Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Portuguese, indigenous languages. In Brazil, according to the 2010 Census, there are as many as 274 distinct indigenous languages. Demographically larger indigenous peoples have a better chance of protecting their languages, but there are also less populous communities with languages moving towards extinction, some with very few and elderly speakers. For example, the indigenous Apiaká and Umutina peoples of the state of Mato Grosso recently lost the last of their community elders with a mastery of their ancestral language. According to UNESCO, 12 of Brazil’s languages are extinct, 45 critically endangered, 19 severely endangered, 17 definitely endangered and 97 vulnerable.
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic, also Pentecostal), Afro-Brazilian religions (Candomblé, Umbanda), Judaism, indigenous religions.
Minorities include Afro-Brazilians (50.7 percent: 43.1 pardo or mixed ethnicity, and 7.6 per cent preta or black) and Asian 1.1 per cent (including Japanese, Chinese and Korean).
Indigenous peoples (over 0.4 per cent) include Tikúna (46,045), Guarani Kaiowá (43,401), Kaingang (37,470), Makuxí (28,912), Terena (28,845), Yanomámi (21,982), Potiguara (20,554), Xavante (19,259), Pataxó (13,588), Sateré-Mawé (13,310), Mundurukú (13,103), Múra (12,479), Xucuru (12,471) and Baré (11,990) (2010 Census).
Indigenous peoples live in every state of Brazil and represent 305 different ethnic groups and 274 indigenous languages. According to the 2010 Census, 817,963 individuals identified as indigenous, though when others also considered indigenous despite not formally identifying themselves as such, the total rose to 896,917 people (between 0.4 and 0.5 per cent) of the total population identified as indigenous. The largest share of this population is concentrated in the North (38.2 per cent) and Northeast (25.9 per cent) regions, amounting to close to two thirds of the indigenous population resident there, though there is also a considerable indigenous population elsewhere, including in the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and São Paulo. With an estimated 77 uncontacted tribes, Brazil is thought to have the largest number of indigenous peoples living in isolation.
Only 36.2 per cent of the indigenous population live in urban areas, far below the national average, with the majority (63.8 per cent) in rural areas, including around 517,000 (57.7 per cent) in indigenous territories. Nevertheless, the rural majority are often vulnerable to the effects of urbanization, particularly when Brazil’s cities develop against a backdrop of unregulated or illegal land encroachment and resource exploitation.
However, the urban indigenous population face similarly challenges: some towns and small cities in Amazonas, Roraima and Rio Negro are largely populated by indigenous displaced people or migrants, who live in basic conditions and experience urban poverty in all its aspects of poor access to water and sanitation, violence, and women being forced into the sex trade. In this context, displaced indigenous communities may end up struggling to integrate while maintaining their traditional cultures, particularly in larger cities such as Rio de Janeiro, where a large proportion of the thousands of indigenous residents are concentrated in the favelas.
Afro-Brazilians form the majority of the population in the north-eastern states. Large agricultural plantations and slave ports dominated this warm temperate region, but black people are also well represented in major industrial metropolitan areas throughout the country. Indeed, numerically, Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian population is no longer a minority: for the first time, in the 2010 census, the number of peoples self-identifying as black or ‘pardo’ (‘brown’ – to denote mixed ancestry) exceeded the population of Brazilians self-identifying as white.
Although the country had been collecting data on ethnicity since the 1872 Census, the information previously did not shed light on the socio-economic condition of Afro-descendant groups, because data sets were limited and difficult to compare across years. Afro-Brazilians were categorized in the census as mixed ethnicity, pardo or preto. In the 1980s and 1990s Afro-Brazilian activists tried to influence the population to recognize their African ancestry and not to deny their blackness. Black movement groups also analysed the census data independently and found significant socio-economic gaps between ethnic groups. The data demonstrate the close correlation between people of African origin, whether they are classified
as preto or pardo, and poverty. For practical and political purposes, most researchers, academics and activists used this combined data for all Afro-descendants because the socio-economic indicators consistently showed significant differences between Afro-Brazilians (pretos and pardos) and white Brazilians, and little difference among people of African descent.
