Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Art. 3).

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the State (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Art. 5).

The indigenous population of Brazil is estimated by the National Health Foundation (FUNASA) to be around 470,000, equivalent to a little more than 0.2% of the country’s total population. Today, close to 60% of this population lives in the region designated as Amazonia Legal. The demographic census of 2000, carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), identified 734,127 people as "indigenous," raising the percentage to 0.4% of the population. This group represents a linguistic diversity that exceeds 180 languages classified under 35 linguistic families. It is estimated that there are a total of 220 indigenous groups, several of which are subject to the jurisdiction of more than one country, as is the case of the Guarani (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay), the Yanomami (Brazil and Venezuela), the Tukano (Brazil and Colombia) and the Tikuna (Brazil, Colombia, and Peru). Indigenous peoples are present in every state of the Federation, and their lands ("terras indígenas," in the legal speak of the Brazilian state) total approximately 273.3 million acres—the equivalent of approximately 13% of the national territory and 21% of the Brazilian Amazon.

Although it has been 20 years since the ratification of the current constitution of the Federal Republic of Brazil (1988), which included a specific chapter concerning indigenous peoples’ rights (Chapter VIII—The Indigenous), the sentiment today is that none of the subsequent administrations implemented significant changes in the political-administrative practices and structures of the State apparatus, in particular toward the transformation of the Brazilian State into a Plurinational State. Respecting the internal right of political autonomy of these peoples and the territorial restructuring of the State does not even figure into the agenda of "progressive" political parties.1

It is true that there were some efforts in this sense, for example, the conception and implementation of the Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts (DSEIs). Some social agents, both indigenous and non-indigenous, saw the possibility for the DSEIs to be prototypes of broader political structures, allowing them to exercise their right to indigenous autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their local and internal affairs, and to manage their territories and natural resources. However, this effort was met with opposing forces that, due to different political perspectives and economic interests, disqualified and even criminalized those initiatives that could have led to broader change in that direction. At best, a "well-behaved" multiculturalism was accepted, which defines diversity as a cultural differenceinside a determined space (local, regional, national, or international), while repudiating or ignoring economic and sociopolitical differences. In practice, this manifests itself in politics which "open up" to cultural diversity and exhibit cultural relativism while strengthening both the mechanisms of centralized national power and the interests of global capitalism.2

Indigenous Peoples and the Constitution of 1988

As in other Latin American countries like Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela,3 where indigenous movements mobilized and put pressure on the State’s power structures aiming to gain a voice and a vote in the Constituent Assembly as well as national parliaments, there were also similar efforts in Brazil in the mid 80s during the political process that resulted in the current text of the Federal Constitution of 1988. In various states of the federation, we saw indigenous people joining political parties, where they faced internal disputes for political space and campaign financing, and where at least a dozen participated in the 1986 electoral battle for "constituent representatives." The Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI), founded at the beginning of this decade, was a base of articulation for "indigenous leadership" and support organizations (Inesc, Cedi, CPI-SP, ABA, etc.), and the main sponsor of the campaign, Indigenous Peoples on the Constituent (Assembly). The Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) also played a prominent role in the process, supporting the actions of the indigenous movement in the National Congress and in the states.4

Even if it hasn’t been possible to elect at least one indigenous representative to the National Congress, nor attain a specific representation quota for indigenous "nations" or "peoples" in the legislative house, this mobilization gave visibility to "indigenous issues," transcending the borders of the social actors that form the so-called Brazilian indigenist landscape. It also made it possible for congressmen of different political tendencies to support the inclusion of a specific chapter in the current Federal Constitution entitled The Indigenous, with two key articles to the future of campaigns for defense and promotion of indigenous rights in the country. On the other hand, it becomes clear that the legislation does not go much further than the definition of specific rights, which will not result in substantial political changes to the republican project of a mono-cultural State.

Compared to the constitution of 1969, the constitutional text of 1988 was without a shadow of a doubt an improvement that incorporated other dimensions of rights for indigenous peoples, then designated silvícolas (those who live or were raised in the jungle).5 It is important to remember that in one of the articles, number 231, the constitutional text recognizes indigenous peoples’ "social organization, customs, languages, beliefs, and traditions and the native rights to the lands they occupy." In the following article, 232, indigenous peoples (their communities and organizations) also have the right to take legal action in defense of their rights and interests, with the support of the state public prosecutor in every step of the process.

