Skip to main content

Indians in Brazil

During the past year Brazil has been in the throes of writing a new constitution-a process that has permitted, if not encouraged, more massive violations of Indian rights than have been seen in the country for decades.

The shaping of the new constitution raises basic questions about the rights and guarantees for Brazil's 200-plus indigenous groups. The prolonged constitutional debate created a political vacuum, paving the way for a number of special interest groups' attempts to second guess the necessary Indian rights by creating de facto situations that would be accepted as faits accomplis under the new laws. During this period, powerful groups tried to seize control of Indian lands and resources by pushing Indians off their lands, burning their homes and killing or torturing dozens.

* 28 March 1988. Fourteen Ticuna Indians were killed and 23 were wounded in the state of Amazonas along the Brazil-Peru border. One of the survivors said that a group of about 120 Ticuna men, women and children was awaiting news of an official inquiry into the case of a lumberman accused of killing a Ticuna-owned cow when about 20 white lumbermen attacked them with automatic weapons.

The survivors believe that the attack was ordered by Oscar Castelo, a timber merchant and brother of the local chief of police. Despite eyewitness testimony, eight suspects were later released.

The massacre erupted in a climate of tension in the region that had begun with the demarcation of four Ticuna areas in April 1986. The Ticuna have had to protect their land from invasion and exploitation by lumber companies and their representatives since that time.

* 31 March 1988. Some 300 Pataxó Haha-hai Indians buried 22-year-old Djalma Lima Pataxó. His fingernails and body hair had been torn out and his genitals cut off. He had been missing since 21 March, when a conflict had erupted between the Pataxó, squatters and neighboring ranchers in which 36 people were wounded. Djalma's father has accused a neighboring ranch owner. To date, seven Pataxó have been killed.

Conflict in the area intensified six years ago when a Brazilian court awarded the Pataxó 1,300 ha of some 36,000 set aside in 1926. The Pataxó originally lost the land when white settlers forced them out generations earlier. Some 1,300 people live on the land, which has no fresh water. Ranchers are keeping the Pataxó as virtual prisoners on the land, preventing them from traveling to nearby towns where they can purchase much-needed basic necessities.

* 19 April 1988. Ranchers set fire to a cattle shed and an assembly hall built by Macuxí. Indians in Caraturu in the state of Roraima. Arguing that the Macuxí were invading their lands, they then obtained arrest warrants. Police arrested 66 Indians. Fifty-five were released, but 11 were identified as leaders and held incommunicado in a penitentiary. Lawyers' efforts to visit the prisoners were thwarted. They were later released on 17 May.

On 6 May, 120 Macuxí who came to the same site to rebuild the assembly hall were arrested and held by the military police.

* 27 April 1988. Twenty Yanomami Indians were shot and killed by miners in the Papiu region of the state of Roraima when they came to the miners' camp to ask for food. A number of others were wounded; some are still missing.

In the last four months, 20,000 illegal gold prospectors have invaded Yanomami lands; they are now arriving at a rate of more than 100 per day. Some observers expect an additional 50,000 miners in the next few months. More than 120 small planes bring them and supplies into the area. The region now has four airstrips and 50 helicopter landing sites.

The Brazilian government has claimed that the miners are illegal squatters and will be evicted. Conversely, however, government agencies have helped the miners improve their landing strips.

More than 50 Indians have died from the influenza virus transmitted by miners, and in some Yanomami areas more than 75 percent of the inhabitants are thought to have contracted the disease. Hepatitis and malaria are also rampant in the miner camps; if they have not already presented a threat to Yanomami settlements, they soon will.

* 28 April 1988. At a meeting in Brasilia, 31 Indian groups from the state of Acre were told that their land rights would be recognized and registered as "indigenous colonies." The first such colony was created for the Tukano last year. This form of land rights permits a drastic reduction and fragmentation of the indigenous areas, ultimately surrounding and permeating them with colonization and development projects. The Brazilian government claims it has adopted this "solution" in particular for areas where it considers the indigenous population to be acculturated. Little evidence exists to support this claim, however.


* 1986-1988. Researchers have recently discovered that mercury used extensively in numerous gold-mining activities in Brazil's greater Amazonia region is contaminating many Amazon rivers, putting the area's complex ecology and its populations at great risk. Most of the contamination measured thus far occurs along the Madeira River in western Rondônia between the towns of Porto Velho and Guajará-Mirím. Between 1979 and 1985 an estimated 87 tons of mercury was released in the area, with 45 percent remaining in the river and the rest going into the atmosphere. Levels of contamination in sediments and rivers range from 50 ppb (parts per billion) to 1,675. Research findings indicate that some parts of the Amazon ecosystem as well as a number of food fishes have been contaminated. Many of the contaminated food items are well above the safety limit established by the World Health Organization.

The sections of the constitution that pertain to Indian rights have now been drafted and approved. They are more or less equal to those from the previous constitution. The military can still control Indian areas by declaring them national security zones. The only significant changes in the constitution actually work in favor of Brazil's Indians. The constitution previously stated that Indians had rights to land that they permanently inhabited. This will allow for a much broader interpretation of land rights. Also, the Brazilian congress must now approve any changes in Indian reserves.

The new constitution means that the same battles will need to be fought. Half of the next issue of CSQ will present a more in-depth analysis of the situation of Indians in Brazil.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.