Lack of land demarcation hinders indigenous access to public policies, vaccine

Covid-19 pandemic highlights impacts of the Bolsonaro government's “zero demarcation” policy

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
First stage of the vaccination campaign in the Lower Xingu indigenous - Priscila Fonseca

“There is no health clinic in my village, because they say that the land has to be demarcated in order to have permanent buildings. So, how are we going to have a basic sanitation infrastructure? The families' income depends a lot on arts and crafts, amid in the pandemic, we can't even go out to sell them”.

Th testimony of Neusa Mendonça, deputy chief of the Rio Pequeno Tekoha Djev’y indigenous community, located in the town of Paraty, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, reveals unequal treatment towards indigenous peoples by the Brazilian government according to the legal status of the territories they inhabit.

For example, those who do not live on demarcated lands have more difficulty accessing public housing, less food security, sanitation, education and health initiatives. Amid the covid-19 pandemic, this discrimination is even defining who gets vaccinated first.

There is nothing in the 1988 Federal Constitution, which recognizes the indigenous population as citizens with rights, that considers their place of residence a criteria of differentiation.

This was one of the arguments used by the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib) in the Statement of Non-Compliance with Fundamental Precept (ADPF) 709, delivered to Federal Supreme Court (STF) justice, Luís Roberto Barroso, on March 16th.

Barroso determined that even indigenous people who do not reside in officially recognized villages, should be included as part of the priority group of the government’s General Plan to Combat Covid-19 for Indigenous Peoples.

Before Barroso's decision, 379,500 people, or 42.8% of the country's indigenous population, were left out of the first stage of immunization against the coronavirus.

In the last week, Brasil de Fato even reported cases of persecution and dismissal of health professionals who decided to immunize, of their own accord, indigenous “non-villagers”.

The Rio Pequeno community, where 32 Guarani Ñandeva tribe members live, is no exception.

According to the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), almost 60% of the native land claimed in Brazil does not have official paperwork, that is to say, the legal demarcation process has not been completed.

Approximately 13% of the Brazilian territory is demarcated as indigenous land, and 97.3% of that area is in the Amazon. This means that only 2.7% of the demarcated lands are in other regions of the country. Altogether, 310 indigenous territories are stagnant in their demarcation processes.

According to the latest survey by the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai), 51,041 indigenous people were infected by covid-19, and 1,020 died. In all, 163 tribes were affected by the pandemic.


Cimi coordinator Roberto Liebgott, points out that the differentiation imposed by the Bolsonaro administration, through the National Indigenous Foundation (Funai), makes enjoying their civil rights difficult for about 40% of the country’s indigenous population.

“So, you exclude those who are fighting for land. As an analogy, this also affects groups that live in an urban context, wether organized into communities or not”, he explains.

“We already had this happen during the Temer administration [2016-2018], but in the Bolsonaro government it is more expressive: Funai being transformed into a crony agency. All land demarcations are suspended, and official indigenous support is warped into a mediator of economic interests”, adds Liebgott.

The “zero demarcation” policy was one of Bolsonaro's promises to sectors of agribusiness, miners and loggers during the 2018 presidential campaign.

“If you go to communities [not demarcated], you will see that the areas are degraded, without basic sanitation, without drinking water, without food. Housing is also precarious. So, they live in a situation of absolute vulnerability”, emphasizes the Cimi coordinator.

The sources interviewed by the our news team said that it is too early to assess how the impacts of Barroso's decision will be felt “on the ground”, since discrimination between “villagers and non-villagers” has become the modus operandi of the current administration.

Supreme Court Dispute

Extraordinary appeal 1,017,365 is being processed by the Federal Supreme Court (STF), referring to a request for repossession of property filed by the State of Santa Catarina’s Environmental Foundation (Farma), against Funai and indigenous people of the Xokleng ethnicity. The decision refers to the Ibirama-Laklanõ Indigenous Land, an area claimed and already identified as part of their traditional territory.

There are two competing arguments in the case. The first, based on the “indigenato theory”, which in accordance with the Constitution, recognizes indigenous territorial law as original. The second, supported by large scale farmers, suggests a reinterpretation of the constitutional text, based on a so-called “time frame”.

