During 2009, Brazil enhanced its position as an emerging global economic contender. The so-called 'country of the future' also received a huge international image boost on being selected to host the 2016 Olympics. Nevertheless, social investment initiatives seem to have had only a limited effect on the country's historically marginalized African descendant communities and indigenous peoples. Brazil ranks only 75th on the UN's Human Development Index and displays the greatest measure of inequality in all of Latin America: the wealthiest 10 per cent averaging a monthly household income of 5,600 reais (US $1,982) while the poorest 50 per cent get by on about 272 reais (US $96) per month.

There are approximately 90 million Afro-Brazilians, constituting nearly half of the very mixed national population; however, they continue to represent a large percentage of the poor and a small percentage of the professional and managerial middle and upper classes. Moreover, a sizeable racial education gap continues to be a major constraint to any rapid change. This is partly linked to the fact that the rich can pay for private education and pre-college tutoring, while the poor attend inadequate, overcrowded and under-financed public schools.

Although the law prohibits racial discrimination, caste and colour continued to affect access to opportunity during 2009, especially for Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples. Brazilians with dark skin tones, such as African descendants, continued to encounter social and economic discrimination, including higher rates of unemployment and wages averaging approximately half those earned by Brazilians of European descent.

Affirmative action

In recent years, the Brazilian government has initiated affirmative action measures to correct these inequalities, and there are programmes in place at nearly 20 government-run universities. In 2009, however, significant debate continued on the effectiveness of this policy.

Affirmative action bills to decide whether the government should impose racial quotas have been approved by the Brazilian House of Representatives, but at year-end these remained stalled in the Senate. The bills seek to create racial and socio-economic quotas in all federal universities, and propose reserving 50 per cent of all places for students from public high schools. Of those reserved spots, up to half would be set aside for Afro-Brazilians and indigenous students. The other half would be allocated to low-income students, of whom indigenous people and African descendants constitute a significant portion.

In July 2009, the publication O Globo reported that the country's Supreme Court denied an appeal by Brazil's Democratic Party aiming to overturn affirmative action at the University of Brazil. The petition argued that the quotas violate the 'constitutional right of human dignity' and the universal right to education. While the Court ruling defended the constitutionality of racial quotas, it emphasized the need to increase the focus on socio-economic remedies rather than on racially based quotas.

Indigenous peoples' land rights issues

The National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) estimates that there are 460,000 indigenous people living on indigenous lands and an additional 100,000 to 190,000 in other areas, including urban areas. Some rainforest indigenous settlements contain groups that still live in voluntary isolation. More than half of Brazil's indigenous people continue to live in poverty, with poor health conditions, in communities where traditional ways of life and culture are under ongoing threat from logging, land developers, agricultural expansion and resource extraction.

While the 1988 Constitution obliged the federal government to demarcate all indigenous areas by the year 1993, at the end of 2009, the final phase – which is actual legal registration – continued to be the most difficult. Among the primary reasons are high-level corruption and deep-seated prejudices and discrimination against indigenous people and African descendants by local-level functionaries.

During 2009, human rights monitors reported that confrontations continued to occur over land ownership or resource exploitation rights. National authorities are often unable to provide the required protection due to limited state presence in remote areas. On the other hand, in several states where there is a police presence in indigenous areas, AI and local human rights monitors reported the continued existence of organized death squads linked to security forces that targeted persons on behalf of landowners. Given the support perpetrators enjoy, including from governors and state and municipal legislators, these abuses continued to occur with impunity.

Raposa Serra do Sol Reserve

Following the December 2008 Supreme Court decision to uphold President Lula da Silva's creation of the Raposa Serra do Sol Reserve in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima – near the Venezuela/ Guyana border – the last of the few remaining non-indigenous rice-farming settlers who moved into the territory two decades ago have finally left.

The reserve, over 4 million acres and encompassing about 42 per cent of Roraima State, is now one of the largest protected indigenous areas in the world. For more than a decade, it has been the scene of violent frontier conflicts between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous Brazilian farmers, with settlers intimidating protesters and sometimes mounting armed resistance to hamper police eviction operations.