This, in our understanding, means the recognition of the multicultural and pluriethnic condition of the Brazilian society, but how it translates into practices and reformulates the political structures of the Brazilian State is a question the new text of the constitution cannot answer. The participation and political representation of indigenous peoples in the legislative processes of the State, and the recognition of their territories as not merely lands demarcated as parcels or productive units but regional autonomous units, whose inhabitants are able to exercise their own form of government and justice, are dimensions absent from the constitutional text. For this reason, it is not surprising to note that, since its ratification 20 years ago, substantial changes to the structures and political-administrative practices of the Brazilian State have not been achieved.

As with other Latin American constitutions, ethnic diversity and specific rights were incorporated into the new constitutional text without making changes to the political structures of power and domination. In addition, the part of the indigenous population that lives today in urban centers was excluded from specific public politics.

If we assume that indigenous citizenship, in the terms proposed by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO, 1989) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), means legal and effective recognition of the political and social rights of indigenous peoples which include (a) autonomous decision-making; (b) self-government and control over territories as well as their existing natural resources; (c) the right to political representation from the legislative branch of the State; and (d) a leading role in the formulation and control over so-called public policies of the States in which indigenous peoples were forcefully inserted through the process of colonization initiated in the region at the end of the 15th century. In Brazil, we find that the State is far from fulfilling these obligations. In spite of the attempts to mitigate the integrationist nature of both the legislation and the established relations with indigenous peoples, the old tutelary vice of the Brazilian colonialist State is still very present and operational.6


Although structural and managerial changes initiated in Brazil at the beginning of the 90s resulted in greater access for individuals to "services" provided by the State in different "sectors" or governmental "policies" (health, school education, social assistance, technical and financial aid for production, etc.), they contributed very little to overcoming the colonialist framework in the relationship with indigenous peoples. Rather, suspicion is growing around the transformations taking place and the belief that they are only really changing the technology and techniques of domination and domestication of indigenous dissatisfaction, which somehow intends to battle inequalities and promote equal relations:

For this reason, various authors caution that behind the new Latin American policies of recognition and inclusion plays a new cultural logic of global capitalism, a logic that tries to control and harmonize the opposition with the pretense of eventually integrating indigenous peoples and blacks into the market (Catherine Walsh, 2002: 25).

With respect to indigenous territories, even when formally recognized by the Brazilian State, the idea persists that they are natural resource reserves to be incorporated into the market whenever necessary.7 As a last resort the indigenous demands for territorial control and political participation are seen through the lens of national security. An example of this are the 19 "safeguards" established by the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF) in the case of the indigenous land of Raposa/Serra do Sol (RSS), which entail a series of limitations to the self-determination of indigenous peoples that live there and the future demarcations of indigenous territories.8

In Brazil, what is known today as indigenism was born from a practice of knowledge and political-administrative action called the "sertanista tradition." This practice was constituted at the beginning of the 20th century as part of the republican politics of national integration. In the 1950s Brazilian indigenism came to interact with other existing indigenist traditions on the American continent, when indigenism was adopted as an ideology by agencies from the United Nations System and the Organization of American States.9

Although different from its Mexican counterpart, Brazilian indigenism was born with the same grave and irresolvable internal contradiction: it postulates cultural relativism while aspiring to the goal of "Indigenous inclusion" in national society. We have here, as in the case of Mexico analyzed by Héctor Díaz-Polanco (1991), a relativist ideological discourse covering up integrationist practices. The "positive aspects" of indigenous cultures are distinguished from those that should disappear, either because they are "contrary" to the strength of the "national integration" process and "progress," or because they are "useless" to the necessary individual and collective adaptation of indigenous peoples to the market economy.

Following the constituent process of 1986-1988, was a period of organizational effervescence in the indigenous environment whether in defense of a generic indigenousness or specific indigenous groups like the Kayapó and the Tukano. The assistance in the form of financial aid and counsel provided by the Catholic Church, official international cooperation (governmental and multilateral), and national and international civil organizations (NGOs) contributed to this period. There are cases of organizations being created with the pretense of politically representing the indigenous before the State, and others for the purpose of raising funds to develop actions to benefit the community they would supposedly represent. There are also hybrid organizations that participate on both fronts.

