Past Time for Respect for Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

Despite the challenges of 2021, it closed with some important milestones. At long last, the U.N. Human Rights Council recognized “the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and appointed a Special Rapporteur to focus on rights in the context of climate change. Additionally, the U.S. officially designated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 11. President Biden’s proclamation acknowledges “the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities” and celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ “resilience and strength” and “immeasurable positive impact . . . on every aspect of American society.”

Violence against Indigenous Peoples and nature is deeply intertwined. For generations, Indigenous lands have been exploited as a “hunting ground” for resources with colonialism propped up by racial and gender hierarchies. In the U.S., Native American and Alaska Native women experience sexual assault at a rate 2.5 times higher than other women, with 86% of perpetrators non-Native men. For example, the oil boom in the Bakken region brought a 75% increase in sexual assaults and a 53% increase in violence with the influx of hundreds of transient male workers, housed in “Man Camps” near Indian territories. Moreover, with strained infrastructure and Indian tribes lacking jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian defendants, there is often no accountability. Indigenous leaders have highlighted the link between sovereignty over land and bodily autonomy.

Against this backdrop of abuse, the climate crisis is displacing Indigenous communities at increasing rates and leading to economic instability, land disputes, and disruptions in social safety nets, contributing to increased risk of gender-based violence. Moreover, Indigenous leaders have been at the forefront of sounding the alarm on climate change and may also experience violence as retaliation for their actions as human rights defenders confronting environmental degradation. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Indigenous Peoples, aggravating preexisting inequalities and resulting in heightened rates of infection and  increased environmental degradation, economic insecurity, and gender-based violence, threatening Indigenous cultures. 

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“Conflicting areas”: Brazilian energy planning at odds with the protection of Indigenous Peoples and the Amazon Rainforest

Fernanda Frizzo Bragato*

Lara Santos Zangerolame Taroco*

Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest globally, and Brazil is home of 60% of its full extension. Although the Amazon rainforest is an essential global repository of carbon, mitigating climate change,[i] it also awakens deep economic interests, given its potential in untapped natural resources and rich biodiversity. 

The advancement of deforestation in the region backs to the 1960s, when the military took power and adopted economic plans to develop and integrate the Amazon into the rest of the country.[ii] In that period, the government boosted the opening of roads, the discovery of minerals, and the beginning of agricultural colonization in region.[iii] For instance, the herd grew from just 2 million in 1970 to around 80 million heads in 2010. Until 1975, deforestation affected less than 1% of the forest, reaching almost 19% in 2013. Social conflicts caused by violent land tenure disputes also intensified in the late 20th century due to the increasing availability of lands through recently opened roads and the intensification of land grabbing. [iv]   

In the civil-military dictatorship, studies discovered “the existence of an immense hydraulic potential in the Amazon region, mainly on the Tocantins and Xingu rivers.” [v]  The government then initiated the construction of hydroelectric power plants in the region, marked by environmental impacts and violation of the indigenous rights.

Since then, Brazil has been largely relying on hydropower as the main source of electricity generation.[vi] According to the National Energy Plan – 2050 (thereinafter PNE 2050), [vii] which came out in 2020, hydroelectricity supplied almost 2/3 of the electricity demand in October 2019.[viii]

In 1988, the new Constitution restricted the exploitation of hydroelectric resources in Indigenous lands, and environmental legislation established protected biodiversity zones. Convention no. 169 of the ILO, ratified by Brazil in 2002,[ix] reinforced this restriction by providing the FPIC with indigenous peoples before undertaking, or authorizing, any resources’ exploitation within their lands.

Brazil also ratified, in 1998, the Convention on Biological Diversity,[x] and created the National System of Nature Conservation Units in 2000, which established several Conservation Units. In 2004, Brazil reserved more than 500 thousand square kilometers for new Conservation Units. This effort resulted in an expressive reduction in deforestation, which fell from almost 28 thousand square kilometers in 2004 to around 5.8 thousand square kilometers in 2013.[xi]

Nonetheless, the electricity plans continued to prescribe hydroelectricity as the primary energy source, including its exploitation in protected areas, such as Amazonian Indigenous lands and conservation units.