Though Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888, making it the last country in the Americas to do so, widespread intermarriage between different groups and the lack of formal segregation in the post-abolition era has meant that it was subsequently presented as a ‘racial democracy’ without discrimination based on ethnicity. However, beginning in the 1970s, the Movimento Negro or Black Movement began to condemn ‘racial democracy’ as a false concept. Indeed, this representation has been increasingly questioned by critics in recent years, who have highlighted the ongoing reality of discrimination and repression experienced by particular ethnic groups.
Excluding the period 1941-50, Japanese migration to Brazil has continued uninterrupted since 1908. By the 1980s their numbers had reached 750,000. Today, Brazil has the largest Japanese-descendant population outside of Japan, and there are strong ties between the two countries. Prior to 1914 the majority of Japanese immigrants were contracted labourers. Later, efforts were made to establish agricultural colonies. Many also worked on coffee plantations. Although they were the subject of popular protest by xenophobic elements in Brazil in the early 1900s, Japanese and their descendants have become acculturated and accepted into middle-class society; trends in social mobility, industrialization and urbanization contribute constantly to this process. The largely Japanese-descendant Liberdade neighbourhood is a strong example of the Japanese-descendant presence in the heavily industrialized city of São Paulo. Mixed marriages among Issei (first-generation immigrants) are almost unknown, although they are common among second- and third-generation immigrants in urban areas.
Brazil’s Jewish population, estimated at around 110,000, lives mainly in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Ale
Belém and Manaus. Since 1945, Jews have played a part in all areas of Brazilian political, economic and military life. Historically anti-Semitism was not a major social problem in independent Brazil, and Jewish communities were able to retain their religion while serving in public life, unlike in neighbouring countries, such as Argentina, where conversion was required in order to obtain high-ranking positions in the military and government.
Since 2001, violence against Brazilian Jews has increased. Brazil has several neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic organizations, active since the 1930s. Carecas (skinhead) groups operate in Brazil, mainly in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Like their counterparts in Europe, many of them are neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and xenophobic. The Confederação Israelita do Brasil (CONIB), founded in 1951, represents all the Jewish federations and communities in Brazil and campaigns against anti-Semitism in the media and more generally in Brazil. Significant numbers of Brazilian Jews have reportedly been emigrating to Israel in recent years to escape economic and political instability within Brazil.
Updated May 2020
Brazil’s diverse population of over 200 million is comprised primarily of Euro- and Afro-descendants, the latter including both ‘preto’ (black) and ‘pardo’ (mixed) individuals, as well as a smaller but highly diverse indigenous population and a minority of Japanese-descendants. But while generations of intermarriage and the absence of a formal system of segregation has led some scholars to celebrate the country as a ‘racial democracy’ where different ethnicities have been able to enjoy equal rights, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Brazil still struggle with the legacy of colonialism and with racist stereotypes reinforcing inequalities – a major element in what has been described as a ‘dictatorship of whiteness’.
For the first time in Brazil’s history, the country’s 2010 census found more Brazilians self-identifying as black or mixed ethnicity than as white: of the 191 million Brazilians, 91 million declared themselves white, 15 million black and 82 million mixed ethnicity. While a number of factors may have contributed to this development, a number of commentators suggested that many Afro-Brazilians were now more willing to self-identify due to an increased pride in their identity.
Nevertheless, the census also highlighted the severe disparities that continue to divide Brazilian society along ethnic lines. Besides experiencing widespread social exclusion, lower wages and fewer educational opportunities, Afro-Brazilians also suffer significantly higher levels of violence than Brazilians of European descent – a trend that appears to be increasing today. According to the official Atlas of Violence produced by the Institute of Applied Economic Research in 2017, 71 per cent of all homicide victims between 2005 and 2015 were Afro-Brazilians – meaning that they have a 23.5 per cent higher chance of being killed than other ethnic groups. The impacts of violence are felt especially by Afro-Brazilian women: the study also found that in the same period violence against white women fell by 7.4 per cent while among black women it rose by 22 per cent. This is considered a reflection of their continued marginalization.
Despite this harsh reality, Brazil’s Afro-descendant population has also achieved international fame for its rich cultural heritage. Afro-Brazilian culture has a history that dates back to the arrival of the first slaves from West Africa. To preserve their heritage, they developed sophisticated ways to maintain their cultures in secret, which continue to be practised in different forms to this day: for example, the spiritual practices of Candomblé and Capoeira, a martial art and dance sport that is now celebrated worldwide. There are also strong African heritage roots in the annual Carnival in Brazil.