The formal recognition of indigenous peoples’ right to organize and to self-representation, expressed in the constitution of 1988, represented the definitive impulse for the process of self-organization of these peoples, the birth and multiplication of indigenous organizations throughout the country, and their articulation in regional, national, and even trans-border networks. One year after the new Brazilian Constitution was promulgated, the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) was created, originating with a regional focus and a trans-communal indigenous identity. With its headquarters in Manaus (AM), today it convenes more than 100 local and sub-regional organizations.10

In the 90s, Brazil, like other countries of Latin America, witnessed an increase in activity of so-called international development cooperation agencies—countries like Great Britain and Germany, or multilateral agencies such as the World Bank (WB), the Inter American Development Bank (IDB), and the United Nations System agencies (UNESCO, OIT, OMS, PNUD, etc.)—either in official indigenist politics or right alongside indigenous organizations. It brings to mind the 1940s and 50s when various international agencies, like the OIT, were participating in the dissemination of ideas and the organization of an indigenist system of continental scope. As in that period, those institutions came to act not only as agents of finance and technical assistance, but also as political agents, influencing the definition of sectarian politics, and an "ally" of the indigenous movement in the sense of creating more flexible mechanisms of guardianship and government control.11

FUNAI’s political, ideological, and administrative hegemony over the official management of the population, indigenous lands, and natural resources lasted until 1991, when some of its functions were gradually allocated or even turned over to other organizations of federal public administration. On Feb. 4, 1991, during the presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello, through Decrees 23, 24, 25, and 26, the actions of "indigenous aid policy" that were until then FUNAI’s responsibility to execute or concede to third-parties with the co responsibility of implementation, were allocated, respectively, to the Ministry of Health, the Environment, Agriculture, and Education. 12

In this context the promotion of the designated ethnodevelopment was conceived as capable of "breaking the vicious cycle of dependence on resources for new projects" and as a strategy for the "socioeconomic-cultural development of these populations according to their own specificities." It is important to remember that we are dealing with historical, cultural, and political expressions that, because of their nature, are subject to a driven construction of narratives and projects using indigenous lands and their existing natural resources (see Ribeiro 1992, 2005). This is also the case, for example, with the controversial and polysemic notion of ethnodevelopment that, throughout the last 20 years, has acquired a growing importance in Latin American (and also Brazilian) indigenous rhetoric, characterizing what Héctor Díaz-Polanco (1991) and Victor Bretón (1991) designated as "ethnophagic" indigenism.

In that same year, 1991, discussions aiming to promote a revision of the Indigenous Statute (Law 6001/73) were initiated within the executive power. Then an inter-ministerial commission, which was coordinated by the FUNAI under the management of Sydney Possuelo, was created for that purpose. With the recently promulgated Federal Constitution as a reference and legal motivation as well as the convening in Brazil of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (RIO92) as a political stimulus, public meetings came about that year, some open to the participation of non-governmental organizations and specialists—Indigenous Missionary Council, Brazilian Association of Anthropology, Nucleus of Indigenous Rights (NDI), among others. In June of 1991, organizations and indigenous leaderships (among them the COIAB, UNI-AC, and the East-Northeast Indigenous Commission), after having analyzed the proposal of the Statute elaborated by an inter-ministerial commission of the federal government, presented their own proposals for the new Statute.

At least three bills were sent to the National Congress, which formed a Special Commission to analyze the received proposals and issue an opinion. Besides the proposal elaborated by the Inter-ministerial Commission (PL 2160), the NDI (PL 2057) and the CIMI (PL 2619) sent their respective bill proposals. The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and other organizations and indigenous leaderships also presented in April of 1992, after analyzing the three proposals sent to the Legislative Branch, a set of proposals to be analyzed by the Special Commission.

It took almost three years for the Special Commission, in 1994 (after numerous meetings, versions, amendments, negotiations, etc.), to vote on the definitive text of the Statute of Indigenous Societies, "conciliating" the different visions and interests at play.13 Through the initiative of the executive power, the proceedings of the Statute bill (PL 2.057/91) were paralyzed in the House. Before President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s inauguration at the end of 1994, the then federal representative and leader of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) in the House, Arthur da Távola, presented an appeal in the name of the new administration suspending proceedings on the bill, justifying their need to form an opinion on "such polemic legislation." This tactic ended up creating a state of distrust and dissatisfaction with the new administration generating protests by indigenous organizations and other supporters, before President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was even sworn in on January 1, 1995.14

Almost 14 years later, during the second term of Lula da Silva’s presidency, the federal government is resuming the process of establishing a new Statute, containing the rights and responsibilities of indigenous peoples within the Brazilian State. This process took place in the scope of the National Commission of Indigenous Politics (CNPI), instituted by presidential decree on March 22, 2006 and was administratively linked to the Ministry of Justice. The CNPI is composed of 12 members from the Federal Government, 20 indigenous persons from different parts of the country, and two representatives from non-governmental entities.

