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Brazil shows no progress in response to U.N. calls on Indigenous rights

Protest in front of the Brazilian National Congress, in 2019.

Protest in front of the Brazilian National Congress, in 2019. Photo by José Cruz / Agência Brasil.

  • Brazilian civil society groups say the government has failed to implement any of the 34 recommendations on Indigenous rights made by a U.N. council in 2017.
  • Those suggestions were part of a larger set of 242 human rights recommendations, of which Brazil has fully implemented just one, according to the civil society coalition.
  • Indigenous rights advocates say the fact that the government is highlighting its distribution of food aid to Indigenous communities in its report shows just how little it has done in terms of actual policy.
  • A similar analysis by a congressional group also concluded that the government had failed to implement any recommendations on Indigenous rights.

In May 2017, Brazilian representatives to the United Nations Human Rights Council brought back 242 recommendations from other U.N. member states on how to improve the country’s compliance with international standards for human rights. Thirty-four of these recommendations, or 14%, were explicitly about or related to Indigenous peoples. Norway suggested, for example, that Brazil should ensure the protection of traditional communities from threats, attacks and forced evictions; Peru called for the need to continue the process of territorial demarcation; Togo stressed the importance of new measures to combat violence and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.

Five years later, as Brazil prepares once again to submit to the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), none of the recommendations on traditional communities’ rights have been implemented, according to a report by a group of 31 civil society organizations from across the country. In 14 of the 34 Indigenous-specific recommendations, there were actual setbacks. For instance, Brazil ignored Canada’s advice to ensure that the federal agency to protect Indigenous peoples, Funai, had the necessary resources to demarcate Indigenous territories and follow through on investigations into the killings of Indigenous individuals.

The broader picture isn’t encouraging either. Brazil failed to comply with 35% of all 242 recommendations and regressed on 46%. Only 17% of the suggestions were considered partially implemented. Brazil made full progress on just a single request: ratifying the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention on Domestic Workers, as recommended by Nicaragua. That sole success came in December 2017, a year before the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, took office.

The group that compiled the recent report, the UPR Brazil Coalition, was created by civil society organizations in 2017 to monitor the adoption of the recommendations. It includes organizations like the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), and the Indigenous Research and Training Institute (Iepé). Its report, which will be submitted as a parallel brief to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is highly critical of the Bolsonaro administration. Under his presidency, the coalition warns, the country is “taking a serious step backward in legally settled rights and moves toward socio-environmental and political barbarism.”

Extract from the joint submission sent by UPR Brazil Coalition to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a parallel report from civil society.
Extract from the joint submission sent by UPR Brazil Coalition to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a parallel report of civil society.

Erika Yamada, who until March this year served on the U.N. Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, emphasized the importance of the contribution from civil society.

“Human rights organizations are fundamental to a long-term perspective to what Brazil could and should improve in this area, especially regarding Indigenous peoples’ rights,” said Yamada, who holds a doctorate in Indigenous law and policy from the University of Arizona, told Mongabay in a phone interview.

Michelle de Sá e Silva, an assistant professor and co-director of the Center for Brazil studies at the University of Oklahoma, said every country should have its own UPR coalition to monitor its progress and setbacks concerning the U.N. Human Rights Council’s recommendations. In 2012, when Brazil, under the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, participated in the second cycle of the UPR, Sá e Silva worked in Brazil’s Secretariat of Human Rights, where she coordinated the preparation of the official report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“It is very upsetting that these entities begin to register not only non-implementation of recommendations from the previous cycle but also setbacks in several areas,” Sá e Silva told Mongabay in a phone interview. She noted that Brazil was one of the countries that actually conceived of and developed the peer-review mechanism in the U.N. She praised the monitoring work carried out by the civil society coalition and expressed worries about its conclusions.

Protest claiming for land demarcations and Indigenous peoples’ rights in Brasília, in 2018. Photo by Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil.

Members of the UPR Brazil Coalition held a seminar on May 25 in Brasília to publicize their report and discuss its findings. Representatives from the Bolsonaro administration and Congress were also present at the event. Media coverage wasn’t permitted, but the seminar was streamed on YouTube.

The conclusions of the UPR Brazil Coalition match the findings from a congressional group that has also been monitoring the country’s progress in addressing the UPR recommendations. The congressional group issued its own report two months earlier, after 26 public hearings, and also found a general lack of progress on Indigenous rights. Just like the civil society group, the parliamentary report also concluded, for instance, that Brazil regressed in Canada’s recommendation about Funai’s budget. According to these two documents, the country also failed to adopt an effective plan to demarcate Indigenous peoples’ lands.

Government officials presented their own official document at the May 25 seminar, prepared by the Ministry of Women, Families and Human Rights (MMFDH). The report didn’t give a comprehensive list of the recommendations and the level of compliance. Luís Donizete, executive coordinator at Iepé, the Indigenous research institute, who also took part in the seminar, ridiculed what the government chose to highlight in the report as progress on Indigenous rights.

“I must say that I recognize the country depicted in it,” he said. “I counted only two mentions of promoting Indigenous peoples’ rights: one about the donation of 400,000 basic food parcels and another about a course about how to have access to fundamental rights.

“I think these two mentions show very well how this government deals with Indigenous peoples’ rights,” Donizete added.

“The ongoing autocratic regime not only attacks institutions but has also elected Indigenous peoples as their main enemies,” says Dinamam Tuxá, executive coordinator of the Coalition of Indigenous Peoples (on the left). Photo by Artur Morhan.

Douglas dos Santos Rodrigues, a special officer with the MMFDH, defended the government’s report, saying it had to be brief because of the methodology used.

“We couldn’t assess recommendation by recommendation because of space limitations. We could just briefly mention subjects in general,” he said.

Sá e Silva agreed that the official report for the UPR must indeed comply with the limitations imposed by the U.N.’s reporting standards. But she criticized the actions that the government chose to highlight.

“Brazil used to have trouble fitting everything in the space available. But if the government is now including the distribution of basic food parcels, that means it does not have a lot to say in terms of real public policies for Indigenous peoples,” she said. Sá e Silva added that even if supplying food does help families, it can’t be counted as an actual public policy.

Yamada said she wasn’t surprised by the disparities between the official report and the one compiled by the UPR Brazil Coalition.

“Violations of Indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil have accrued throughout the last administrations, not only during this present government,” she said. “But, indeed, in this latter period, retrogression is deliberate and announced.”

The official document has been open for public consultations since May 23 and will remain open to civil society pitches until the beginning of August, when Brazil has to submit its final version to the U.N. “We will incorporate civil society’s contribution to the final version of our text, as we already did with other reports presented to international organizations,” Rodrigues said.

In an email exchange with Mongabay, Funai said it doesn’t comment on unofficial reports. But the agency said protecting Indigenous villages is one of its priorities, and it has spent the equivalent of $16.9 million on the surveillance of Indigenous lands from 2019 to 2021, more than double the amount from 2016 to 2018. Since 2019, according to Funai, it has carried out around 1,200 monitoring and surveillance activities. Funai said these operations, often in partnership with the police, are fundamental to keeping the communities safe and preventing criminal activity such as illegal logging and mining, drug dealing, and wildlife poaching.

Banner image: Protest in front of the Brazilian National Congress, in 2019. Photo by José Cruz / Agência Brasil.

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