Skip to main content

Brazil: Indigenous Rights Under Serious Threat

Government Undermines Agency Tasked with Protecting Indigenous Peoples

Children in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, located in the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas, in June 2021. © Gabriel Chaim

(São Paulo) – The Brazilian government has adopted policies that seriously threaten the rights of Indigenous peoples, Human Rights Watch said today, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has undermined the government agency tasked with protecting those rights, issued regulations that are harmful to Indigenous people, and halted the recognition of their traditional lands. The government has also weakened the federal environmental protection agencies, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA, its Portuguese acronym) and the Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), leaving Indigenous territories even more vulnerable to encroachment.

“The Brazilian government has transformed an agency charged with promoting and protecting Indigenous rights into an agency that jeopardizes them,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s anti-Indigenous rights policies and statements have emboldened miners, loggers, land-grabbers, and poachers to encroach on Indigenous territories with impunity, leading to devastating consequences for Indigenous people and the environment.”

During his electoral campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro lambasted Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI) for protecting Indigenous rights and pledged to “scythe” it. Once in office, he has delivered on that pledge, Human Rights Watch said.

Marcelo Xavier, appointed by President Bolsonaro to preside over FUNAI in July 2019, has removed experienced career public servants from leadership positions. He has asked the police to open criminal investigations against employees, Indigenous leaders, and even prosecutors for defending Indigenous rights; hampered efforts to protect Indigenous territories; and adopted policies that facilitated encroachment.

Xavier has not responded to a request for comment that Human Rights Watch sent to his office.

Just two of 39 regional coordinators – who are in charge of protecting the rights of Indigenous people in their region – have permanent appointments, according to a joint report by United Indigenist (INA), a non-governmental association of FUNAI employees, and the non-profit Institute for Socio-Economic Studies (INESC). Another ten are career civil servants who are acting coordinators.

The other regional coordinators are political appointees, including 21 active or retired military or police officers with little or no expertise on Indigenous issues. Xavier himself is a federal police officer. A recent news report published a list of candidates for leadership positions allegedly produced by the office of FUNAI’s administrative director that indicated whether the candidates supported the government. The article said the list was used to decide on leadership appointments.

Three FUNAI employees and a federal prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that Xavier has created a climate of fear and intimidation within the agency.

Federal prosecutors said in a statement that Xavier, in a report, accused several FUNAI employees and members of an Indigenous association of crimes “even though he knew they were innocent.” According to prosecutors, he did that “as a means of political pressure” for approval of an electric power line through Indigenous territory. Xavier sent that report to federal police, calling for their prosecution, and to Brazil’s intelligence agency, ABIN, federal prosecutors said. After a federal prosecutor closed the case, Xavier requested that the prosecutor be subject to a criminal investigation. In July 2022, federal prosecutors charged Xavier with knowingly making false accusations of criminal activity. Xavier has not publicly responded.

Ubiratan Cazetta, president of the National Association of Federal Prosecutors, told Human Rights Watch that on several occasions Xavier has asked federal police to investigate federal prosecutors who defended Indigenous rights and has asked the federal prosecutor’s internal affairs office to conduct disciplinary investigations. “He has been trying to intimidate prosecutors,” Cazetta said.

Xavier also asked the federal police to investigate APIB, Brazil´s main coalition of Indigenous organizations, after it criticized the government. He also requested an investigation of an Indigenous leader and that the intelligence agency “monitor” the activities of the Indigenous people the leader belongs to.

INA, the FUNAI employees’ association, asserts that the agency’s leadership has transferred staff when their reports supported Indigenous claims and in some cases asked the agency’s internal affairs office to investigate their conduct. In one case, Xavier asked for investigations into an employee who wrote a report, requested by the agency’s legal department, that recommended opposing a lawsuit that sought to stop the demarcation of an Indigenous territory, the employee association said. Xavier has not publicly responded to the allegations, it said.

The agency leadership has also introduced bureaucratic hurdles that severely hamper the work of staff, several employees told Human Rights Watch. Employees have to seek permission 15 days in advance to travel to an Indigenous territory. making it virtually impossible to respond to emergencies. The agency routinely denies permission for trips to Indigenous territories that are in the process of being demarcated, an employee said.

