Brazil Indigenous Land Rights

Indigenous Land Rights Under Threat in Brazil

Indigenous Land Rights Under Threat in Brazil

Last week, nearly 6,000 Indigenous Brazilians from across four dozen tribes marched to the nation’s capital of Brasilia following a recent Supreme Court ruling that threatens their right to ancestral lands.

The ruling is founded on allegations that the lands were unoccupied in 1988, the year Brazil’s modern constitution was set into motion, following the country’s return to democracy. Indigenous communities, however, assert that they were forcefully expelled from the land during the military dictatorship that lasted the preceding two decades.

Brazil currently contains 60 Indigenous reservations, which are home to nearly 70,000 people. Bill 490/2007, rightfully dubbed the “Bill of Death,” if passed, would displace any Indigenous people who were either expelled from their territory before the Constitution was enacted—known as the “cut-off date”—or are unable to show that they lived on the land during that time or had initiated legal proceedings to claim the land by that date. 

The provisions of the bill would prevent Indigenous people from ever expanding territory bounds and allow the government to eliminate any reserves that are deemed no longer essential. Meanwhile, the proposed bill would allow the government to further infringe on the freedoms of Indigenous peoples like the Guarani and Kwahiva, living in voluntary isolation—contact which threatens the physical well-being and cultural survival of these populations. 

Furthermore, invasion of ancestral lands would facilitate the establishment of extensive military bases and the expansion of commercial roads through Indigenous territories. Confiscation of these lands would allow for the economic exploitation of valuable natural resources as well, intensifying an already rapid process of deforestation.


Map of the 114 reported isolated Indigenous tribes of Brazil (28 confirmed) based on the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) Map: Centro de Trabalho Indigenista.


While the bill is yet to be set into law, its devastating effects are already being felt throughout the nation, as, under the policies delineated in the bill, the Bolsonaro administration has suspended the demarcation of 27 of the 237 territories being examined.


As satellite imagery shows, Indigenous reserves are the main barrier to Amazon deforestation in Brazil. © Google Earth.


The demonstrations are part of the Luta pela Vida (Struggle for Life) mobilization organized by the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib), working to occupy networks, roads, and villages in Brasilia in the fight for democracy against the Bolsonaro administration’s fiercely “anti-Indigenous agenda” and genocidal policies. According to Human Rights Watch, “approval of the bill would be one of the most significant setbacks in the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights over their traditional lands and resources since the return to democracy in Brazil almost three decades ago.”


Mining industry and individual prospecting requests on indigenous land as filed with the federal government. Map by Mauricio Torres using data provided by the Departamento Nacional de Produção Mineral.


At its core, the proposed bill critically threatens Indigenous rights, not only to land, but to participation in democratic decision-making with the federal government, while violating the 1988 Constitution for the sake of economic gain. The global community must, therefore, stand as allies of the Indigenous people of Brazil to uphold a constitution that recognizes their original rights to ancestral lands as the country’s first inhabitants. We are living through a defining moment for the future of Indigenous peoples and for the Amazon.


Clara Rabbani | University of Chicago

Clara Rabbani is a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago, majoring in Anthropology with a minor in Urban and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about poetry and is the editor of “The World is Waking Up: Poetry of Resistance from Youth Around The World”. With a Brazilian and Iranian background, she is also fascinated with the diversity of human cultures and their intersection with environmentally sustainable practices. She will be collaborating as the Environmental Writer for Brazil.