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  • Indigenous Policy in Brazil: The Development of Decree 1775 and the Proposed Raposa/Serra do Sol Reserve, Roraima, Brazil
  • Sara Gavney Moore (bio) and Maria Carmen Lemos (bio)

I. Introduction

Recent developments in indigenous policy in Brazil have brought into question the Brazilian government’s commitment to the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights. In January 1996, Brazil’s President introduced Decree 1775, 1 revising the procedures first established in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the demarcation of indigenous lands. The Brazilian government justifies the reform on grounds that it will ensure the constitutionality of protecting indigenous peoples’ lands from future development projects. 2 However, critics categorize Decree 1775 as a step backwards in [End Page 444] the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil, and fear that its implementation will open indigenous lands further to development projects and environmental degradation. 3

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Brazilian government introduced legislation that recognized indigenous peoples’ distinct cultures and outlined the procedures for the demarcation and legal protection of their lands. 4 Such legislation was a dramatic departure from the assimilationist viewpoint that had characterized Brazilian indigenous policy in the past. 5 Moreover, the progressive tone of the new legislation led national and international advocates of indigenous rights to look optimistically, although cautiously, toward the future of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. 6 However, recent developments in indigenous policy in Brazil have brought into question the Brazilian government’s commitment to the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights.

In January 1996, Brazil’s President Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed into law Decree 1775, allowing state governments and commercial interests to challenge the demarcation of indigenous lands, including those lands whose demarcation processes have already been initiated. 7 On the one hand, given the potential for economic exploitation of many of the [End Page 445] indigenous lands in Brazil through extractive activities such as mining and logging, it was reasonable to expect that the demarcation of indigenous lands would meet with strong opposition from business and other pro-development interests. On the other hand, the emergence of new state actors, such as the politically progressive President Cardoso, raised expectations for more progressive public policy regarding indigenous issues in the 1990s. 8

Thus, the enactment of Decree 1775, widely referred to in the media and literature as the “Genocide Decree,” has provoked national and international outrage, especially among indigenous rights advocates. 9 The Brazilian government’s rationale for enacting Decree 1775 is that reform is necessary to protect indigenous lands from future challenges. 10 This reform, the government justifies, will assure the legality of indigenous land demarcation through allowing nonindigenous parties to enter counterclaims to indigenous lands during the demarcation process. 11 This measure supposedly will guarantee that the demarcation process, once completed, cannot be challenged on grounds of unconstitutionality. 12 Critics of the decree in turn contend that its enactment is a major reversal of previous, more progressive regulations implemented by the Brazilian government since the constitutional reform of 1988. 13 They also speculate that Decree 1775 is part of a broader plan to cater to influential business and political interests that enabled the current Brazilian government to run for re-election in 1998. 14 Indigenous rights advocates argue that Decree 1775 is part of a larger trend toward the progressive elimination of indigenous rights in [End Page 446] Brazil, aiming at the destruction of indigenous peoples and their cultural identities. 15

Environmental and indigenous rights advocates also fear that the implementation of Decree 1775 will result in increased degradation and exploitation of lands traditionally claimed by indigenous peoples. 16 For example, if outside development interests successfully prove claims to indigenous lands under the new legislation, these lands will likely be opened to large-scale natural resource extraction and colonization. Increased development on former indigenous lands could lead to such environmental degradation as deforestation, soil erosion, water sedimentation, and loss of biodiversity. 17

Despite the government’s claim to the contrary, there is evidence that instead of helping to secure indigenous rights, Decree 1775 actually encourages further challenges to indigenous lands and represents a reversal of prior commitments supporting indigenous rights in Brazil. 18 This study examines indigenous policy in Brazil...

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pp. 444-463
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