Ten regional meetings were convened during the second semester of 2008 revolving around the document "Substitutive Bill to PL 2.057/91" elaborated by Federal Representative Luciano Pizzatto and approved in the Special Commission of the House of Representatives in 1994. These meetings were sponsored and organized by the Federal Government, and supported by indigenous organizations like COIAB, APOINME, ARPIN-SUL, and the CIMI under the argument that it could potentially improve relations with the Brazilian State. Close to a thousand indigenous people participated in the meetings where changes, exclusions, and additions to the "substitutive bill" were suggested. During the Acampamento Terra Livre, an indigenous assembly which convenes annually since 2004, which took place in Brasilia this year between May 4 and 8, a preliminary version approved several days before in the context of the CNPI was distributed to participants and discussed. At the assembly an indigenous organization of national representation was officially launched: the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).

A profound analysis of this process still remains to be carried out, but there are various evaluations of the meetings that lead to the same troubling conclusion: that the meeting’s dynamics, scripted to guide the issues, may have induced its participants to presuppose the exploration of mineral and hydraulic resources on indigenous lands, or even worse, presented the explorations as a necessity. The fact is that today a document known as the Statute of Indigenous Peoples and questionable in several aspects, is awaiting approval in the National Congress as an amendment to the Substitutive Bill of PL 2.057/91. However, the risk of maintaining the integrationist project designed and implemented at the beginning of the first half of the last century is clear. This is especially so if we note that operational notions, similar to those of productive inclusion, are juxtaposed to another equally problematic notion when applied to interpret the condition of indigenous peoples in Brazil—the notion of poverty—have been informing and shaping politics and "social justice" actions in different "sectors" of official indigenism. Worse still, given the predominant political profile in the current Brazilian National Congress, the rhetoric and debate occurring there result in a text where a more radical neoliberal vision, from a socioeconomic point of view, prevails. This in turn induces indigenous communities to adopt the principles of free market, profit, and private property in the dealings of their lands and resources (natural, cultural, etc.).

Final Considerations

In spite of conceptual, epistemological, demographic, organizational, and mainly political limitations that today evidently hinder the formulation and implementation of a strategy of the reestablishment of the Brazilian State, which insists on being monocultural, based on the idea of self-determination and indigenous territorial autonomy, at the very least it is necessary to attempt to resume the debate over the political participation of indigenous peoples at the legislative level. I say resume because, throughout the 90s, this matter became relatively submerged, covered up by so many other "priorities." Between 2002 and 2004 the subject of "quotas" for indigenous representatives in the state and federal legislatures as well as the formation of an "indigenous parliament" was debated in regional meetings and forums of the indigenous movement only to gradually be replaced by new priorities: the demarcation and regularization of lands; the creation of a subsystem of school education; the structuring of an equally specific subsystem of health services; the elaboration of a new "indigenous peoples statute;" the institutionalization of indigenous associations and organizations of representation; and the creation of mechanisms of financial support for "local development" projects. These urgencies have been the main focus of the indigenous movement and sympathetic sectors of organized civil society since the 90s, all the while meeting resistance from opposing pressures in the National Congress, in sectarian bureaucracies of the executive power, at the local level, etc.

An indigenous representative in the Federal House in 2011 could make the difference, bringing new perspectives to the dialogue with the Brazilian State. Since 2005 a group of organizations, movement, networks, and forums of civil society have been debating and formulating proposals for political reform of the Brazilian State. Proposals that aren’t restricted to the electoral system, but rather to the set of decision making processes of the power system instituted in the country. Among the numerous proposals contained in the document entitled, A Platform of Social Movements for Reform of the Political System in Brazil, the product of almost four years of debates, is one that points to the need to create legal mechanisms which guarantee direct representation of indigenous peoples in the proportional elections of the country, following the example of Venezuela and Colombia. This would constitute the creation of a unique electoral system that would not engage in the existing party system.

