Through 2019, Brazil's indigenous leaders were increasingly targeted by the country's far right opposition. This clash between both sides is due to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro who keeps promising his constituents that he wants to save the economy of Brazil. The flipside of this promise is that he wants to continue ‘developing’ Brazil - in other words it means to take away the land of indigenous people as a way to modernize and economically develop Brazil to fit Western standards. The economic advancement by disrespecting indigenous people’s lands shows that Bolsonaro’s administration and post-military dictatorship era administrations have been neo-imperialist and post-colonial agents who are extracting natural resources to benefit the demand of the Global North.
The section under “Powers of the National Congress,” article 49 section XVI states that the Congress has the ability to “authorize exploitation and use of water resources, prospecting and mining of mineral wealth on indigenous lands.” Even though Bolsonaro is defying the human rights for Brazilian indigenous people, this excerpt from the 1988 Brazil’s Constitution shows that indigenous lands have been exploited endlessly at a dramatic scale. Since 1988, even legislators from the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) have not strongly opposed the exploitation of natural resources. The only difference from back then and now is that under the administration of Bolsonaro is that natural resources such as timber, minerals, water have been exploited at a rapid scale and threatening the lives of indigenous environmental leaders.
Before Bolsonaro took office, the burning scale of the Amazon rainforest was at a constant slow rate. However, as soon as Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president, the burning scale of the Amazon rainforest has doubled and intensified. According to the data provided by the National Institute for Space Research, in 2013 there were around approximately 35,000 fires, 2014 had nearly 50,000 fires, 2015 had about the same amount as 2014, 2016 had nearly 65,000 fires, and the years 2017 and 2018 had less than 50,000 fires reported in the Amazon rainforest. The difference between pre-2018 presidential election and 2019 is double the amount from 2013 when the Institute reported nearly 75,000 fires in the Amazon rainforest. This rapid devastation of natural resources and invasion of indigenous lands is due to the increase of illegal logging under a far-right leader who does not care about the well-being of minorities. Instead, his main concern is seeking out maximum profit that his supporters and himself can profit from the extraction of essential natural resources.
In the past couple of years, many European corporations have been traced to giving money to illegal loggers. Benevides Madeiras, a Brazilian logging company exported 266 and 125 tons of timber to French firms Guillemette & Cie and Groupe Rougier even while the owner, Arnaldo Betzel, was fined with 2.2 million Brazilian reals (USD $560,000) for illegal deforestation. This tracing of the supply and demand chain provides evidence that the post-colonial and neo-imperialist project has indeed benefited the Brazilian elite, whose majority is composed of European ancestry.
Bolsonaro’s speeches on indigenous rights have raised concerns among academics and human rights defenders. In a speech that delivered in August, he stated that, “there’s a lot of land for Indians.” Therefore, it is justified that they only need relative space for the amount of Indians living on these lands. This only generates a post-colonial attitude about how indigenous lands should be managed by an oppressive state. A progressive senator, Randolfe Rodrigues stated that “the government’s attitude towards indigenous people is the same attitude the Portuguese had when they first came to Brazil: to enslave, to colonize and to acculturate – to destroy their cultures.” This statement is even reaffirmed by Bolsonaro’s opposition.
Indigenous leaders and advocates have also been threatened by opposing entities that have oftentimes led to their murders. A specific case occurred on December 7th when two indigenous leaders were shot on a rural Amazon highway after they were returning from a meeting with the power company Electrobras. In 2017, 110 indigenous people were murdered while in 2018 approximately 135 indigenous people were murdered, only for the sole purpose of defending their lands. With the current ultra-right administration, the murder rate seems to get much worse.
This trend should be altered at the institutional level by continuing to ratify laws that protect the land of indigenous people and its’ own people. However, this should not be the only method for taking proper action. The demand to exploit natural resources may affect everyone who lives in this planet in the near future. Thus, it is necessary for multi-national corporations to economically sanction illegal loggers. Multi-national corporations who want to purchase natural resources (e.g., timber) should ask for the advice of an NGO that can provide a list of ethically sourced timber. At the same time, NGOs should be in charge of shaming corporations that purchase unethical sourced natural resource material who may also be in complicit for the confiscation of indigenous people’s lands. The killings of innocent indigenous leaders, who are protecting their ancestral lands, need to be strongly denounced at the international level just as any other Western affair.
Gloria Abril Monroy is an undergraduate student from Tijuana, Mexico who studies international relations at American University in Washington, D.C. Her research topics of interest are international economic development, human rights and cultural anthropology.