Brazil's "Genocide Decree." (Law Affecting Indigenous Land Demarcation)

By Barbic, Sheryl | Multinational Monitor, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Brazil's "Genocide Decree." (Law Affecting Indigenous Land Demarcation)


Barbic, Sheryl, Multinational Monitor


On January 8, 1996, Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed into law Decree 1775, dubbed the "Genocide Decree" by human fights activists.

The new decree reverses the tenets of existing laws that protect indigenous people by allowing commercial interests to protest the demarcation of land as indigenous territory. Brazilian indigenous and environmental groups and international indigenous rights organizations charge that the new law will undermine the rights of indigenous people to their traditional lands as guaranteed in Brazil's constitution, and could strip local communities of control of the natural resources on which they depend. Furthermore, they say, formal challenges by commercial interests to demarcation decisions will compromise the already slow process of establishing additional indigenous reserves and may call into question the legitimacy of existing ones.

"Decree 1775 is more than a setback; it's a death sentence for many indigenous groups," said the Brazil-based Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon.

Alarmed by the serious situation facing indigenous groups in Brazil, the Organization of American States (OAS) is already compiling a report to President Cardoso's government that directs the state to respect human rights. And the international groups that form the Amazon Coalition have mounted a campaign to urge President Cardoso to revoke the Genocide Decree.

In 1988, the Brazilian Congress took a decisive step away from Brazil's shameful history of abuse of indigenous people and incorporated Article 231 into the constitution. This legislation recognized the inalienable right of indigenous people to their ancestral lands and natural resources and guaranteed their right to exist as distinct cultures. Decree 22, adopted in 1991, strengthened the constitutional primacy of indigenous rights over competing interests. The decree established that title to indigenous land would be based on aboriginal habitation alone, and that parties who possessed secondary, written title to these lands would be compensated for their losses.

As part of this legislation, the government adopted a timetable for demarcation of indigenous land, with a planned completion date of October 5, 1993. To date, however, Brazil has granted only 210 indigenous land titles out of 554 acknowledged claims. Decree 1775 will derail this process, already more than two years behind schedule.

Responding to monied interests, Brazilian Minister of Justice Nelson Jobim has been working to revoke Decree 22 since its enactment. Jobim successfully argued that the law violates Brazilian constitutional guarantees of a right to an adversarial process because it does not allow non-indigenous claimants to land to challenge government decisions. The Genocide Decree gives private commercial interests "the right to contest," and effectively annuls Decree 22. …

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