It brings to mind Gersem Luciano, of the indigenous group Baniwa that lives in the border region between Brazil and Colombia. In one of our publications issued in 2004, he presented a proposal for an "indigenous parliament." According to his vision, this "parliament" would be a networking base for indigenous ethno-political movements at the national level, a point of reference unique to indigenous peoples, in which their legitimate aspirations would be represented. In his vision, the parliament could very well form part of a new model of institutional relations between the indigenous peoples, the State, and the non-indigenous society in Brazil: a Plurinational State.

The discussion process regarding "alternatives for strengthening indigenous participation in legislative levels of the national State," by the Inesc in 2001 in conjunction with COIAB, the Articulation of Indigenous People and Organizations of the Northeast, Minas Gerais, and Espirito Santo (APOINME), and other indigenous leaderships and support organizations is also relevant. From these discussions came the International Seminar for Indigenous Peoples and Parliaments, which was followed by regional meetings and forums in the north, northeast, and south of the country between 2003 and 2005.

I conclude this text with a sense that we are facing a great challenge. We will need a lot of creativity and drive to confront the administrative, political, and cultural deadlocks that frequently block the advancement of participatory democracy in Brazil, especially when it comes to indigenous peoples. This moment, in which the discussion about the need for specific legislation to substitute the long obsolete Statute of the Indigenous of 1973 is being reinitiated within the National Congress, in which an attempt is being made to conceive of alternative formulas to the tutelary institution, in which the Brazilian indigenous movement seeks to strengthen alliances with other social movements seeking transition to a society where pluriethnicity and interculturalism are at the root of its institutions, we believe that the content of this publication will provide positive contributions.

End Notes

  1. A reflection developed by Héctor Díaz-Polanco (2006a, 2006b) with respect to the theoretical and political "difficulty" of the classic Latin American left to respond to demands for indigenous autonomy is a good point of reference in understanding the Brazilian context. He demonstrates, for example, that the lack of recognition (of diversity) ends up reinforcing neoliberal theses, contrary to the demarcation of "indigenous territories" and indigenous rights to natural resources located in their territories.
  2. Slajov Zizek (2005) refers to this process as a new multicultural logic of multinational capitalism. This "aperture" of cultural diversity and the incorporation of indigenous movements’ demands by the State has manifested itself in various Latin American countries since the early 1990s; cf. Bretón (2001, 2005); Guerrero & Ospina (2003); Verdum (2006); Hale (2007).
  3. See Marés 1996; Bengoa 2000; Van Cott 2004; Montejo 2004; Bello 2004; Díaz-Polanco 2005; Dávalos 2005; Clavero 2008; Walsh 2009.
  4. For more information see: CEDI 1987, 1991; Lacerda 2008.
  5. Constitutional Ammendment No. 1, of Oct. 17,1969, that modified the constitutional text of 1967, establishes in Article 198 that "The lands inhabited by the silvícolas are inalienable in the terms that the federal law determines, including their permanent possession and recognizing their exclusive rights to the benefits of the natural resources and all of the existing utilities found there." As in all previous constitutions of the republican period (1934, 1937, and 1946), the "land" was the only article that deserved the attention of the legislators.
  6. See Gaiger 1991; Verdum 2006b.
  7. After engaging in various production cycles (monoculture, logging, etc.) with the consent of, or directly implemented by the Indian Protection Service (SPI) and its subsequent substitute, the National Indian Federation (FUNAI), indigenous peoples are now being offered a new development "opportunity": the "environmental services" market.
  8. For more information on the RSS case, see:
  9. See Gagliari 1989; Favre 1998; Verdum 2006.
  10. See Ricardo 1996; Albert 1997, 1998, 2001; Athias 2002.
  11. In regard to the role of international cooperation strategies in relation to indigenous people in Latin America, particularly in Brazil and Ecuador, see Breton 2001; Verdum 2006.
  12. See Barroso-Hoffman et al. 2004; Ricardo 1996, 2000; Souza Lima & Barroso-Hoffman 2002; Verdum 2003, 2005a, 2005b, 2008.
  13. See Santilli 1996; Araújo and Leitão 2002.
  14. In March 2000, the Federal Government presented a new statute proposal through the federal deputy, Luciano Pizzatto (PFL-PR), that was severely criticized by the indigenous movement, supporting organizations, and the opposition to the government in the National Congress. See Oliveira Pankararu 2006.