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Indigenous Policy and Genocide in Brazil

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 22:26
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The following practices determine whether a state activity can be categorized as genocide according to the United Nation’s Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Brazilian military government (1964-1985) policy on indigenous people can be  easily framed as a crime of genocide. For the dictatorship, indigenous communities inside the country were ostacles on the way of the national development ideal — especially for the construction of the national highway system and the development of the country’s energy generation capacity.

Let us take, for instance, the Waimiri-Atroari community. In 1972, the community’s population hovered around 3,000.[1] Eleven years later, the population had been reduced to 332 individuals, with no evidence that there was ever any epidemic outbreak.[2] This period coincides with the construction of the BR 174 highway in the Brazilian North, crossing indigenous lands.

Statements and other documents collected by the Truth and Memory Comission of the Amazonas State (CVM Amazonas) show that a systematic extermination and forceful displacement process took place. That much was known by the institutions that should have looked after the interests of the indigenous people — the old Society for the Protection of the Indian (SPI) and the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI) –, and had their support. As one of the leaders of the Front for the Attraction of the Waimiri (FAWA) declared, the army would “show the strength of the civilized, something that would include the use of dynamite, grenades, tear gas, machine gun firings, and the confinement of indigenous leaders in other parts of the country.”[3] CVM Amazonas’ extensive documentation demonstrates that indigenous populations were targeted by land repression, bombs, and probably even napalm. The death toll reached 2,000, with clear intention of making this inconvenient people disappear.[4]

The community to which the regime was most hostile was the Cinta-Larga, a people from the Brazilian Center-West. Estimates indicate that, in a period of 20 years, from the 1950s to the 1970s, over 5,000 Cinta-Larga Indians were killed by gunmen connected to the military regime and by latifúndio owners, who had been able to secure economic exploration rights on the Indians’ lands from the government.[5] Among the means utilized to exterminate Indians were bombs launched from helicopters and the delivery of poisoned sugar.[6]

Very high death rates resulting from actions by and omissions of the state are similar in other communities. During the period of SPI and FUNAI intervention in the Indian tribes, especially during the 1970s — the most repressive years during the dictatorship — it is estimated that 36% of the Awaretés, 50% of the Catrimani, 66% of the Paranás, and 80% of the Yanomamis died in Amazonas.[7] In total, the CVM report tallies of around 8,900 victims in only 10 communities. Such alarming proportions forced even military regime adherents to declare a genocide against the indigenous peoples.[8]

However, why should it be important for us to consider the actions of the Brazilian state as genocide? That’s because the repressive project against them hasn’t ended, and was subjected to just a few tweaks. Indians are still exterminated and displaced by the construction of enormous projects such as the Belo Monte dam — built in alliance with the largest construction companies of the country, the same ones now under investigation for large scale corruption.

Outside the occasional work termination, none of the responsible parties have ever been prosecuted, either in the civil or in the criminal sphere. One of FUNAI’s directors during the dictatorship was Romero Jucá, now a senator for the state of Roraima — the same one where the massacre against the Waimiri-Atroirá took place. The elimination of the native communities is a very real desire of the government, whether unconsciously or not. As former Minister of the Interior and General Secretary of Agriculture under generals Médici and Geisel, Rangel Reis, stated in 1976: “The Indians can’t stop progress. . . . In 10 or 20 years, there will be no Indians in Brazil.”[9]

Translated by Erick Vasconcelos.


[1] Oliveira, Rubens Auto da Cruz. FUNAI/DGPC. Postos Indígenas da FUNAI / Primeira Delegacia Regional / Estado do Amazonas. Brasília, 1972, pp. 1, 2, 7 e 8.

[2] Baines, Stephen Grant. Comment on “Relatório sobre a Visita aos Waimiri-Atroari: de 20 de setembro de 1992”, by Comissão de Assuntos Indígenas da ABA. Brasília, 19 de maio de 1993, p. 4.

[3] O Globo. Sertanista vai usar até dinamite para se impor aos Waimiris. Rio de Janeiro, 06 de janeiro de 1975.

[4] CVM Amazonas,, p. 75.

[5] National Truth Commision. Relatório Temático sobre Violações de Direitos Humanos à Comunidades Índigenas, p. 237.

[6] 117 – Relatório Figueiredo, 1968, v. XX, p. 4.917.

[7] National Truth Commision. Relatório Temático sobre Violações de Direitos Humanos à Comunidades Índigenas, pp. 227/229

[8] Ibid., p. 205.

[9] National Truth Commision. Final Report. Texto 5 – Violações de direitos humanos dos povos indígenas. 2014, pp. 203-264.

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