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Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Araribóia indigenous territory in Maranhão state, north-eastern Brazil, has been described as an island of green amid a sea of deforestation. The hardwood-rich reserve is one of the largest remnants of rainforest on the eastern fringe of the Legal Amazon region. Approximately 5,300 indigenous Brazilians live within it, including the Awá Guajá people, an uncontacted group of hunter-gatherers described by the NGO Survival International as the most threatened indigenous group on the planet. Araribóia, given its frontier position and natural resource richness, is under intense pressure from illegal loggers and poachers. Since 2012, a group of about 120 members of the Guajajara indigenous group have been acting together as the Guardians of the Forest to fend them off. The frontlines of this struggle are becoming increasingly dangerous for the forest protectors.

On 1 November 2019, Guardians of the Forest member Paulo Paulino Guajajara was ambushed and violently killed by armed loggers whilst on patrol.

Untold numbers of indigenous land defenders in Brazil like Paulo Paulino Guajajara have also made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their lands from illegal loggers and poachers. Few land conflict-related killings in Brazil result in convictions: according to Brazil’s pastoral land commission, a rural violence watchdog, of the 157 reported land conflict killings in Paulo Paulino’s home state of Maranhão between 1985 and 2017, just five cases went to court. Since the election of a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, in January 2019, the violence seems to be becoming more frequent. According to preliminary data published by the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI is the acronym in Portuguese), in the first nine months of 2019, there were 160 cases of invasion of 153 Indigenous Lands in 19 states, compared to just 96 cases in 2017.

Why the uptick in violence? Many point to the country’s new leadership.

During Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign in 2018, he promised that he would open up the Amazon for mining, logging, and agribusiness; strip back protections for the country’s indigenous people; and push for their forced assimilation into mainstream Brazilian society. One of his first acts as president was to stop all new demarcations of Indigenous lands. In February 2020, Ricardo Lopes Dias, an evangelical missionary, was appointed as the head of the department within FUNAI (Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency) that is responsible for the government’s policy for uncontacted tribes. FUNAI is highly underfunded, and its staff have been increasingly replaced by Bolsonaro’s appointees like Lopes Dias. The president’s rhetoric has been consistently denigrating to the country’s nearly one million indigenous people since he took office in January 2019, so much so that the International Criminal Court at the Hague recently received a request by human rights groups to investigate Bolsonaro for “incitement to genocide and widespread systematic attacks against indigenous peoples.”

On 5 February 2020, he delivered on what was an intensely controversial campaign promise that had sparked outrage amongst indigenous leaders and environmentalists across the country: he signed a draft law called PL191/2020. It will be put through a parliamentary commission for approval, and then will be voted on by legislators.

If PL191/2020 draft becomes law, it would allow for large-scale mining and oil and gas extraction to take place on designated Indigenous territories, which is currently illegal in Brazil

The threat that PL191/2020 poses to the existing land rights of indigenous peoples, many of whom are on the frontlines of the struggle to halt illegal deforestation across Brazil, could have global implications for climate change and biodiversity conservation.

Source of spatial data: World Database on Protected Areas

The World Database on Protected Areas currently lists 718 designated Indigenous lands in Brazil. A recent study found that Indigenous-managed lands were richer in vertebrate species than Brazil’s conventional protected areas. They also support more threatened vertebrate species than either the conventional protected areas or non-protected areas (Schuster, Germain, Bennett, Reo, & Arcese, 2019). Another study found that designation of an area as Indigenous land has been more effective at curbing high deforestation pressure in the Brazilian Amazon than has designation as a conventional protected area (Nolte, Agrawal, Silvius, & Soares-Filho, 2013).

It is surprising how little news coverage the new draft law to open up Brazilian Indigenous territories for large-scale resource extraction projects has received internationally. Bolsonaro’s general contempt for climate and conservation science has been reported on widely as cause for concern for the international community since his campaign. I believe that the threat to the immense biodiversity and carbon sinks protected within Brazilian indigenous territories warrants solidarity actions from conservation scientists within and beyond Brazil. Concerns over human rights under his governance are also mounting, and the international community should denounce PLP191/2020 for the consequences it will have for the land rights and welfare of the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

Such solidarity on a large scale, and such unification of human rights and environmental causes, is not unprecedented.

In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux’s nonviolent opposition to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) galvanised other indigenous peoples and non-indigenous allies from around the world to travel to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, adjacent the Missouri River, to protest the lack of tribal consultation and environmental impact assessments. Almost 15,000 people staged a sit-in for months, facing brutal winter conditions and violence from police. Many who were compelled to take up the cause saw the Sioux’s nonviolent protests as part of a broader fight against fossil fuel extraction, climate change, and continuing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The Obama administration denied a key permit for the DAPL, but a few months later, the Trump administration reversed that decision and approved construction. The pipeline was completed in April 2017 and has been operational since June of that year; it leaked at least five times in 2017. Despite the protest’s failure to block pipeline construction, the unprecedented magnitude and international nature of the anti-DAPL solidarity actions were historic.

In Canada earlier this month, the Wet’suwet’en nation, five clans of indigenous people, blockaded railways to protest construction of the USD$5 billion “Coastal GasLink” natural gas pipeline on their sovereign land in British Columbia. The activists’ encampments were raided by heavily militarised police officers, and several hereditary leaders have been arrested. Wet’suwet’en matriarch Dr. Karla Tait told The Guardian, “Ever since colonisation, the aim has been to dispossess our people from our lands. To impoverish us. To assimilate us. To eliminate us. We know that our self-determination, our sovereignty, our very identity, is based on us having control over our lands.” Acts of solidarity for the Wet’suwet’en’s fight are springing up across Canada: in British Columbia’s legislative assembly, in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, and notably on the major railways of Ontario, where Tyendinaga Mohawk people staged solidarity blockages. On 12 February in New York, protesters gathered for a sit-in outside the United Nations headquarters in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders.

Similar widespread resistance to Bolsonaro’s proposal to open up Brazilian Indigenous lands to large-scale mining and oil and gas extraction may demonstrate how climate change is instigating convergence of human rights, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity conservation agendas. The peer-reviewed literature tells us that maintaining indigenous governance of Indigenous lands in Brazil is important for global-scale climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. History tells us that acknowledging and fighting far-right governments’ first steps towards elimination of minority groups of people is of paramount importance. PL191/2020 should be making the news, and Brazilian resistance to the proposal should be supported widely, by conservation scientists and human rights activists alike.

All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members


Nolte, C., Agrawal, A., Silvius, K. M., & Soares-Filho, B. S. (2013). Governance regime and location influence avoided deforestation success of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(13), 4956-4961.

Schuster, R., Germain, R. R., Bennett, J. R., Reo, N. J., & Arcese, P. (2019). Vertebrate biodiversity on indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas. Environmental Science & Policy, 101, 1-6.

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