Urban favela pacification

In 2009, state governments in major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo continued their efforts to pacify the large number of poor, marginalized urban shanty towns (favelas), which contain majority African descendant populations. First founded by squatters seeking work in the big city, the favelas have existed for decades and continue to expand. In Rio de Janeiro, over 2 million people, or 30 per cent of the city's population, live in the almost 800 favelas built on the hills that overlook Rio.

For most of their existence, shanty-town residents have lived on the margins of urban society without social investment or police protection, and in the vacuum, powerful organized gangs have emerged. According to local media, these sometimes administer 'communitarian justice', including enforcing sentences for transgressors. Vigilante groups are common, especially against those who go unpunished by the formal legal system after being accused of crimes.

Recently, the state government has begun taking steps to pacify favelas; these have mainly involved frequent heavily armed police raids which activists and residents complain have resulted in a number of human rights violations, including summary executions, deaths and injuries to many civilians and bystanders.

Favela occupation

In 2009, the authorities began a much more comprehensive strategy of favela pacification. After more than a decade of just guarding the entrances and conducting sporadic raids, a permanent 24-hour policing presence is being instituted as part of a new policy of urban integration. According to state authorities, the aim is to establish fixed Peacemaker Police Units (PPU) in designated favelas, after first eliminating the large organized gangs. These operations can involve units of up to 300 military policemen, mainly from the elite Special Operation Battalion (BOPE). The BOPE units are judged by experts to be one of the most violent military forces in Latin America. They utilize equipment considered to be more powerful than that traditionally used in civilian law enforcement, including a fleet of armoured vehicles, known as 'Pacificador' (Peacemaker) or 'Caveirão' (Big Skull), equipped with point 30 carbines, M16 assault rifles, C-4 explosives and fragmentation grenades. Taking over a community usually means having to do battle heavy resistance from organized groups of up to 200 people, and the casualty rate can be high. Gangs are increasingly well-armed with assault weapons that give them new power to resist. According to findings by Brazilian NGO Viva Rio, organized gangs in Brazil now have about 4 million illegal weapons, made easier to obtain by deeply entrenched corruption in official circles.

In October 2009, just days after Brazil's selection to host the 2016 Olympic games, favela gangs shot down a police helicopter during a BOPE raid just 1 mile from Maracana stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics are scheduled to be held. According to Brazzilmag.com, by the end of 2009 the pacification units had completed the establishment of PPU stations in seven favelas. The aim is to offer so-called 'community security' to a third of Rio's favela residents by the end of 2010.

Probably of much greater importance to residents is that PPU stabilization includes providing long-needed basic services as part of a Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC). This means installing basic water and sanitation infrastructure, thoroughfares, street lighting, health and education services, internet communication and housing upgrades. All of these services have been lacking previously.

'Eco-walls' or social barriers

Talk of greater social integration of the 800 unpainted concrete and brick favelas began to be viewed with increasing scepticism in early 2009, following city plans to begin building 3 meter high containment walls around at least 11 of Rio de Janeiro's informal settlements. State authorities indicated that the city's favelas have been doubling in size and threaten the forest at the edge of the city. Critics claim that the walls are more a social containment plan rather than an ecological conservation effort, the aim being to establish a barrier between the favelas and the beachside condominiums of the wealthy. The authorities cited the need to protect what is left of a huge bio-diverse Atlantic rainforest that once covered 16 eastern Brazilian states but is now down to just 7 per cent of its original size.

Environmentalists, human rights activists and residents continued to argue that the so-called 'eco-walls' are essentially an attempt to hide the favelas, which can be seen from Rio's beaches. They claim the barriers would physically segregate favela residents from the rest of society, and that other conservation measures can be applied. For example, in one favela, government and community representatives have agreed to build nature paths, adult recreation areas and playgrounds alternating with low 90 cm walls to prevent expansion. In addition, a jurist for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defined the walls as 'geographic discrimination', especially since other types of occupation, such as luxury condominiums, homes and hotels, also affect the native forest cover on Rio's outskirts.

During 2009, the first favela to be fully pacified, socially enhanced, as well as walled off, was Dona Marta, home to an estimated 7,500 people. This now 'model' favela earned international fame in 1996 as the production location for the Michael Jackson music video, 'They Don't Really Care About Us'.

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