Brazil: The Return of Colonialism

The impacts of colonialism are still felt around the world. For the most part, the descendants of colonizers occupy the wealthier (formerly ‘Mother’) nations and settler states, while the areas that were historically exploited persist in their struggle to overcome poverty and underdevelopment. Within settler states, minority populations—such as racialized communities, immigrants, migrant workers, and Indigenous Peoples—face obstacles that stem from colonialism. In the Americas, racism and discrimination against native populations are particularly prevalent. Some countries, such as Canada, have only recently taken steps towards reconciliation in an effort to acknowledge and address a dark history of oppression and forced assimilation tactics. Despite criticism that efforts towards reconciliation can be slow,  the overarching goal is to ensure that the worst of colonialism is in the past. Other countries, however, appear to be regressing, rather than moving forward. Since the inauguration of current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro (2019-present), many of Brazil’s  policies that affect the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon have been more reflective of a return of colonialism—unbridled and blatant in the 21st century.

Chief from the Desana ethnic group in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Eduardo Fonseca Arraes.

According to the Brazilian Constitution (1988), Indigenous land rights are guaranteed on Indigenous ancestral lands, much of which is located in the Amazon rainforest. For decades, Brazil’s Indigenous agency, FUNAI, has been working to officially identify and delineate these areas. Historically, outsider interest groups could not obtain a permit or certificate to gain access to land that was under review of an Indigenous land claim. However, in May 2020, President Bolsonaro’s government reversed the policy that provided land protections, resulting in 38,000 square miles of Indigenous land in dispute being opened for commercial development claims. This policy change is highly controversial because it effectively undermines the process that was put in place to protect Indigenous land rights. Encouraged by Bolsonaro, this form of deregulation is designed to allow for increased development within the Amazon, specifically targeting the expansion of Brazil’s farming and mining industries. In essence, the new policy works to infringe upon and disregard Indigenous rights, allowing outsiders to extract resources and lay claim to lands that rightfully belong to the local Indigenous populations. 

Often occurring in tandem with Indigenous issues, there are significant environmental consequences to these actions; actions which make up only a fraction of all of the cutbacks on environmental protections. IBAMA, the government agency primarily responsible for enforcing the laws that safeguard the environment in Brazil, has found itself short on staff since 2020 due to a 25% year-over-year budget cut. In lieu, a new council, The National Council for the Legal Amazon, has been created to oversee “the activities of all the ministries involved in the protection, defense and development, and sustainable development of the Amazon,” but is led by Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a former military commander with no apparent care for environmentalism and who is a staunch supporter of potash mining. Beyond Mourão, the newly formed Amazon Council has been criticized for including almost two dozen military personnel, but lacking representation from government agencies that protect Indigenous Peoples and the environment. In accordance with Bolsonaro’s government agenda and political ideologies, it appears that these structures have been created to exploit the Amazon and its peoples in pursuit of economic prosperity.

The disregard for Indigenous rights and the destruction of  the environment in the name of ‘progress’ is not substantially any different to what happened during the peak of colonization and during the development of the settler states. Historically, Indigenous Peoples have been confronted by the colonizers with a mindset that considered them ‘savages’ that needed to be ‘civilized.’ Recently, Bolsonaro has compared Indigenous Peoples to cavemen, claiming they want to experience the “wonders of modernity” and that “Indians are evolving and more and more are becoming human beings like us.” Vice President Mourão has also expressed his derogatory opinion of Indigenous Peoples, caught on record claiming that “Indians are indolent.” It is difficult to distinguish between Bolsonaro and the early colonizers who, centuries ago, also saw themselves as superior and selflessly sacrificial, carrying out the ‘white man’s burden’ during their plight to improve human civilization. The idea of bringing civility and modernity to Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon  is clearly reflected in both the rhetoric used and policies proposed in today’s Brazil. Although no longer tied to ‘whiteness’, the religious and dutiful undertones of colonialism are certainly present, with Bolsonaro having claimed that he is “fulfilling a mission from God.”

Of course, it is unlikely that under the Bolsonaro government there will be any changes or rectifications to the current trajectory. One reason is that Bolsonaro’s response to international criticism has been confrontational and deflective, with statements such as “the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours” and citing the destruction of the ecosystems in other countries. Any sort of resolution for Brazil will likely require new leadership with drastically different ideologies and viewpoints. As of early 2021, the likelihood of change is uncertain, with Bolsonaro’s approval ratings remaining steady, but seeing local politicians with his endorsement losing their elections. However, much of that is likely due to the political ramifications of Brazil’s coronavirus response, which has taken the spotlight. 

With a majority of the focus on COVID-19, large-scale projects threatening the Amazon are still being pursued and with arguably less impediment due to the distraction of the pandemic. One example that has seemingly been drowned out of the public consciousness is the plan to build a highway through the Amazon to connect Brazil to the Pacific Ocean. If this construction project materializes, it will  disrupt Indigenous communities, damage river ecosystems and the occupying wildlife, and provide loggers with access to pristine and untouched areas of the Amazon rainforest. 

While there are many outspoken critics of what is happening to Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, Canada, and other countries around the globe, it is clear that not enough is being done; many issues remain, and in the case of Brazil, are growing. The colonial legacy that is central to many Indigenous issues will continue to loom over political relations between countries, the Indigenous populations that inhabit them, and the environments that they share. However, the strength and resilience of Indigenous Peoples has been proven through the test of time and, at the dawn of a new era of Indigenous empowerment, reconciliation, and cultural revitalization, the world is only just beginning to learn about the intersection of Indigenous social and environmental justice. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the Indigenous Knowledge and Traditional Ecological Knowledge that underpin Indigenous cultures and heritages are key to protecting the natural world. This suggests that, in the face of a global ecological crisis, Brazil should be allocating more of the Amazon rainforest to Indigenous communities, not less. Unfortunately, the case of Brazil illustrates that it ultimately requires strong support and cooperation from the leaders of nation-states to implement and support progressive and sustainable social and environmental policies. Luckily, in a democracy, citizens have the power to choose who they want to be their leader. Therefore, if Brazil wants change, individuals and groups from the private, public, and third sector will need to find a way to galvanize the will of the people; to put the right leaders in power, shape their agendas, and push to forever change the course of history. 

Jeffrey Lim is currently in his second year as a Biomedical Engineering student with a focus on Biomechanics. His interests are to help improve lives within the field of biomedicine. Taking IDEV*1000 inspired further interest in working toward sustainability, and how that can be implemented in his field.