Events of 2015

Brazil's diverse population of close to 200 million is comprised primarily of Euro- and Afro-descendants, the latter including both 'preto' (black) and 'pardo' (mixed) individuals. But while generations of intermarriage and the absence of a formal system of segregation has led some scholars to celebrate the country as a 'racial democracy' where different ethnicities have been able to enjoy equal rights, systematic inequalities remain. For the first time in Brazil's history, the country's 2010 census found more Brazilians self-identifying as black or mixed race than as white: of the 191 million Brazilians, 91 million declared themselves white, 15 million black and 82 million mixed race. While a number of factors may have contributed to this development, a number of commentators suggested that many Afro-Brazilians were now more willing to self-identify due to an increased pride in their identity.

Nevertheless, the census also highlighted the severe inequalities that continue to divide Brazilian society along ethnic lines. Besides experiencing widespread social exclusion, lower wages and fewer educational opportunities, Afro-Brazilians also suffer significantly higher levels of violence than Brazilians of European descent – a trend that appears to be increasing today. In 2015, a research study by the Latin American Faculty of Social Studies revealed that, while the number of violent homicides committed against white Brazilian women had decreased by 10 per cent between 2003 and 2013, for Afro-Brazilian women they had increased by 54 per cent during the same period. This is a reflection of their continued marginalization within Brazilian society.

Despite this harsh reality, Brazil's Afro-descendant population has also achieved international fame for its rich cultural heritage. Afro-Brazilian culture has a history that dates back to the arrival of the first slaves from West Africa. To preserve their heritage, they developed sophisticated ways to maintain their cultures in secret, which continue to be practised in different forms to this day: for example, the spiritual practices of Candomblé and Capoeira, a martial art and dance sport that is now celebrated worldwide. There are also strong African heritage roots in the annual Carnival in Brazil, with the 2015 Rio Carnival showcasing Afro-Brazilian culture around themes of racial pride and anti-discrimination.

A number of exciting initiatives during the year illustrated the continued vitality of Afro-Brazilian culture. In April, for example, the city of Recife opened its first ever Afro-Brazilian museum, hosting exhibitions of Afro-Brazilian art and literature as well as seminars and workshops. The national museum of Afro-Brazilian culture in São Paulo also held an extensive programme of events during 2015. And, more broadly, in December Brazil hosted one of the first major events of the UN International Decade for People of African Descent – a reflection of its importance as the country with the region's largest Afro-descendant population.

Brazil also has a varied indigenous population, though they make up a much smaller part of the national population. Based on the 2010 census, just 817,963 people (around 0.4 per cent of Brazilians) self-identified as indigenous. Just as Brazil's large Afro-descendant community is a legacy of colonialism, the decimation of the country's indigenous peoples from a population of tens of millions to a fraction of that size today began with the arrival of the first European settlers. Today, they continue to be marginalized and struggle to secure recognition of their cultures and land rights, and other rights. Notwithstanding these challenges, Brazil's diverse indigenous population still resides across the country, with some 230 different peoples speaking 180 indigenous languages. This includes 69 communities without contact.

Indigenous culture in Brazil was systematically attacked by the original Portuguese settlers, but the more remote communities, particularly in the Amazon, managed to retain their cultures largely intact due to their relative isolation from the European invasion. Nowadays, after many years of invisibility, indigenous culture enjoys renewed appreciation: Amazonian artists and performers are famed for their elaborate woven handicrafts and their dance, traditional dress and heritage. Furthermore, with increasing international awareness about the challenges of climate change and resource destruction, Brazil's indigenous peoples have been praised for their culture of respectful stewardship towards the Amazonian forest and other eco-systems.

Yet this recognition comes at a time when indigenous culture is as much under threat as ever. Language is often one of the first, and most important, cultural forms of expression that indigenous communities begin to lose. There are demographically larger groups, such as Guarani (Kaiowá, Mbyá and Nandeva), Guajajara, Kaingang, Munduruku, Ticuna, Xavante and Yanomami, living in different regions of the country, which have a greater chance of protecting their languages due to their size. However, there are also less populous communities with languages moving towards extinction, some with very few and elderly speakers. For example, according to the governmental agency FUNAI (National Indian Foundation), the indigenous Apiaká and Umutina peoples of Mato Grosso recently lost their last elderly representatives who were fluent in their ancestral languages.

The 12th annual indigenous games, hosted by Brazil and opened by President Dilma Rousseff, were held in October 2015. The games proved to be an important milestone for indigenous culture as it was the first time that indigenous foreign nationals could compete, making it a high-profile international event. Widely hailed as innovative and important, the games celebrated the diversity of indigenous cultures in a globalized world. Unlike the official Olympics, which will also be hosted in Brazil in 2016, the indigenous games provided an alternative to the usual competitive hierarchy of gold, silver and bronze medals, with a holistic approach that moved beyond a concept of individual winners and losers: instead, awards were shared among the winning groups, and every competitor was eligible for a medal to commemorate their participation.

But even as the games were inaugurated, some indigenous activists in Brazil were highlighting the hypocrisy of a government that, while publicly celebrating indigenous culture, was failing to address continuing discrimination against them within the country, particularly regarding their right to land. The Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI) launched a scathing report on violence and prejudice against indigenous peoples in Brazil, and accused the government of presenting itself as supportive of indigenous culture internationally while destructive policies continue to undermine the country's indigenous population. Central to their protests was a major proposed amendment to Brazil's Constitution, the Constitution Amendment Bill 215/2000, known as PEC 215, which will devolve the authority to protect and allocate indigenous territories from the executive (the president, FUNAI and the Ministry of Justice) to Congress. As hundreds of its members are reportedly associated with 'ruralist' business interests such as the extractive industries and agricultural corporations, the amendment is widely expected to pave the way for land allocation that favours the agricultural and mining sectors, at the risk of many already beleaguered indigenous territories. Among other provisions, PEC 215 would enable a range of caveats and exceptions to current protections that could jeopardize the integrity of communal areas and expose them to the risk of redevelopment.

Approved by the Senate in September and then the Special Commission for the Demarcation of Indigenous Territories the following month, the amendment will be referred to the Brazilian National Congress. If approved, it could present a major threat to the ability of many indigenous communities to maintain their way of life and identity in the future. In its report, the CIMI highlighted how essential land is to indigenous culture: 'For the indigenous peoples, the land is much more than a material asset; it is fundamental for the construction of identities, ways of being, thinking, living together, building life experiences.' It went on to highlight that there had been no new ratifications of indigenous territory since the beginning of the Rousseff administration and claimed that: 'The increase in possession conflicts, murders and the criminalization of indigenous leaders is closely connected to this unconstitutional decision by the Brazilian government.'

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