Brazil also has a varied indigenous population, though they make up a much smaller part of the national population. Based on the 2010 census, approximately 817,963 (around 0.4 per cent of Brazilians) self-identified as indigenous, though when others considered to be indigenous despite not identifying in the census are included the total rises to 896,917. Just as Brazil’s large Afro-descendant community is a legacy of colonialism, the decimation of the country’s indigenous peoples from a population of tens of millions to a fraction of that size today began with the arrival of the first European settlers. Today, they continue to be marginalized and struggle to secure recognition of their cultures and land rights, and other rights. Notwithstanding these challenges, Brazil’s diverse indigenous population still resides across the country, with some 230 different peoples speaking 180 indigenous languages. This includes 69 communities without contact.
Indigenous culture in Brazil was systematically attacked by the original Portuguese settlers, but the more remote communities, particularly in the Amazon, managed to retain their cultures largely intact due to their relative isolation from the European invasion. Nowadays, after many years of invisibility, indigenous culture enjoys renewed appreciation: Amazonian artists and performers are famed for their elaborate woven handicrafts and their dance, traditional dress and heritage. Furthermore, with increasing international awareness about the challenges of climate change and resource destruction, Brazil’s indigenous peoples have been praised for their culture of respectful stewardship towards the Amazonian rainforest
and other eco-systems. Yet this recognition comes at a time when indigenous culture is as much under threat as ever – particularly in the form of land expropriation. Their location in often remote and undeveloped areas rich in forestry and minerals has placed them at particular risk of logging, mining and other activities.
Brazil’s rapid development and poorly regulated resource exploitation has resulted in widespread ecological destruction, including the devastation of large swatches of pristine rainforest – exacting a heavy toll not only on the environment but also on the culture, spirituality and livelihoods of the many minority and indigenous communities who depend on it for their survival. While corruption, discrimination and the unchecked power of the country’s business elite have contributed to catastrophic levels of deforestation, environmental activists have highlighted the positive role that stronger land rights and community stewardship could play in conservation.
Both indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities frequently suffer land grabbing at the hands of agribusiness, corporations and local farmers, often accompanied by extraordinary levels of violence. In April 2017, for instance, reports emerged of an assault on indigenous Gamela by farmers armed with rifles and machetes that left a number of community members injured, with their hands and feet severed by their assailants. The community, displaced from the area during the military dictatorship in the 1960s, had recently reoccupied the land in protest against the historic theft of their territory. Survivors alleged that police officials failed to intervene to prevent the attack.
Peaceful occupation of indigenous lands has become increasingly common in recent years, despite the high threat of retaliatory violence. These communities are also at the forefront of land rights activism, an activity that frequently results in murder, with the NGO Global Witness recording 49 documented killings of environmental activists in 2016 – the highest number in any country worldwide. These murders, however, are only a fraction of the widespread violence targeting communities.
Yet often it is government-sponsored megaprojects themselves that are displacing or otherwise affecting local communities, such as the controversial hydroelectric Belo Monte Dam currently being built on the edge of indigenous territory: tens of thousands have been displaced as a result of the Belo Monte Dam, with some estimates ranging as high as 50,000 people. This development, besides undermining the lives of local inhabitants long dependent on the Xingu River, is also encouraging mass migration of labourers into the region. This rapid urban development and the indirect effects of sudden, unregulated investment have reportedly devastated some indigenous communities, whose traditional livelihoods and organizational structures have been threatened by these changes
Concerns about state-sponsored land expropriation have only intensified since a major proposed amendment to Brazil’s Constitution, the Constitution Amendment Bill 215/2000, known as PEC 215, which will devolve the authority to protect and allocate indigenous territories from the executive (the president, FUNAI and the Ministry of Justice) to Congress. As hundreds of its members are reportedly associated with ‘ruralist’ business interests such as the extractive industries and agricultural corporations, the amendment is widely expected to pave the way for land allocation that favours the agricultural and mining sectors, at the risk of many already beleaguered indigenous territories. Among other provisions, PEC 215 would enable a range of caveats and exceptions to current protections that could jeopardize the integrity of communal areas and expose them to the risk of redevelopment. Although the amendment was originally proposed during the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, since her impeachment in 2016 it was then championed by her successor President Michel Temer, a right-wing politician with strong links to agribusiness. If approved, it could present a major threat to the ability of many indigenous communities to maintain their way of life and identity in the future.
