Brazil - struggle for the Indian Amazon

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Stephan Schwartzman

Author Info: Stephan Schwartzman is on the staff of the Environmental Defence Fund/Instituto Socioambiental, in Brasilia.

Throughout the Amazon region, small and apparently powerless indigenous groups have in recent years forced government recognition of their land rights and, in many cases, halted destructive development of their lands - expansion of cattle ranching, illegal logging, goldmining, and the construction of large hydroelectric plants.Stephan Schwartzman reports.

Amazonian Indians use forest plants for medicine© WWF/Mauri RautkariWhile pressures on Indian lands are great, the trend over the last 30 years has been for the indigenous population to grow, for Indians to gain official recognition of their land rights, and for notions of sustainable resource management to move from concepts into practice.

By official statistics, Indians in Brazil number 326,000, speak some 170 languages and live in 554 areas, covering around 947,000 square kilometres. This is an area two and a half times the size of Germany, some 98 per cent of which is in the Amazon region.

Somewhat less than half of this land is fully legally demarcated (the process of official recognition of Indian land rights guaranteed in the 1988 Constitution), but the large majority of these lands have some degree of official recognition. Thirty years ago, when the government Indian agency (FUNAI) was created, virtually none of this land was recognized as Indian land by the government.

The future of the indigenous lands of the Amazon is central to the future of the largest remaining expanse of tropical forest in the world. Indigenous groups have constitutionally guaranteed rights to about 18 per cent of the area of the Brazilian Amazon. This is by far the largest expanse of the existing protected area, covering about three times more land than all types of conservation units together.

Some traditionally oriented conservationists, however, have argued more recently that indigenous land protection is an inadequate means of protection of biological diversity. They argue that the first priority for protection of biological diversity should be the creation of parks in the most isolated possible areas.

Resisting pressureThe logic ignores the critical role of indigenous areas in effectively protecting large expanses of forest on the development frontier where actual pressure for deforestation exists. Even the seemingly worst cases (such as the Kayapo) represent major environmental gains since the advance of deforestation has been checked, and in other instances (as in the Xingu Park) ranching and deforestation have been checked and loggers and miners have been kept out as well.

Even more important, policy for protected areas is being defined through the conflicts among opposed interests on the frontier or in already developed regions, not in isolated regions with no means of access. To abandon the defence of indigenous lands as a strategy for protection of biological diversity in favour of isolated and uninhabited parks is at best to put off the day of reckoning, and to ensure that when it comes the damage will be worse.

The challenge, however, is to put indigenous areas on an ecologically and economically sustainable footing. With new needs, and relatively restricted space compared to a few decades ago even in the largest Indian areas, indigenous groups, like other forest peoples, must develop sustainable resource use strategies if their lands are to be viable over the long run.

Various non-governmental organizations - the Instituto Socioambiental, IMAZON, IPHAE, PESACRE, and the Woods Hole Research Center - are developing alternatives for these areas, as well as for rural populations of the Amazon more broadly, and training researchers and technicians to work with forest communities. The juncture of traditional and scientific knowledge at which these groups work may prove the critical front in the battle for the conservation of the Amazon.