Brazil has fashioned its own brand of neoliberal-ruralist indigenism

Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado

A neoliberal-conservative alliance wields power over public policies regarding the country’s indigenous peoples

by Ricardo Verdum*

Regardless of whatever fate awaits Funai (which loosely translates as the National Indian Foundation) under the rule of president Jair Bolsonaro, one thing is certain: for at least three years now, political decisions regarding Brazil’s indigenous peoples have already been directly tied to the interests of an alliance established between the agribusiness, mining and infrastructure industries. So much so that these industries were the ones to nominate Funai’s last four presidents.

This alliance has been overtly acting within the agency in a coordinated, systematic and combative manner in attempt to change the legislation related to the territorial rights of indigenous peoples and dismantle the network of social actors that stand in solidarity with them. Their “work” has consisted of insinuations and fraudulent accusations, biased legal arguments, procedures with a veneer of institutional normalcy and the exchange of patronage and corruption. The Parliamentary Inquiry Commission held from 2015 to 2017 to investigate Funai and Incra (the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) was one example of this.

With Funai facing a shortage in budget and personnel, a “new” way of thinking of indigenous territories began to gain momentum amid official indigenism and even within the indigenous movement itself. There has been a resurfacing of narratives that question why indigenous peoples themselves cannot be entrepreneurs, lease portions of their land, establish trade agreements and even go into debt with the financial sector in promotion of their projects.

Recognition of Indigenous Lands in Brazil in the last 23 years

These narratives are echoed in a kind of indigenism that I call neoliberal agri-extractivism— an indigenism that questions and resists any and all new and official demarcation of indigenous lands, while stimulating and supporting (in communities whose lands are currently demarcated) ways of thinking, acting and organizing life that open the gates to doing business related to the land. And, as if that weren’t enough, indigenous rights to the land are now in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is controlled by the rural caucus.

In 2017, a curious association emerged in the cauldron of Brazilian politics: the Grassroots Indigenous Farmers Group, introduced to the public under the tutelage of notoriously pro-agribusiness, anti-indigenous politicians, spread confusing, hate-filled ideas that mirror those expressed by Brazil’s far-right. They call for changes in the agency meant to advocate for indigenous rights and public policies, as well as measures to limit the actions of non-governmental organizations which they brand “communist” and “Bolivarian.”

It is increasingly urgent that we question the concept of indigenous agriculture. At the same time that we have traditional agricultural systems developing alongside the conservation of forests and generation of agrobiodiversity, there are indigenous communities in the Brazilian South, Midwest, and the Amazon that, due to incentives and with no better alternatives, had to incorporate the proposal that they use their land to produce farming commodities,  on which they have since come to depend. This has had harmful effects on human health and that of the environment, and also built up tensions and conflicts within communities. In the southern Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, “plots” of indigenous territories were leased to farmers, who turned to branches of Bank of Brazil to obtain credit from the National Program for Strengthening Family Farming on behalf of indigenous peoples.

If current policies and the dominant conservative tutelage continue, the subordination of indigenous peoples and the radical mischaracterization of territories as commodity producers will surely worsen. Not to mention the intensification of conflicts, with lives lost, the exodus of indigenous peoples from their communities and the destruction of families and ethnic groups. In order to tackle all this, there needs to be democratic, plural and egalitarian politicization, articulation and mobilization on the part of the public.


Ricardo Verdum is a social anthropologist and researcher to the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology of the National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and a member of the Brazilian Anthropology Association (ABA). He is the author of two books; “Indigenous Peoples, the Environment and Public Policies” (“Povos indígenas, meio-ambiente e políticas públicas”, 2017) and “Development, Utopias and Latin American Indigenism” (“Desenvolvimento, utopias e indigenismo”, 2018).


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