Indian Land Rights and Land Conflicts in Brazil

By Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina | Contemporary Review, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Indian Land Rights and Land Conflicts in Brazil


Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina, Contemporary Review


The urge to demarcate the land of the Brazilian indigenous peoples and to give them property rights became one of the most pressing and vociferous campaigns of the last two decades. This campaign has won the support of corporates such as Body Shop, rock stars such as Sting, as well as of multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the European Union. Although the campaign obtained an enormous success in raising public awareness about the indigenous peoples of Brazil and of the American continents, its success inside Brazil has been hindered by its bias against other Brazilians and by its failure in forming partnerships with the Brazilian government.

Making amends for the past historical shortcomings that the Brazilian Indians endured is in itself a strong reason to justify the demarcation of their land. However, indigenous rights NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) have based their campaign on the allegation that only land demarcation will put an end to the 'massacres' of the Indians. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word 'massacre' means slaughter, carnage or murder in a general fashion. Indians have died in land conflicts in the Amazon, and some individuals have even been murdered, but it is unfair to call such events 'massacres'.

In spite of the continental size of Brazil, land conflicts are still a common occurrence there. The remoteness of many areas encourages lawlessness and leads people to take justice unto themselves. Such conflicts have became so common that few Brazilians do not have a close relative killed in a land conflict in the Amazon. Outside Brazil, the news of such conflicts do not get coverage, unless Indians are killed. The network of indigenous rights and conservation NGOs ensures that such news are disseminated. Besides 'Indians' the only other Brazilian topic' which raises a certain amount of media interest is the 'rainforest'. However, even these two topics tend to be inaccurate and misleading. People tend to assume that most of the Brazilian forests have already vanished, although nearly half of Brazil's territory is still covered by rainforests. Conversely, many people think that the Brazilian Indians form a uniform population, while others assume that the Indians have already disappeared, when in truth there are over 136 thousand Indians organised into 180 different nations, speaking many different dialects. The patchy reports of Brazilian news in the international media is the blind spot behind the distortions regarding Brazil and the Brazilian people, ultimately caused by the infatuating ideology of nature's purity and the 'noble savage'.

There is little merit in defending the obvious. Who does not favour forests, clean air, Indians, the nuclear family, children, animals, health, education and justice? On the other hand, to write about a specific problem, to which no simple solution exists, is a lot more difficult as it requires weeding out the irrelevant distractions so that the problem can be exposed from all sides. This essay attempts to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of adopting a purely ideological approach of the indigenous land rights campaign. lt is suggested it should adopt a more pragmatic approach which takes into consideration the other players involved, from government to the millions of landless poor that are waiting for land.

The first major success of the campaign to demarcate the land of the Brazilian Indians by the indigenous rights NGOs and other groups occurred in 1988, when the Brazilian Congress voted to include an article in the Constitution (article 231)(*) which not only ordered the demarcation of Indian lands but agreed the deadline of October 1993 for it to be completed. However, getting an article in the Constitution was only the first step of a long and tortuous process to take the vast land reservations from the maps and into legal ownership documents. When the deadline of 1993 was reached, only a fraction of the surveys had been concluded. …

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