In the latter case, indigenous peoples would only be entitled to demarcate lands that were in their possession on October 5th, 1988, the date of promulgation of the current Constitution, or that were under proven physical or judicial dispute on that date.

The judgment of this appeal was postponed at least three times by the Supreme Court, transforming the Ibirama-Laklanõ Indigenous Land into a symbol of the struggle for demarcation.

“The Xokleng people are concerned about their land, which is not being demarcated. It's taking too long. And there is this government policy, which is against demarcation”, laments Brasílio Priprá, one of the leaders of the Xokleng people in the region.

Inoculations were late to arrive, and not available to everyone. “A little came in, but not enough to vaccinate everyone. In our understanding, they should vaccinate even the children. Only those 18 years old and above got it. This is one of our main concerns”, he reports.

“Here, the area of education comes into play too, which has been abandoned because of this pandemic. We don't have policies for indigenous communities in Brazil”, adds the Xokleng leader.

Resistance in Paraty

The relationship between non-demarcation and the influence of sectors of agribusiness is evident in the case of the Rio Pequeno community.

For at least three years, indigenous people have suffered attacks and death threats from residents, loggers and squatters in the region. These conflicts led to the murder of João Mendonça Martins, son of chief Demércio, in January of 2018.

The pressure and sluggishness of the federal government in the process of demarcating Indigenous Land, is amplified by the posture of the mayor of Paraty, a coastal municipality located in the State of Rio de Janeiro.

Mayor Luciano Vidal, a Bolsonaro supporter, has already taken a stand against demarcation and, in the midst of the pandemic, halted food distribution to families residing in the village.

“He cut everything off, including projects that we had for sanitation within the municipality, in addition to the proposal to build a health center. We are citizens, we have rights and today we are being denied these, because he is totally against the demarcation of indigenous lands”, laments Mendonça.

Generalized drama

During the first year of the Bolsonaro government, the number of invasions of indigenous territories jumped from 109 to 256, an increase of 134.9% compared to 2018, according to data published in the Violence Against Indigenous Peoples of Brazil report, published by Cimi with data from 2019.

Amid the pandemic, deforestation in the Amazon reached its highest level in the last 12 years, according to data from the Legal Amazon Deforestation Monitoring Project (Prodes), conducted via satellite by the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe).

In addition to this, in the first five months of last year, the amount of funds spent by Funai was the lowest in the last ten years: R $ 189 million, according to the Siga Brasil platform, which is powered by the Federal Senate. In the midst of the crisis, Funai also issued two normative instructions, nº 09/2020 and nº 01/2021, in violation of indigenous peoples’ rights over their own territories.

“People already have prejudice within them. With the Bolsonaro government, they think they can let it out, with the support of Bolsonaro himself”, says the deputy chief of the Rio Pequeno community in Paraty.

“We see him talking, the way he talks. That itself generates violence and encourages the population to be violent. But there are children, there are communities that do not generate violence. What we try to do is bring is peace to the white man, for the white man to respect nature, not to burn our forest, not to destroy our waters, our trees”, she adds.

Roberto Liebgott says that "the situation is dramatic in all regions" and emphasizes the significance of the current government's zero demarcation policy.

“If you go to the communities [in non-demarcated areas], you will see that the areas are degraded, without basic sanitation, without drinking water, without food. Housing is also precarious. So, they live in a situation of absolute vulnerability. The State does not go there, except in an emergency or in palliative way”, he describes.

According to the Cimi coordinator, a basic sanitation infrastructure only exists in places where the indigenous movement has been pressing for access to water for years.

“However, in the settlement camps, they don't have drinking water,” he affirms. “In some places, water trucks carry 10 to 15 thousand liters of water every 15 days. For a community with 20 families, you don't have water for even two days, if you were to consume it in the proper and necessary way”, adds Liebgott.

The Cimi leader says that he has held several meetings with members of Funai in recent months, and that the advice given is not to go into indigenous lands due to the pandemic. This absence, in Liebgott's assessment, prevents the indigenous population from "seeing reality and taking action."

Brasil de Fato presented the criticisms raised by our reporting to Funai and the Paraty Mayor’s Office. There was no response until the publishing of this report.

Edited by: Vinícius Segalla