Great Sacred Father): a term for 'land' used by the Kaiowá branch of the Guaraní. The Kaiowá, a nomadic people, constitute half of the over 60,000 indigenous people who live in northern coastal state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

In 2005 the government recognized indigenous rights to 9,317 hectares of territory; actual possession has been delayed, however, pending a decision by the Supreme Court and negotiations on landowner compensation. Since then relations between indigenous people and settlers have remained tense with local high-level elected officials being among the foremost opponents of demarcation.

Many Guaraní/Kaiowá continue to live in poor conditions in roadside tents and the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) noted that 40 of the 53 murders of indigenous people in Brazil during 2008 were of Guaraní/Kaiowá in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. One such murder in 2003 led directly to the establishment of one of the first Guaraní community-based bilingual schools. Following her father's murder for leading an occupation of a large estate, the current 28-year-old Kaiowá head teacher at Panambizinho village dropped out of her law school course and trained to run a bilingual school programme.

Community-based bilingual schools in Mato Grosso offer an example of the positive aspects, as well as some of the challenges involved in community involvement in the indigenous education process.

According to one of the early school organizers, they had to overcome significant resistance to the idea of children being taught entirely in the Guaraní language during the first two years at school, before gradually switching to Portuguese. Ironically, the resistance came from Guaraní parents, who were afraid that their children would not learn Portuguese, thereby limiting their chances to 'get out of the village'.

In addition to the Guaraní language, there are also interdisciplinary classes that include Guaraní regional geography discussions with community elders, and participation in community action such as land occupations to recover indigenous territory.

In 2006 a special five-year training course called Teko Arandú ('living in wisdom') was established for Guaraní students at the Don Bosco Catholic University (UCDB) (in nearby Dourados), which provides technical assistance through the efforts of female Professor Adir Casaro Nascimento, a campaigner for indigenous education for the past 20 years. Most of the 114 students are adults, including a few elderly people; the majority are women.

The experience in Matto Grosso has show that ethnically sensitive education within indigenous communities provides an education better suited to the preservation of indigenous identity and culture, and can also have a significant multiplier effect. The expansion of indigenous education is especially empowering Guaraní women, who are now more confident about expressing their opinions publicly at school meetings.

Community involvement has also stimulated a new desire for education in general, leading to increased Guaraní enrolment in standard state schools: 500 indigenous children currently attend these institutions, with the long-term potential of significantly changing Guaraní attitudes towards further pursuit of higher education.

Long-time supporter and facilitator of indigenous education, UCDB professor Antonio Brand explained that, while going to university was once seen as a way of losing indigenous identity and becoming assimilated into mainstream society, with the new sense of self-esteem that is no longer the case.

In 2008 the Kaiowá reached an agreement with local landowners to provisionally move onto two areas totalling 127 hectares pending the legal outcome.

Raposa Serra do Sol

In December 2008 Brazil's Supreme Court voted to uphold President Lula da Silva's creation of the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve, along the Venezuela-Guyana border in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima.

The over 4 million acre territory encompassing about 42 per cent of Roraima State is the ancestral land of a combined total of 19,000 indigenous Ingaricó, Macuxi, Patamona, Taurepang and Wapichana. It will be one of the largest protected indigenous areas in the world. The territory was demarcated in 2005 following a 20-year plus battle that involved significant pressure from the Indigenous Council of Roraima and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

However, the proposed area contains hundreds of cattle ranches and, as in other demarcated areas in Brazil, a tense, sometimes violent frontier conflict has smouldered between Euro-Brazilian farmers and the indigenous people since its initial proposal in 1993.

In early 2008 there were armed skirmishes with farmers using Molotov cocktails, blocking roads and burning bridges to hamper police eviction actions against them. Rice farmers who moved into the territory two decades ago petitioned the court to create non-indigenous 'islands' within the reserve so they could remain. However in an 8-11 vote, the judges decided in favour of restarting their eviction.

The court also ruled that the indigenous people could not stop the national government from sending military forces into the territory to protect the national borders, or from establishing hospitals, schools and other service delivery infrastructure. All the same, indigenous rights advocates hailed the court's action as historic with regard to the rights of Brazil's indigenous people to their original lands.

Sustainable Amazon Plan

In early May 2008 President Lula unveiled what was titled a 'Sustainable Amazon Plan', which will grant farmers US $600 million in loans at 4 per cent annual interest (compared to the 11.75 per cent national rate) to adopt supposedly eco-friendly farming methods and encourage reforestation. However, the plan also aims to broaden access to electricity, expand ports and improve Amazon highways and river transport. All of these are intended to boost economic activity and will inevitably place greater strain on the environment and the Amazon people who have traditionally depended on fishing and hunting in the rainforest for their livelihood.

In an effort to raise global awareness, in January 2009 indigenous people and African descendants staged a display before the opening of the 2009 World Social Forum (WSF) in the northern city of Belém – the north-eastern gateway to the Amazon. The demonstration took the form of a human banner made up of more than 1,000 people, that could be seen and photographed from the air, and that spelled out 'SOS Amazon'.

In addition to indigenous groups from Brazil, other original peoples included indigenous representatives from neighbouring countries and African descendant Quilombolas from the African Brazilian 'maroon' communities created during the colonial era by Africans escaping enslavement.

The message was particularly designed to draw the attention of presidents of Amazon region countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela) to the issue of climate change and its effects on the indigenous peoples; most especially the immediate and long-term effects of projects such as the construction of hydroelectric power stations in Brazil that flood vast areas of Amazon rainforest and displace riverbank dwellers.

The unusual weather patterns at the end of 2008 and early 2009, which brought extreme temperatures and unprecedented drought conditions to Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay, also served to strengthen their message.

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