Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement: resolute in times of crisis

Brazil's indigenous people face mounting threats under President Temer, yet recent collective and high-profile efforts have seen some success in the fight for their lands.

Brazilian indigenous leaders stand together in traditional clothing at a recent assembly Brazilian indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara at a recent Terra Livre gathering. Image: Amazon Watch. All rights reserved.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

Brazilian indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara gave a fiery speech on
environmentalism and human rights at the Rock in Rio music festival in
September 2017, alongside Alicia Keys, she captured the power and authority of
Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement (Mobilização Nacional Indígena, MNI). “This is the mother of all struggles,
the struggle for Mother Earth!” exclaimed Sônia to a massive, cheering
audience. A lifelong advocate for the rights of the country’s native peoples
and the integrity of the ecosystems upon which they depend, Sônia helps to lead
one of South America’s most vibrant social movements, rooted firmly in resistance
to an unjust government set on slashing fundamental socio-environmental

Brazil lurches through a prolonged period of economic and political crisis, its
indigenous peoples and irreplaceable ecosystems are paying a particularly heavy
price. Under President Michel Temer, Brazil’s environmental safeguards and
human rights standards have fallen under an attack that is unprecedented since
the fall of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985. Largely dictated by
powerful industry groups, his government’s policies have taken aim at the
hard-fought land rights of indigenous peoples, as well as protections to the
Amazon’s vast forests. Under the rubric of stimulating economic growth, Mr.
Temer personally endorsed the freezing of indigenous land titling processes
across the country, gutted the budget of the indigenous affairs agency FUNAI,
and is poised to approve legislation that would allow extractive industry on
native lands.   

It aimed to halt 748 pending cases to title tribal lands while stripping indigenous peoples of their constitutional rights

July, President Temer’s Attorney General tried to impose a highly flawed legal
interpretation of indigenous land rights known as marco temporal or “time limit.” The interpretation only recognised the land claims of indigenous peoples
that have continuously occupied their territories since Brazil's 1988
Constitution was enshrined, ignoring common situations in which communities
were brutally driven off their lands. It also aimed to halt 748 pending cases to title tribal lands while
stripping indigenous peoples of their constitutional rights to permanent and
exclusive use of their territories, claiming these rights cannot overrule
"national interests" such as military operations, road construction,
communications infrastructure and hydroelectric dams. In August, Temer signed a
decree (known as the “Renca” decree) that opened an area of 46,000 km2 of
preserved Amazonian forests – approximately the size of Denmark – to industrial
mining operations.     

New media strategy, new alliances

land rights stand at the crux of both fundamental human rights and
environmental protections, as Brazil’s native peoples occupy titled ancestral
territories spanning 14 per cent of the country’s extension, of which 98 per
cent fall within the Amazon rainforest. Boasting highly conserved ecosystems, indigenous
territories act as a buffer against rampant Amazon deforestation and a barrier
against industrial development. It is precisely for this reason that these
territories are under increasing attack, led by actors that hail from Brazil’s
agribusiness and mining sector. The Brazilian government’s current assault on
indigenous rights and forest protections is fueled by the promise of short-term
growth, while exacting a devastating toll on human rights and environmental
integrity in the world’s largest rainforest. 

response to mounting existential threats, the MNI has built a network of
supporters, from Brazilian political leaders to cultural icons. The Movement is
backed by national and international NGOs and social movements that have helped
to amplify the reach and influence of its message. Leaders like Sônia Guajajara
have been consistently bringing the MNI’s message to global forums such as the
United Nations, where they have gained considerable traction. 

indigenous peoples are highly familiar with the precedents to today’s assault
and are prepared to fiercely oppose it. Indeed, the National Indigenous
Movement’s methodical and determined resistance has inspired a spectrum of
Brazilian civil society to join forces under the rallying cry “Demarcação Já!” (Land Demarcation Now!).
Their annual Acampamento Terra Livre
(Free Land Encampment) in Brasilia convenes allies from across Brazil and the
globe to support the indigenous struggle for social and environmental justice,
which is widely seen as a collective effort to defend imperiled human rights
norms and guarantee ecological stability. Reflecting the urgency of today’s
crisis, the 2017 ATL gathering was the largest in its history, bringing more
than 1,600 people to the capital for four days of debates, cultural activities and protest. 

This year’s ATL also sought to forge new alliances with indigenous peoples from around the world

communicators, the MNI built an impressive assortment of memes and multimedia
in the lead up to ATL. They broadcast livestreams of the encampment’s
activities that reached millions on social media and launched a high-profile
music video entitled “Land Demarcation Now!” featuring Brazil’s cultural
luminaries such as Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethania. ATL’s media strategy
elevated Brazil’s indigenous struggle to a global audience and built sympathy
with the Movement’s cause. This year’s ATL also sought to forge new alliances
with indigenous peoples from around the world, assembling leaders from Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia
and Indonesia. It also worked to strengthen the representation and protagonism
of indigenous women and youth, and strengthened ties with leaders from
communities of descendants of escaped slaves (quilombolas), whose struggle for land, dignity, and auto-determination
mirrors that of Brazil’s native peoples.

when members of the ATL marched on congressional buildings to send a message
that further rights rollbacks and violence against indigenous peoples would not
be tolerated, police forces responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas
into the crowd of men, women and children. Such state violence clearly
indicates the government’s inability to peacefully dialogue with its indigenous

"Our history didn't start in 1988"

today’s grim context, the National Indigenous Movement has needed to organise
resistance on several fronts at once. By focusing on the plight of the Guaraní
Kaiowá people, who are enduring one South America’s most tragic human rights
emergencies as they live in grinding poverty dispossessed of their lands and
way of life, MNI leaders have traveled to Europe to request that the European
Union consider barring the importation of agricultural products produced on
their ancestral territories. While a long-term campaign, the MNI’s efforts have
already yielded fruit: in 2016 the European Parliament approved a resolution
that “condemns” and “deplores” the human rights violations suffered by the
Guaraní Kaiowá people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. This strategy could
have far-reaching implications for Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, as
mounting denunciations could jeopardise key markets for their export of commodities
like soy, sugar and beef.

Given its recent impressive and successful record at resisting an onslaught of attacks, Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement should inspire anyone resisting regressive governments

July the MNI also mobilised to counter the move by the government to impose the
“time limit” Interpretation of indigenous land rights. In a resounding series of high-profile protests
under the banner of the meme “Our History Didn’t Start in 1988,” the MNI and
its allies successfully elevated this polemic issue to the mainstream Brazilian
and international media. With the world watching, Brazil’s Supreme Court
unanimously ruled against the Attorney General’s opinion, dealing a major blow
to this sweeping rollback and its advocate, President Michel Temer.

When Sônia Guajajara climbed
on stage at Rock in Rio, she brought the message and the power of a resolute
and effective social movement. Her call to defend the Amazon’s forests and
communities inspired thousands around the world to act in solidarity, who in
turned demanded that President Temer cease his reckless agenda. The MNI’s
message was essential for the withdrawal, in late September, of the “Renca”

Given its recent impressive
and successful record at resisting an onslaught of attacks, Brazil’s National
Indigenous Movement should inspire anyone resisting regressive governments
around the world. It should also inspire generous support from around the
world. While working foremost to defend indigenous rights and territories, the
MNI also defends our collective wellbeing by helping to preserve the Amazon’s
climate-stabilising forests. 

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