Indigenous Leadership in Preservation of Biodiversity: The Case of Brazil’s Amazon

Image: Flickr

By Maggie Wang

This article was originally published here on Human Rights Pulse on April 21, 2021.

“If I become President, there will not be another centimeter of indigenous land [demarcated].”

This statement and statements like it—including several where “centimeter” was replaced by “millimeter”—cropped up frequently in the campaign rhetoric of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s far-right populism and militaristic disregard for minority groups—including Indigenous nations, Black Brazilians, and LGBTQ+ people, among others—have made him immensely popular. It has also made him one of the greatest dangers to environmental conservation and the advancement of Indigenous rights. His presidency has seen large-scale destruction of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest and encroachment on Indigenous lands by mining and logging companies. Yet, the centrality of Indigenous groups to Bolsonaro’s anti-environment campaign makes them key stakeholders in any effort to protect the Amazon. Since Indigenous rights and conservation are so closely interlinked, it is crucial that conservationists recognize the invaluable knowledge of Indigenous leaders.

Research has repeatedly shown that lands under Indigenous stewardship are less vulnerable to deforestation and that Indigenous rights to land are critical to preventing further destruction of the Amazon ecosystem. Ada Recinos of Amazon Watch notes, “most of the Amazon nations have ratified International Labor Organization Convention 169, which requires consultation with Indigenous communities to be affected by proposed industrial development.” In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “recommended that the role of Indigenous peoples as forest guardians should be recognized as a solution to the climate crisis.” In practice, however, “private and even public projects run roughshod over the rights and interests of these communities.”

This is not a new phenomenon. Greenpeace’s Daniel Brindis points out that Brazil’s previous two presidents, Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, “were definitely not fulfilling their duties in terms of Indigenous peoples’ rights.” But, unlike his predecessors, “Bolsonaro is saying it out loud.” At his UN General Assembly speech in September 2020, Bolsonaro blamed Indigenous peoples for wildfires that were caused by agribusiness and that he had, in fact, encouraged. The last two fire seasons have wreaked unprecedented havoc on the Amazon—a reality made more painful by the fact that such damage would likely never have resulted under Indigenous stewardship. As Toya Manchineri, a member of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and Coordinator of Territorial Area and Natural Resources at the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), puts it, “this problem results from a way of seeing and dealing with nature that is typical of non-Indigenous people—which consists of the commodification, exploitation, and subjugation of natural resources.” Manchineri contends that “Changing this way of dealing with the world is one of humankind’s greatest challenges today.” The alternative, which has long been enshrined in Indigenous tradition, consists of “building relationships with nature without losing quality of life and thinking about the future and the next generations.”

Indigenous peoples’ approach to land use is holistic in multiple senses of the word. In using resources, they consider traditional practices as well as future needs. Gustavo Silveira, Technical Coordinator at Operação Amazônia Nativa, emphasises that Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land is one of dialogue and mutual nourishment, not one of manipulation and extraction. In this regard, Indigenous peoples offer valuable lessons for how to protect and revitalise the planet. “Indigenous peoples have an understanding of biodiversity that non-Indigenous peoples have no idea about,” Silveira says. For them, nature is integral to every aspect of life, and lack of biodiversity translates to lack of sustenance and lack of life. Silveira is not Indigenous, and the nearly two decades he has spent working with Amazonian Indigenous groups have shown him how Indigenous peoples have a different way of sensing the world around them that permeates every aspect of life. Given these realities, Indigenous leadership—not simply outside intervention on behalf of Indigenous peoples—is critical to achieving any semblance of climate justice.

Yet, when it comes to environmental issues, Brazil’s political and industrial leaders continue to erase Indigenous peoples from their thinking and rhetoric. Brindis explains, “Bolsonaro and mainstream agribusiness say, ‘there’s space for everyone.’ They make it look like you can be neutral and accommodate everyone. But, at the end of the day, if you’re not respecting Indigenous peoples’ rights, you’re undermining the climate and the preservation of the forest.” This rhetoric is by no means limited to the far right; even many conservationists fail to recognise Indigenous peoples’ rights and dignity. “Fortress conservation,” for example, posits that ecosystems are best protected when people, including Indigenous peoples, are removed from long-inhabited lands. The militarisation of some conservation groups has similarly damaged the ability of Indigenous peoples to contribute to the movement for climate justice. Such groups have forsaken invaluable perspectives and allies, as Silveira reiterates: “The division between biodiversity and culture is [constructed] by non-Indigenous peoples. We see biodiversity and culture as two separate things, but Indigenous peoples don’t think this way.”

Provided that advocates make a genuine effort to listen to and uplift Indigenous voices, it may be possible to transform Brazil’s approach to environmental policy. After all, Manchineri notes, “Brazilians are attentive and alert to the importance of” addressing climate change. He cites a recent study by the Institute for Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro, which found that “77% of Brazilians consider it important to protect the environment, even if it means less economic growth and fewer jobs. 92% of those interviewed by the researchers say they believe in the climate crisis and, of these people, 77% know that this crisis is caused by human action.” Brindis concurs: “the Brazilian public is overwhelmingly environmentalist. They really care about the Amazon and are proud of it. I think it’s a matter of whether or not they understand that just because there’s a lot of Amazon left doesn’t mean we can afford to lose any more.”

