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When a state fails to protect its native peoples, foreign and paradiplomacy can help

Alto Paraíso de Goiás, State of Goiás, Brazil

The 9th of August marks the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, a day to celebrate the diversity of cultures, languages, tradition and resilience of over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world.

For the indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon, however, the occasion comes at a moment when their rights including the right to land and general well-being are threatened as they have not been in decades. By way of example, between 2018 and 2019, invasions of indigenous lands in Brazil increased by 134.9%, largely perpetrated by illegal loggers, illegal miners and land grabbers involved in cattle ranching. During this same two-year period, an area equivalent to the size of Lebanon was deforested in the Amazon, a record high in ten years; indigenous lands alone experienced a 74% increase in deforestation. As environmental crime networks become more powerful and deforestation advances, the Amazon edges closer to a tipping point in which its rainforest could turn into a vast savannah.

To make matters worse, it is not only the survival of the Amazon forest and indigenous peoples’ lands that are threatened by these developments. They also endangers the lives of the leaders women and men who take a stand for the environment and defend their communities’ rights. Earlier this year, world-renowned activist and president of the Munduruku Indigenous Women’s Association Maria Leusa, who has spoken out against the invasions of the Munduruku Indigenous Territory, had to flee her community in the southwest of Pará state after men associated with illegal gold mining set her house on fire and threatened to kill her. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. In 2020 alone, six indigenous people were murdered in the Amazon due to land-related conflicts, while three others were victims of attempted murder, and nine received threats to their lives.

The Brazilian federal government, which has the legal responsibility and operational capacity to guarantee indigenous peoples' rights, not only has failed to stop such violations, but has often encouraged them. For instance, President Bolsonaro and his administration have cut the budget of FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) the national agency for the protection of indigenous people down to the bone. As a result, the agency today only has one public servant available per 10,000 indigenous people in areas of the Amazon with a high incidence of conflicts over land. The government also suspended the official process of demarcation of indigenous lands and promoted legislations such as  the Marco Temporal (Temporal Mark) bill, which denies indigenous peoples the right to their lands, unless they can prove that they were occupying those areas in 1988, when Brazil’s current constitution came into force.

How can the international community help?

Although this level of violence and intimidation gives indigenous peoples in Brazil little reason to celebrate this 9th of August, it is nevertheless important to commemorate their resilience, courage, strength, and continued fight for their existence and right to land. This date should also remind us of their key contributions to environmental protection and their powerful leadership in combating climate change. Due to a combination of sustainable resource management techniques that draw on traditional knowledge and environmental conservation and regeneration initiatives, indigenous territories are today among the most preserved areas in Brazil (indigenous lands have lost no more than 2% of their original forest coverage as of 2018, versus approximately 20% for the whole Brazilian Amazon forest). In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, indigenous peoples have also stood out for their ability to mobilise quickly, by gathering resources and organising in loco visits to deliver personal protective equipment, hygiene products and medical assistance to help control the spread of the virus in their territories.

To face these multiple threats, and to compensate for governmental inaction at the federal level, indigenous peoples are increasingly looking outside Brazil for help. Collaboration with international partners and organisations can support indigenous causes in three key ways. Firstly, indigenous peoples can bring up violations to their rights to international courts. For instance, in 2019, indigenous leaders and human rights organisations petitioned the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate President Bolsonaro over his dismantling of environmental policies and violations of indigenous rights.Separately, in August2021, the NGO Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) filed a complaint against President Bolsonaro before the ICC for the crimes of ecocide and genocide against indigenous peoples. Although a final sentence could take years, activists hope that international coverage of such cases might at least slow the pace of the government’s actions against indigenous peoples' rights. 

A second way by which the international community can support indigenous peoples in the Amazon is to finance in loco activities. Earlier this year, the French Agency for Development allocated EUR 5.7 million for a project called TerrIndígena ('indigenous land'), aimed at strengthening governance mechanisms and protecting the territories of 18 indigenous communities in the Amazon forest in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. In addition to bilateral initiatives, multilateral arrangements also support indigenous communities in Brazil. For example, the Global Environment Facility has financed projects with a value of over USD 70 million to foster environmental conservation of indigenous lands and to generate alternative income sources based on indigenous and local communities’ traditional knowledge. A similar role has previously been undertaken by the Amazon Fund, financed primarily by Norway and Germany, and currently frozen in part due to the two European countries' opposition to the Brazilian government's attempt to make the fund's governance structure less democratic.

Thirdly, with the channels for international cooperation paralysed at the federal level due to the government’s lack of interest in promoting environmental protection and the consequent  decrease in Brazilian credibility vis-à-vis foreign actors, indigenous peoples have demanded further participation in emerging paradiplomacy (subnational) initiatives. By way of example, indigenous groups have mobilised to ensure that they are meaningfully consulted in theAmazon Consortium Green Recovery Plan, a platform that was recently launched by Amazon state governments to attract international funding for the conservation of the forest.

Despite their growing relevance, these three cooperation avenues also face significant challenges. Strategic litigation is often slow, with decisions taking years or even decades to be finalised, at which point harm to the environment and affected communities may have become irreparable. Moreover, the demand for international funding sources focusing specifically on the promotion of sustainable livelihoods for indigenous and forest peoples remains higher than the offer. And Brazil continues to lack a coherent operational and normative framework to facilitate direct cooperation between external governments and subnational actors.

In order to help overcome some of these challenges and better support the peoples of the Brazilian Amazon, there are three key actions the international community could take.

Firstly, it is essential that the meaningful and effective participation of indigenous peoples is a precondition for the allocation of international funding for the protection of the Amazon forest. This would require reforming the governance structure of existing financing mechanisms to allow formal representation of indigenous peoples, local indigenous associations, as well as regional umbrella organisations, such as the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).

Secondly, more funding is needed for capacity-building initiatives led by indigenous peoples, especially those focused on strengthening their ability to both engage in international litigation as well as participate in international decision-making processes that have a direct impact on their land and livelihoods. This includes technical and financial support for them to be adequately represented at key international events, such as the Conferences of the Parties and other climate and environmental negotiations.

Finally, the international community should focus not only on protecting the Amazon forest, but also on ensuring the well-being of those who inhabit it -- including their physical integrity. At a time of heightened threats to their lives and land-related conflicts, policies and programmes that have the protection of indigenous peoples and their leadership at their core are essential. This should include climate diplomacy strategies that promote effective cooperation and dialogue between indigenous groups, traditional communities, civil society and local government actors to help them develop risk assessment and violence prevention mechanisms, including community-based early warning systems. 

May the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples remind us and push us to act upon the words of Vandria Borari, the first indigenous lawyer from the Borari people in the Brazilian Amazon: “In order to protect the forest, you first need to protect the communities, the indigenous lands and the leaders who are fighting for it."


Arthur Vieira is a researcher at Plataforma CIPÓ, where Maiara Folly is the Programme Director. Plataforma CIPÓ is a research institute based in Brazil aimed at promoting climate action, better global and regional governance and peacebuilding in Brazil and Latin America and the Caribbean.