The last months of 2018 heralded dramatic shifts in the political landscape of Brazil with repercussions that will undoubtedly be wide-ranging and serious for the country’s minority and indigenous communities. Jair Bolsonaro, a member of
congress with avowedly far-right views, won the presidential election in October, defeating ex-São Paolo mayor Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro secured over 55 per cent of the vote, after having conducted a divisive campaign including promises to stamp out corruption and crime. Bolsonaro promised to shut down the human rights ministry and replace it with a ministry focusing on women, family and indigenous peoples to be headed by evangelical preacher Damares Alves. He also promised to open up indigenous lands to commercial farming and mining. Sadly, these developments came at the same time as reports that deforestation in the Amazon had reached the fastest rate in a decade, with nearly 8,000 sq km destroyed in the year leading up to July 2018.
Brazil is the largest and most populous country in South America. Minority and indigenous communities live in all regions of this diverse nation. The country’s unique ecological resources, in particular the large area of the Amazonian rainforest within its border, have however been threatened by continued deforestation, commercial farming and a variety of industrial megaprojects.
Brazil’s history of human settlement stretches back thousands of years before the beginning of the colonial era. By the time of the arrival of the Portuguese – unlike most of Latin America, Brazil was colonized by Portugal – it is estimated that as many as 4 million indigenous inhabitants, including Tupinambá, Munduruku and Yanomami, lived across the territory.
Initial relations between the Portuguese and the indigenous population were friendly but colonists eager to exploit trade in wood and sugar soon provoked conflict. The massacres and slavery which almost exterminated the coastal Tupi initiated a pattern repeated over the next 500 years. Rival colonial powers, France and the Netherlands, exploited existing hostilities between indigenous communities. Colonists brought dysentery, smallpox, influenza and the plague. Epidemics of these
European diseases swept through the reduções (settlements) instituted by Jesuit missionaries, killing many thousands of indigenous people within a few decades. According to the NGO Survival International the indigenous population of Brazil is less than 7 per cent of what it was in 1500. It is thought that during pre-colonial times there existed up to 2,000 distinct tribes and nations, while today only an estimated 305 of these remain.
In the early nineteenth century, Brazil increased its traditional exports of cotton, sugar and coffee, encroaching still further on indigenous lands. A reported 87 indigenous groups were exterminated in the first half of the twentieth century through contact with expanding colonial frontiers. Between 1964 and 1984 foreign companies and international lending banks tightened control over Brazil’s economic structure, continuing to expand the colonizing frontier. Roads stretching across the Amazon basin forced the removal of 25 indigenous groups at the time and the same trends continue. Pressures to expand the Brazilian economy have continued to aggressively erode the Amazon.
After the decimation of the local indigenous population in the seventeenth century an estimated 3.65 million enslaved Africans were imported to Brazil, and the majority of these were brought to Brazil’s first capital, Salvador da Bahia. Urban slave labour differed from plantation life; slaves were not passive victims of the system and many escaped to found their own ‘quilombos‘.
Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888. Initially the Portuguese authorities promoted miscegenation as a way of ensuring a Portuguese presence in under-populated regions. But, fearing the rising black population, Brazil subsequently opened its country to white immigrants, who were given preference over black people in jobs, housing and education.
The marginalization of minorities and indigenous peoples in Brazil persisted throughout the twentieth century, exacerbated by a number of broader crises in the country that served to reinforce their exclusion. The two-decades long military dictatorship (1964 – 85), in particular, with its widespread human rights abuses and brutal repression of dissent, saw a series of policies that while affecting Brazilians in
general, particularly low-income citizens, impacted disproportionately on Afro-Brazilian and indigenous communities. For example, the military government’s notorious favela eradication programme targeted the poorest urban settlements, a large proportion of whose residents were black or ‘pardo’. The military also ushered in an era of mass deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon, accompanied by an influx of migrants and continued encroachment of indigenous territory. It also continued the systematic abuse of indigenous communities by officials, loggers and ranchers, as subsequently documented by the National Truth Commission.
