Brazil’s President Bolsonaro Poised to Launch New Era of Indigenous Exploitation

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Declaring that his election had freed Brazil from “socialism and political correctness,” the country’s newly inaugurated president, Jair Bolsonaro, moved quickly to enact policies that put Brazil’s indigenous people and its Amazonian rain forest in extreme peril. On his second day in office, January 2, 2019, Bolsonaro signed two controversial decrees—one that increased federal government oversight of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Brazil, and another that moved responsibility for protecting indigenous rights from FUNAI—the indigenous-affairs agency, which had historically limited farming and mining in indigenous territories by creating reserves that were off-limits to developers—to a newly created office in Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, under the guidance of an ultraconservative evangelical pastor, Damares Alves. As the Atlantic reported, the decrees meant that “the decades-long effort by Brazil’s indigenous populations to seek recognition and legal title to land has been foiled,” and the Atlantic noted that Bolsonaro boasted of the decrees on Twitter, “à la Donald Trump.”

In February 2019, Al Jazeera reported that a newly issued study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found “a sharp uptick in attacks on indigenous people since Bolsonaro won the presidency in the October 2018 elections.” The same month, the Intercept published an article, by Sam Cowie, documenting Bolsonaro’s long history of opposing protection of indigenous lands and denigrating Brazil’s indigenous peoples. As Cowie reported, in 1998, Bolsonaro praised how the US cavalry had “decimated its Indians in the past and nowadays does not have this problem in their country.”

Indigenous groups in Brazil have been under attack for more than five centuries as a result of excessive nationalism and increasing economic incentives to exploit natural resources left in the wake of the brutal attacks against indigenous people on lands protected as indigenous reserves.

Bolsonaro’s decrees aimed at indigenous peoples not only violate Brazil’s constitution and international human rights, they also threaten the global environment. In addition to opening up previously protected Amazonian land for development, Bolsonaro has flirted with following in Trump’s footsteps by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Food security will be compromised as a result of the pressing consequences of man-made climate change exacerbated by imminent deforestation and exploitation of indigenous lands in Brazil.

In October 2018, prior to the election, John Oliver did a segment on Bolsonaro for “Last Week Tonight,” which received a fair amount of coverage in both corporate and independent outlets. Since his election, a number of news reports, including one by the BBC,  have focused on comparisons of Bolsonaro and Trump. The New York Times covered Bolsonaro’s order to transfer responsibility for certifying indigenous territories as protected lands to the ministry of agriculture; and, in March 2019, it ran an article on efforts by indigenous groups to resist Bolsonaro’s policies, but the Times positioned the article as an opinion piece rather than a news report.


Gabriel Stargardter, “Bolsonaro Presidential Decree Grants Sweeping Powers over NGOs in Brazil” Reuters, January 2, 2019,

Shannon Sims, “Here’s How Jair Bolsonaro Wants to Transform Brazil,” Atlantic, January 12, 2019,

Mia Alberti, “Brazil’s Indigenous Groups Decry Bolsonaro’s Escalating Attacks,” Al Jazeera, February 14, 2019,

Dom Phillips, “‘We are Fighting’: Brazil’s Indigenous Groups Unite to Protect Their Land,” Guardian, March 4, 2019,

Jon Lee Anderson, “Jair Bolsonaro’s Southern Strategy,” New Yorker, April 1, 2019,

Student Researcher: Colin Gregonis (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)