Raising awareness of the urgency of conservation—and of Indigenous peoples’ unique ability to address this urgency—is therefore crucial. Unfortunately, however, Bolsonaro’s tenure has fundamentally threatened Brazilian institutions. “Bolsonaro is attacking the entire Brazilian Constitution,” Brindis emphasises. “Indigenous peoples are part of that, but he’s also shrunk the space of civil society and proposed to regulate any NGO active in the Amazon.” During his campaign, he toyed with the idea of abolishing FUNAI, the government agency that protects Indigenous interests. His choice for the agency’s president turned out to be a federal police officer with strong ties to agribusiness.

Another of Bolsonaro’s FUNAI’s appointees was a missionary, a development that Silveira says is particularly alarming for uncontacted tribes, who have become increasingly vulnerable to missionaries’ intrusion during Bolsonaro’s tenure. “This is one of the worst, most dangerous pressures,” Silveira says. “The missionaries do everything to contact them and evangelise to them [because] they think that, as long as there are people who don’t know the word of God, Jesus won’t come back to Earth.” This fanaticism can be traced directly to colonial-era notions of Indigenous peoples as “heathens” and “natural slaves”. The country’s constitution, written in 1988, prohibits the eviction of Indigenous peoples from their land and acknowledges their status as the original inhabitants of what is now Brazil. But Brazil’s current government has scant respect for such notions. “He knows what he is doing,” Silveira says of Bolsonaro. In other words, Brazil’s president has enshrined colonialism and racism firmly into his agenda.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Indigenous peoples’ ability to advance their own interests has been hampered under Bolsonaro’s presidency—a trend only exacerbated by the disproportionately severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Amazon region. Indigenous communities, already badly exposed to the virus last year, have suffered further disasters in recent months with the collapse of healthcare systems throughout Brazil’s Amazonian states. All the while, environmental degradation has not ceased. In early 2020, Bolsonaro’s Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, declared at a cabinet meeting that the government should take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to deregulate resource extraction. The press was distracted by the pandemic, he said, and Congress would never approve of the government’s plans if they were consulted first. In other words, it was the perfect opportunity.

More than anything, Salles’ shameless disregard for ethics and the rule of law should serve as an international wake-up call on climate change and Indigenous rights. Manchineri cites a study by Global Witness that concluded that “Brazil is the third-most-dangerous place in the world for social and environmental activists. There were 24 murders in 2019, 90% of them in the Amazon region.” Brazil’s Indigenous peoples are not alone in their struggles. Manchineri continues, “Worldwide, 40% of the socio-environmental activists killed are Indigenous leaders.” Such violence is as dangerous to future generations as to current ones, and Manchineri and COIAB “do not foresee, in any way, a successful confrontation of the climate crisis that disregards the rights of Indigenous peoples [anywhere in] the world.” Not only must other countries speak out against Bolsonaro’s violations of human rights, but they must also respect and protect the contributions of Indigenous leaders.

For the Amazon and elsewhere, international heavyweights like the United States remain a major source of potential pressure. “The international community needs to be louder,” Brindis says. For example, “The U.S. could do a lot more by showing up to international human rights fora like ILO Convention 169.” Similarly, major polluters, especially in developed economies, need to take steps to cut pollution at its source rather than simply buying carbon offsets in the Amazon. “There’s no empirical data to prove that carbon offsets actually work,” Brindis points out, and planting trees to compensate for continued reliance on fossil fuels is likely to do greater harm than good. Whether capitalism and biodiversity can coexist in the long run remains up for debate. Silveira is not convinced they are. “We are trying to make it possible for capitalism to work with biodiversity. But it’s not easy,” especially because consumers are not always willing to pay the higher prices that environmentally conscious goods tend to command.

When it comes to solutions, Brindis is pragmatic. He points to trade as a mechanism for exerting pressure against Bolsonaro’s anti-environmentalist, anti-Indigenous agenda. “Any lever that impacts the broader sectors of the economy or foreign direct investment is [powerful],” he contends, and policymakers intent on taking Brazil’s government to task should think twice about advancing trade agreements that might strengthen popular support for Bolsonaro. But, in the end, Indigenous leadership is as important internationally as it is domestically. The rise of figures like U.S. Secretary of the Interior nominee Deb Haaland—who has strong ties to Brazilian Indigenous leaders, such as Federal Deputy Joênia Wapichana—promise to revitalise international calls for Indigenous rights and leadership.

Most importantly, Indigenous peoples themselves have shown remarkable resilience and determination to advance their rights and to protect the natural world. As Recimos points out, “Indigenous communities have taken on extractive industries and won.” In January of this year, Panama’s Naso people recovered their rights to ancestral territories in a landmark court ruling that could, combined with increasing international recognition of Indigenous issues, inspire wider change in the Americas. Manchineri, too, is hopeful. “Despite all the problems and difficulties, we resist,” he says. “Despite all the setbacks we are experiencing and the difficulties that are imposed on Brazilian Indigenous peoples, we always find new ways of being in the world. […] We have [survived] over 500 years of struggles, and we feel ready and prepared for 500 more.”