Indians of the Amazon

By Megan Mylan

Legal Protections

Indians of the Amazon

Few would contradict the statement that the 20th century wrought misery and devastation on the Amazon’s native tribes. Faced with the prospect of annihilation of the Indians and with the continued ransacking of the environment, Brazil’s Ministry of the Interior created the Fundaçao Nacional do Índio (National Foundation of the Indian) (FUNAI), the Brazilian equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The purpose of the FUNAI is to safeguard the Indians, their lands, and their disappearing way of life. As a federal agency, the FUNAI calls on the federal police and the military to protect reservations from land invasions. State police are not allowed to enter reservation land. However, the agency has had a mixed reception and mixed results in representing the well-being of the Indians. The agency has had 30 different directors over the last 39 years, and it is constantly under fire for not living up to its legal mandate.

The new constitution, adopted in 1988, set out some of the most advanced indigene protection laws in the world.

New Rights and a New Constitution

After the end of military rule in 1985, Indians began to organize on a national level to demand a role in the creation of the country’s new constitution. They called for official recognition of their land rights and self-determination. And growing international attention on the Amazon helped build public support inside Brazil for stronger – and enforceable – laws. The new constitution, adopted in 1988, set out some of the most advanced indigene protection laws in the world. The constitution recognizes the cultural rights of indigenous peoples and their inalienable right to the land. It also recognizes Indians as the original owners of their lands, and their rights take precedence over any other government interest. In addition, the constitution called for the establishment of reservations through official demarcation and for all indigenous territory to be recognized by 1993. Indians could no longer be removed from their lands, and invasions were outlawed.

There are 32,000 petitions for mining rights pending the outcome of a new law that would liberalize the controls on mining on indigenous lands.

This renaissance resulted in many protections for the Indians. Nevertheless, the majority of Indians today are still considered wards of the state and not full citizens. Their ability to speak fluent Portuguese and their exposure to Brazilian society factor heavily in determining whether they are granted citizenship and the constitutional rights that go with it. And their national status affects not only whether they can control their natural resources but also their ability to enter into contracts and start businesses. The land is theirs to live on, but not to rent or sell. In addition, whether or not Indian regions have been officially established as reservations, they are under continual threat by people pursuing the wealth of the land’s natural resources. And finally, although current laws state that the indigenous communities must be consulted on the use of any resources on their lands, the government ultimately owns those resources.

Diamonds: The Latest Blessing and Curse

The most recent hunters of treasure in the Amazon have come in search of diamonds. And following historical patterns, the pursuit has been violent. In 1999, a diamond lode thought to be the largest in the world was discovered on the Roosevelt Reserve, home to the Cinta Larga, a tribe whose first official contact with the government was in 1969. Mechanized mining is illegal on reservations, but small-scale mining is allowed with tribal permission. If miners move in illegally, the FUNAI is responsible for protecting the reservation boundaries – but it rarely does. For a time, the Cinta Larga and prospectors mined cooperatively, and the government turned a blind eye, but as miners began to mine on their own without paying the tribe, hostilities grew. The result was a massacre that left 29 miners dead. The crime made national headlines and reignited discussions about the stewardship of indigenous lands.

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