New indigenous territories expand environmental protection in the Brazilian Amazon, but land conflicts remain a threat

Brazil recently recognized six new indigenous territories, a significant move to safeguard ancestral lands and the environment. The area granted officially by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva covers a total of 800 square miles, primarily located in the Amazon.

This is the first official demarcation of indigenous lands since 2018, indicating a policy shift after the far-right Jair Bolsonaro administration’s ostensive attacks against indigenous rights. While there are reasons to celebrate, the demarcation is only an initial step, given the persistent intimidation and violence still threatening indigenous communities and their territories.

Report for the World Corps Member Fabio Bispo, from InfoAmazonia, explains below what these new territories mean for Brazil and for the world – and how journalists can better help society to understand the remaining challenges in the region:

Report for the World: What is the historical significance of this measure, and its medium and long term impact?

Fabio Bispo: By announcing the demarcation of indigenous territories last month, during the large indigenous camp that took place in Brazil’s capital, President Lula resumed the policy of protecting indigenous peoples and their territories and fulfilled a campaign promise. The policy of protecting Brazilian indigenous peoples carries a double weight on the international stage: first, respecting human rights, by recognizing the self-determination and rights of indigenous peoples, and second, by expanding environmental protection, especially in the Amazon. This is because indigenous lands are the places that best preserve the forest and its natural characteristics. So, the demarcation contributes to deforestation reduction targets. At least for now, it frustrates the interests of economic groups looking to exploit these territories.

Although it may seem simple, the path to recovery will be long. It is worth remembering that former far-right President Bolsonaro tried to dismantle the indigenous protection policy and hand over territories to large mining, infrastructure, and agriculture projects. Although he failed to pass these measures in Congress, his administration represented a major setback for this protection, allowing the largest invasion of indigenous lands by illegal mining since the 1988 Constitution. In addition, Bolsonaro publicly refused to demarcate new indigenous lands, as provided for in the Brazilian Constitution, leaving territories completely unprotected.

RFW: Recently, cases of violence against Yanomami peoples have made headlines again, as a sign that the challenges threatening indigenous culture remain. What is the main problem, and are there any perspectives for improvement? 

Bispo: Currently, the Brazilian government is committed to removing invaders from the Yanomami Indigenous Land, where more than 20,000 illegal gold miners have settled, causing a serious humanitarian crisis. This operation has been ongoing for over three months and has resulted in the deaths of both Indigenous people and invaders.

Since the start of the new government (January 2023), when the process of removing the invaders was announced, it was known that it would not be an easy operation. This is because illegal mining in Yanomami Land, as well as in other territories in Brazil, is linked with organized crime. They use gold mining to launder money from drug and arms trafficking.

It is important that the government has taken on the constitutional responsibility of recognizing the Yanomami people’s right to their territory. However, given the complexity of the action in the remote, densely forested area on the border with Venezuela, it is still uncertain how long this will take for the territories to be confirmed as their “de facto” territory. .

RFW: In your opinion, how has the national and international press covered the issue of indigenous peoples in the Amazon, and what points can be improved to broaden understanding of the subject?

Bispo: The coverage of indigenous issues in the Brazilian Amazon has been gaining more and more attention due to the serious transgressions to which these people have been subjected in recent years. However, the traditional media still relies heavily on so-called journalistic objectivity, and when covering these cases, they do so in a very specific and narrow way, often disconnected from the broader and historical context of these violations.

In my view, Brazilian journalism, as well as international correspondents who cover these issues, don’t seem interested in understanding and reporting on the context of these rights violations. Brazil has 305 ethnic groups spread throughout all regions of the country, with cultures, languages, and ways of life and organization that can be very different. These peoples have been persecuted for more than 500 years throughout our history, some still avoid contact with non-indigenous peoples, while others have undergone intense processes of acculturation, almost never peaceful, by organizations such as the church and state.

Understanding the historical issues of these communities is essential to understanding their current context. However, it is not just journalism that fails in this regard, I see that schools and the Brazilian justice system itself also ignore historical facts related to indigenous peoples. To a large extent, our society still has a very distant and romanticized view of the indigenous people’s history.