The 2030 National Energy Plan (thereinafter PNE 2030), published in 2007,[xii] identified hydroelectric energy as the main source of energy generation, contributing for 79% of total generation, and 70% of the Brazilian energy potential in the Amazon and Tocantins/Araguaia basins. The document mentioned the existence of “issues” to be solved by the National Congress, citing as an example the possibility of “exploitation of energy potential in Indigenous lands”. [xiii]

In addition, the Decennial Energy Expansion Plan 2006-2015 (thereinafter PDEE 2006-2015)[xiv] pointed out that 41% of the Amazon Biome’s total area comprises “conflicting areas.” This expression refers to legally protected areas that make it impossible or difficult to expand energy production. Of the 41% mentioned, 16% are Conservation Units, and 25% are Indigenous lands. Moreover, neither the PDEE 2006-2015 nor the PNE 2030 mentioned Indigenous demands for more land demarcations in the Amazon. The non-demarcation of Indigenous lands leads the main claims and conflicts involving Indigenous Peoples in Brazil.[xv]

The Growth Acceleration Program (thereinafter PAC),[xvi] formulated by the Federal Government in 2007, provided energy infrastructure as one of its four pillars. The PAC maintained the creation of the Belo Monte HPP, and planned to build another 31 plants in the country’s northern region. Recently, the PNE 2050 also predicted the high participation of hydroelectricity as the country’s primary energy source.

Unlike the previous plans, the PNE 2050 mentions the “socio-environmental complexity for hydroelectric expansion,” [xvii] given that the hydroelectric potential is located predominantly in “areas of high socio-environmental sensitivity, especially in the Amazon region, which has half of its extension covered by legally protected areas.”[xviii]

According to the PNE 2050, 77% of the identified hydroelectric potential overlap with legally protected areas in the national territory, such as Indigenous lands or conservation units. Only 23% of the potential capacity of hydroelectric plants does not overlap with protected areas, which makes it difficult to reconcile “the purposes of a Conservation Unit with the expansion of energy supply.” [xix]  However, the PNE 2050 does not propose any alternative for the overlaps.

Considering the 204 conservation units in the Brazilian Amazon, which comprises around 104 thousand hectares,[xx] the energetic Brazilian plans look inconsistent with the urgent need to curb deforestation.  Likewise, deforestation within Amazonian conservation units jumped from 441km2 in 2018 to 953km2 in 2019, increasing more than 110%.[xxi]  In 2019, the Amazon was the Brazilian biome most affected by deforestation, amounting to 63.2% of the country’s deforested area (totaling 770,148 hectares). [xxii] The total deforested area increases every year. It is estimated that  20% of the rainforest has already been deforested, close to the tipping point, rated between 20-25%,[xxiii] in which ecosystemic changes would cause an irreversible cascade effect.

Also, the impacts of the electricity sector in Indigenous lands are severe and irreversible. Among them, the following stand out: the relocation of communities to other regions, often accompanied by disruptions in their livelihood; the flooding of large land parcels, including sacred areas, such as traditional burial sites, and rich biodiversity; the invasion of traditional lands; the decrease of hunting, fishing and the reduction of arable areas; and the proliferation of insect populations, including arthropods and mollusks, leading to increased incidences of malaria and other infectious diseases.[xxiv]

Considering the Brazilian history and the horizon of 2050, the incompatibility between what is defined by the government’s planning and protected areas – called inappropriately “conflicting areas”-  seems extremely clear. Therefore, state planning for the energy sector predicts conflict situations that tend to escalate in the following years, leading to more human rights violations against Brazilian indigenous peoples and increasing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

* Professor at UNISINOS Law Graduate Program. CNPQ Researcher. Coordinator of UNISINOS Human Rights Center. E-mail:

* Law PhD Candidate at UNISINOS. Law Master Degree from Vitoria Law School  – FDV. Member of Unisinos Human Rights Center. E-mail:

[i] HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH. Rainforest Mafias. How violence and impunity fuel deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon. 2019. Available at: . Access on: Nov 09, 2021.

[ii] PRATES, Rodolfo Coelho, Carlos José Caetano BACHA. Os processos de desenvolvimento e desmatamento da Amazônia. Economia e Sociedade, dez. 2011, v. 20, n. 3 (43), pp. 601-636. Available at: < Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[iii] IMAZON. A floresta habitada: História da ocupação humana na Amazônia. 2015. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[iv] IMAZON. A floresta habitada: História da ocupação humana na Amazônia. 2015. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[v] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Centro da memória da eletricidade no Brasil. Disponível em: . Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[vi] BRASIL. Presidência da República. II Plano Nacional de Desenvolvimento (1975-1979). Brasília, 1974. Available at: . Access on Nov 9, 2021, p.65.

[vii] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Plano Nacional de Energia – PNE 2050. Brasília: EPP, 2020. Available at: https: Access on Nov 9, 2021, p.75.