The legacy of segregation under Brazil’s dictatorship has persisted in the democratic era as a result of the government’s continued failure to address the country’s underlying inequalities. In light of this, Brazil continues to confront significant human rights challenges, including use of torture and inhumane treatment, unlawful and arbitrary police killings, prison overcrowding, and ongoing impunity for crimes committed by the military regime. Despite attracting growing international attention in the 1980s, the country’s rainforests and indigenous territory have also continued to be systematically destroyed by illegal logging, government-sponsored megaprojects and plantations.
In a broader context of corruption and political instability, the situation of Brazil’s minorities and indigenous peoples has remained precarious to the present day. Although the country has witnessed substantial economic development in recent years, little of the benefits have trickled down to the poorer and more marginalized sections of Brazilian society.
In recent years, there have been are signs of a broader re-evaluation of racism in Brazil and a growing commitment to addressing its underlying causes. Brazil has launched a number of affirmative action programmes: in 2012, for instance, a new law was approved which reserves 50 per cent of places in Brazilian federal universities for students from public schools, poorer households and of African or indigenous descent families to address the under-representation of marginalized social groups in higher education. The Ministry for the Promotion of Racial Equality has played an important role coordinating these new inter-agency initiatives, but there has been concern that the ministry faces severe structural limitations because it does not have an independent budget and instead must mobilize resources from the very agencies it is attempting to influence. Furthermore, these measures have not been without controversy, however: for example, a November 2013 opinion piece in one of Brazil’s most influential newspapers which opposed the introduction of quotas for Afro-descendants in the federal parliament as ‘electoral apartheid’.
Although until 1951 there was no formal recognition of discrimination in its law, Brazil has more recently developed a legal framework to tackle the issue. In 1988, a new Constitution finally included different clauses related to racial discrimination, making it a crime subject to penal law, while also establishing state protection for indigenous and Afro-Brazilian cultures. Law 7716 on racism was passed the following year, criminalizing a range of discriminatory practices. In 1997, the law was extended by parliament to include racist hate speech. Despite this, however, hate speech remains widespread.
The 1988 Brazilian Constitution guaranteed indigenous forest peoples rights to inhabit their ancestral lands, though not their legal right to own them. It made no provision for land reform. In April 2005, after much delay, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva ratified the Federal Supreme Court ruling to establish the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Reserve in the state of Roraima. After many years of violence and land disputes in this region, this action called for the demarcation and titling of land for a number of indigenous communities, including the Macuxi, Wapichana, Taurepang, Ingaricó and Patamona peoples, as well as the expulsion of non-indigenous settlers and rice farmers from the territory. Where land has been demarcated, the exclusive rights of indigenous peoples to these resources is recognized under Article 231 of the Constitution.
However, many indigenous peoples continue to be threatened by illegal exploitation and colonization, even when their land rights have been legally recognized. Problems have persisted, in part, because the state agency representing Brazil’s indigenous communities, Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), is understaffed. FUNAI’s activities have been severely curtailed in the past due to funding problems and a lack of political will to register approximately 11 per cent of the nation’s land to the indigenous community. The situation has been exacerbated by the orchestrated assault on the organization’s funds by right-wing interests since Michel Temer took power: in 2017, its already limited funds were almost halved. Even more troubling is the continued threat of PEC 215, a proposed constitutional amendment that if
passed could see current protections of indigenous land dramatically reduced, placing many indigenous territories at risk of development by mining and logging interests. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President in October 2018 and his promises to open up indigenous lands for commercial farming and mining, the threat to indigenous land rights looks even more pressing.
In the face of government failure, indigenous peoples have formally organized themselves through civil society organizations to defend their territory and their identity. These organizations have gained access to international sources of funding to support development activities in their communities and have conducted their own census reports.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
- CEERT (Centro de Estudos das Relações de Trabalho e as Desigualdades)
- Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra
- Instituto Steve Biko
- Mulheres Negras
- Soweto Organização Negra
- Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira
- Conselho Indigenista Missionario (CIMI)
- Instituto Socioambiental
- Kanindé (Association for Ethnic-Environmental Defense) – +55 69 3229 2826 – email@example.com
- Survival International – firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Makuxi and Wapixana