UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous people concludes visit to Brazil – 26 August 2008

By | 28 August, 2008

“Despite advances, exercise of the right to self-determination for indigenous peoples – that is, real control of their own lives and lands – is still a major challenge for Brazil.” This was the main observation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, S. James Anaya, issued yesterday, as he concluded a 12-day visit to Brazil.

The Special Rapporteur’s visit came after a request by several indigenous organizations throughout the country. The purpose of the visit is to investigate and report on the human rights concerns of indigenous peoples and engage in a constructive dialogue with the Government of Brazil. The Government’s cooperation with the visit is an important component of its partnership with the United Nations to build democracy and respect for human rights.

The Special Rapporteur visited Brasilia and various areas in the states of Amazonas, Roraima, and Mato Grosso do Sul. He held meetings in Brasilia with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, including the National Indian Foundation, the Special Secretariat for Human Rights, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Republic, the Attorney General, the Mixed Parliamentary Front for Indigenous Peoples, the Ministry of Education, and the National Foundation for Health, and participated in a forum with various indigenous organizations during a seminar on a new statute of indigenous peoples.

He consulted various communities, indigenous organizations, local and state authorities, and civil society organizations during his trips to Manaus and Alto Rio Negro in the state of Amazonas, Boa Vista, Serra do Sol and Raposa in the state of Roraima, and Campo Grande and Dourados in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

The Special Rapporteur noted with satisfaction the expressed commitment of the Government of Brazil to advance the rights of indigenous peoples in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the existence of constitutional and other legal protections, which he said are among the most advanced in the world. According to the Special Rapporteur, however, “there is much left to do to improve the human rights situation of indigenous peoples in Brazil and to fully implement the constitutional protections and accepted international norms.”

The Special Rapporteur observed that, overall, “reforms are needed to ensure that indigenous peoples are better able to exercise their right of self-determination within the framework of a Brazilian state that is respectful of diversity.” This means exercising control over their lives, communities, and lands and participating in all decisions affecting them, in accordance with their own cultural patterns and authority structures, he said. The Special Rapporteur noted with concern that, “it is evident that indigenous peoples frequently do not control the decisions that affect their everyday lives and their lands, even when their lands have been officially demarcated and registered, because of invasions and mining by outsiders and other factors.”

Various actors reported concerns to the Special Rapporteur that indigenous communities have some input into, but not adequate control over, the delivery of services in their communities by the National Indian Foundation, the Ministry of Education, and National Foundation for Health, and other government agencies, especially those responsible for education and health. “While culturally rich, indigenous peoples remain impoverished economically, without sufficient power or opportunities to develop on a sustainable basis, and are continually suffocated by discrimination,” he said. The Special Rapporteur identified paternalistic attitudes among both governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations that impede indigenous peoples from setting their own priorities and managing the programs that are intended to benefit them. Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur observed a scarcity and lack of efficient use of resources devoted to much-needed programmes.

The Special Rapporteur noted that the health and educational situation is critical and that for many, if not most, indigenous communities, it is poor at best. Indigenous women and children especially suffer from poor health conditions. “The lack of formal education and adequate health limits opportunities available to individuals as they seek to better the conditions of their lives, and it deprives indigenous communities of the skills necessary to manage their own affairs and control the government and non-governmental organization-run programs that concern them.”

Also crippling, the Special Rapporteur noted, is the persistent discrimination underlying the formation of policies, delivery of services, and administration of justice. The discrimination has at times infested parts of society to result in violence. The Special Rapporteur heard alarming accounts of violence against indigenous individuals, especially their most vocal leaders.

Further lacking, he said, is a mechanism for ensuring adequate consultation with indigenous communities on major development projects – such as the construction of highways and hydroelectric dams and large-scale mining activities – that are outside their demarcated lands but nonetheless affect them. The Special Rapporteur said he saw this absence of a consultation mechanism as reflecting a broader problem: the need for harmonizing government policies, laws and initiatives for industrial development with those to secure the rights of indigenous peoples.

Finally, the Special Rapporteur emphasized that during his visit to Brazil he perceived that a significant part of Brazilian society and many influential political actors stand in opposition to government policies that are responsive to the aspirations of indigenous peoples. This opposition appears even to challenge the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution. The Special Rapporteur said this situation manifests a lack of understanding and even confusion over the rights of indigenous peoples as affirmed in the Constitution and relevant international instruments.

“A national campaign of education on indigenous issues and respect for diversity, guided by the Government in partnership with indigenous peoples, and with the support of the news media, would likely help build bridges of mutual understanding.”

Consistent with the terms of his mandate, the Special Rapporteur will present the findings of the visit and recommendations to actors involved in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.