[viii] U.S. Energy Information Administration. Hydropower made up 66% of Brazil’s electricity generation in 2020. Sep 7, 2021. Avaliable at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[ix] BRASIL. Decreto n. 10.088/2019. Anexo LXXII. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[x] BRASIL. Decreto n.2.519/1998. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xi] IMAZON. A floresta habitada: História da ocupação humana na Amazônia. 2015. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021

[xii] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Plano Nacional de Energia 2030. Rio de Janeiro: EPE, 2007.Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xiii] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Plano Nacional de Energia 2030. Rio de Janeiro: EPE, 2007.Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xiv] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Plano Decenal de Expansão Elétrica: 2006-2015. Brasília: EPE, 2006. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xv] CAVALCANTE, Thiago Leandro Vieira. “Terra Indígena”: aspectos históricos da construção e aplicação de um conceito jurídico. Revista História. Franca, v.35, 2016. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xvi] MINISTÉRIO DO PLANEJAMENTO. Sobre o PAC. Available at:  Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xvii] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Plano Nacional de Energia – PNE 2050. Brasília: EPP, 2020. Available at: https: Access on Nov 9, 2021, p.80

[xviii] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Plano Nacional de Energia – PNE 2050. Brasília: EPP, 2020. Available at: https: Access on Nov 9, 2021, p.80

[xix] MINISTÉRIO DE MINAS E ENERGIA. Plano Nacional de Energia – PNE 2050. Brasília: EPP, 2020. Available at: https: Access on Nov 9, 2021, p.80

[xx] ISA. Instituto Socioambiental. Placar de Unidades de Conservação. Pará – Belém do Pará. 2020. Available at:  Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xxi]  NOTÍCIAS MPF. Ação do MPF requer atuação imediata do governo federal para combater desmatamento na Amazônia. 2020 Available at: . Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xxii] MAPBIOMAS. Relatório Anual do Desmatamento no Brasil – 2019. Available at: Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xxiii] LOVEJOY, Thomas and Carlos NOBRE. AMAZON TIPPING POINT. Science Advances, Feb. 2018, Vol. 4, No. 2. Available at:  Access on Nov 9, 2021.

[xxiv] TADEI, W. P., 1994. Proliferação de mosquitos na Hidrelétrica de Tucuruí, Pará. In: A Questão Energética na Amazônia. Avaliação e Perspectivas Sócio Ambientais. Anais do Seminário Internacional, pp. 2-13, Belém: Núcleo de Altos Estudos na Amazônia, Universidade Federal do Pará/Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi; ARRUDA, M. E., 1985. Presença de plasmódio brasilianum em macacos capturados na área de enchimento do reservatório da usina hidroelétrica de Tucuruí, Pará. Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, 80:367-369; BULCÃO, J. A. P., 1994. Proposta de um Modelo para Avaliação do Impacto dos Empreendimentos Hidroelétricos sobre as Doenças Transmitidas por Vetores com Especial Referência à Malária. Dissertação de Mestrado, Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz.; COUTO, R. C. S., 1996. Hidrelétricas e Saúde na Amazônia: Um Estudo sobre a Tendência da Malária na Área do lago da Hidrelétrica de Tucuruí, Pará. Tese de Doutorado, Rio de Janeiro: Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública, Fundação Instituto Oswaldo Cruz.

Brazilian NGO addressing environment and human rights receives inaugural Human Rights & Business Award

Justica nos Trilhos - logo

The Brazilian NGO Justiça nos Trilhos will receive the inaugural award from the Human Rights and Business Award Foundation, the recently-formed foundation announced today.  The award, which is accompanied by a $50,000 grant, is made in recognition of “outstanding work by human rights defenders in the Global South or former Soviet Union addressing the human rights impacts of business in those regions”.

As the foundation states in its press release:

Justiça nos Trilhos is an organization working closely with local communities in remote parts of Brazil – including indigenous peoples, peasants, and Afro-descendants – to address human rights and environmental abuses by mining and steel companies, in particular the multinational Vale.

Mining and steel companies have polluted the rivers on which these people depend for drinking water and their livelihoods, polluted the air causing respiratory and eyesight problems, contaminated the soil with industrial waste, displaced communities, and decimated the cultures and lives of indigenous peoples.

The foundation notes:

The human rights defenders of Justiça nos Trilhos, and the local communities they work with, have been subjected to surveillance and retaliatory lawsuits by Vale.

Information about the Vale mining company is available here.  Two stories about the work of Justiça nos Trilhos, the first of which includes Vale’s responses:

Session on Tuesday at UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

BHR ForumDanilo Chammas, a lawyer at Justiça nos Trilhos, will accept the award on behalf of the organization at a session being held at the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva on Tuesday 27 November. The session “will be an interactive learning and discussion opportunity, linking the particular experiences of the award recipient and the lessons learned through those experiences to the Forum’s priority issues including human rights due diligence, sector-focused challenges, and the UN Guiding Principles [on Business and Human Rights]”.

Human Rights & Business Award – Human rights defenders in the Global South
– Tuesday 27 Nov, 18:15-19:45, Room XX, Palais des Nations, Geneva
– The session’s objectives, key discussion questions, and discussants:  here

The Business and Human Rights Award Foundation was established by the founder of the award-winning Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Chris Avery.  The foundation website was launched today in eight languages.

Press release announcing the 2018 Business and Human Rights Award: