Indigenous Rights in the Amazon: Something that was Never Ours to Give

The raging forest fires of the Amazon have captured the eye of the international community: unrivalled in its ecological diversity, and viewed as a cornerstone of life, its degradation has led to global anxiety. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, fires have increased by 80 percent this year alone. In order to understand the continued persistence and increase of these fires, it’s important to understand Brazil’s colonial past, and the diverging economic and cultural perceptions between Indigenous Peoples, and the inhabitants of the state.  

Colonial Past 

Prior to Portuguese colonization, the Amazon region was inhabited by tribes such as the Tuparinambas, Guaranis, and a dozen others. The tribes held a  “communal or reciprocal attitude” towards the land. As a result of their view of the  intertwining relationship between nature, animals, and humans, the people of the Amazon lived through auto consumption and subsistence farming.  

Portuguese colonization and settlement practices were a stark contrast to this ideology as the Portuguese sought to appropriate the land, the people, and it’s goods.This was a brutal excursion: as the Portuguese transformed Brazil into an agrarian empire that was based on export-oriented growth, they enslaved, displaced, and subjugated Indigenous people. The Portuguese viewed the land as human domain, and Indigenous Peoples as labor power to be used for tobacco and sugar cane production. However, within the colonial structure, Indigenous Peoples  still found ways to gain political leverage. Through their knowledge of the Amazon, excursions into the forest, and maintained relationships with other tribes outside of Portuguese control, they still maintained a sense of autonomy —an important factor to keep in acknowledging the complex relationship Indigenous Peoples had with the state, as well as their historic and continuing sense of agency. 

Modern Day Relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the State 

The same relationship of agency and subjugation continues in the modern-day, and is reflected in the Amazon fires. According to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, “an estimated 3,553 fires are now burning on 148 Indigenous territories in the region.” To cattle ranchers, land-grabbers, and farmers this deforestation is seen as a sign of progress: it opens up the land for private accumulation and investment, which in turn fuels the economy, and creates jobs. From 2004 to 2014, in a series of green reforms, the Brazilian government took back land it had previously allotted to farmers in an effort to control the Amazon fires. As a result, Farmers often turn to robust criminal networks that have the capacity to “coordinate large scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber while at the same time deploying armed men to protect their interests.”  These groups are commonly known as ipe mafias: named after the Amazonian ipe tree that’s most commonly exploited for its wood. 

Evidence of these mafias can be seen in the reported “Fire Day”: the day trade unionists, farmers, traders, and land-grabbers agreed to burn down large parts of the Amazon.  These criminal networks are able to proliferate because of the increasing environmental deregulation brought about by a decrease in government spending due to Brazil’s  2015 recession, and  President Jair Bolsonaro’s favor towards naturally exploitative practices. 

The fire has come with devastating and irreversible effects for Indigenous communities as it destroys biological forms of sustenance and sites of cultural reproduction. It is because of these very reasons that Tribes such as the MandukuBau, and Yanomami continue to fight for the ecological protection of the Amazon.  According to Aldilo Amancio Caetano Kaba Munduruku, a representative of the Munduruku people “Indigenous people have always been protecting biodiversity and nature.” However, this often leaves Indigenous communities susceptible to systematic and violent attacks, as they are placed in opposition to the country’s development, and the economically progressive agenda of land-grabbers, trade unionists, and transnational companies. This results in a system that gives “priority to capital-intensive and export-oriented development at the expense of human rights and ecological equilibrium.

Legal Remedies  

The primary form of legal refuge which Indigenous Peoples have within the Portuguese legal system is the 1988 constitution.   Legally, this constitution recognizes Indigenous Peoples as the first and natural owners of Brazilian land. In practice, land demarcation tends to undermine this very aim: according to Decreto 1.775/96., before land demarcation can begin, an anthropological study is required to ensure that this is Indigenous land; yet, this bureaucratic process often halts the actualization of rights of Indigenous Peoples. One such group is the Tapeba people have been waiting for their land demarcation for  35 years, and have faced continuous legal barriers.

Internationally, Indigenous Peoples can look towards multiple covenants for an assurance of their self-determination. According to the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,  “the Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,  as well as the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, affirm the fundamental importance of the right to self-determination of all peoples, by virtue of which they freely determine their political status.” However, the effectiveness of these covenants has been questioned by numerous international Indigenous scholars. These scholars argue that even though these covenants provide visibility and moral and political consensus, they follow the capitalistic, Western trajectory of individual rights that are not congruent with the development of other cultures.  They also hold no weight, or hard power, in forcing countries to change policy. 

The only force of hard power might be the international community’s fiscal pressure. After president Bolsonaro issued a decree that abolished NGO committees specifically concerned with the implementation of environmental policy in the Amazon, Norway, the Amazon’s fund greatest contributor, pulled out of the fund and suspended all further contributions for the maintenance of the forest. 

The oppositional relationship between Indigenous Peoples’ collective right of ownership and the interests of the state, highlight the colonial and alienating nature of Indigenous Peoples’ citizenship. As the fires in the Amazon continue to unfold, we must remember to analyze it through a historical and transatlantic lens. A lens that recognizes the historic plight of Indigenous Peoples, as well their continuing and present role as inhabitants of the Amazon.