Conducting studies leading to the demarcation of Indigenous territory is one of the agency’s main tasks.  Under Brazilian law, demarcation sets out clearly what land belongs to Indigenous peoples and provides them with secure collective legal rights over that land. That recognition is extremely important for their cultural and physical survival, Eliana Torelly, a federal prosecutor, told Human Rights Watch.

Demarcation is pending for 241 Indigenous territories. During the 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro pledged not to designate “one more centimeter” of Indigenous territory. As president, he has not granted titles for any Indigenous territory. FUNAI’s leadership has effectively halted all processes to identify and demarcate Indigenous territories, employees told Human Rights Watch.

In addition, the Bolsonaro administration has been seeking to erode Indigenous rights in the law, promoting a bill that would prevent or hinder many Indigenous peoples from claiming their traditional lands. The bill would require them to prove that they were physically present there on October 5, 1988, the day Brazil’s Constitution was enacted. A case on this matter is pending before the Supreme Court.

The government has also weakened the protection of Indigenous territories whose demarcation is pending.

A regulation issued by FUNAI in 2020 allows individuals to register land they claim to own inside Indigenous areas awaiting demarcation. Such registration could jeopardize the recognition of Indigenous rights and fuel land disputes and encroachment on Indigenous territory. Courts have suspended the regulation in at least 13 states. Yet a media investigation showed that people have registered to their name 239,000 hectares inside Indigenous areas in the past two years.

In 2021, FUNAI issued policies asserting that staff should not conduct activities seeking to protect non-demarcated Indigenous territories, but in February , Brazil’s Supreme Court suspended them. Justice Luis Roberto Barroso wrote that the policies “may constitute an invitation to invade areas that are known to be coveted by land grabbers and loggers.”

The FUNAI leadership has virtually severed ties with other agencies and civil society organizations with which it had cooperated to protect Indigenous territories under previous governments. Torelly, the federal prosecutor, said that the relationship between FUNAI and the unit specializing in Indigenous affairs at the Attorney General´s Office, which she leads, has worsened to the point that currently “it is almost non-existent.”

A federal police agent, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch that they no longer involve FUNAI in raids to fight environmental crime for fear that it alerts criminals. The agent cited the case of a FUNAI regional coordinator, retired from the military, whom federal prosecutors accused of facilitating illegal cattle raising within an Indigenous territory in Mato Grosso state, among other crimes. In a public statement, FUNAI said that renting out land within Indigenous territory is illegal and that the coordinator would be removed.

Indigenous leaders told Human Rights Watch the paralysis at FUNAI has empowered criminal groups involved in environmental destruction.

Across Brazil, illegal logging, mining, poaching, and land grabbing in Indigenous lands increased by 137 percent in 2020, compared with 2018, the year before President Bolsonaro took office, according to the latest data by the Indigenist Missionary Council, a nonprofit organization. The total area deforested in Indigenous territories in the Amazon during President Bolsonaro’s first three years in office was 138 percent higher than in the previous three years (2016-2018), according to the non-profit Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA).

Along with environmental destruction came violence. Indigenous people in the Javari Valley, which has the largest concentration of Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation in the world, had collaborated with FUNAI in protecting the forest until 2019, Beto Marubo, one of the leaders of UNIVAJA, a local association of Indigenous peoples, told Human Rights Watch. Due to FUNAI’s weakening, they have felt they had to start patrolling the forest on their own, he said.

In 2019, a FUNAI agent, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, was killed in Tabatinga, execution-style. His murder remains unsolved. Bruno Pereira, who was on leave from FUNAI, was killed in 2022, along with journalist Dom Phillips. Pereira had been the director of FUNAI’s office for uncontacted people but was removed after he led a successful operation against illegal mining in the Javari Valley in 2019. Federal prosecutors have charged three men allegedly involved in illegal fishing with Bruno Pereira and Phillips’ murders.

Other FUNAI agents told Human Rights Watch that they fear for their lives and feel left without support by the agency’s leadership. “There is a real chance that what happened to Bruno and Maxciel will happen to me,” an agent said.

“As the beginning of the electoral campaign approaches, candidates should tell voters how they will ensure that FUNAI will fulfill its mission again, how they will protect Indigenous rights, and how they will dismantle the criminal groups that are both destroying Brazil’s environmental riches, and threatening and attacking forest defenders,” Canineu said.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country