Recent data on Brazil’s indigenous people have revealed a disturbing trend. According to a new report from the Ministry of Justice, suicide rates among indigenous peoples are an astonishing 32.2 per suicides 100,000 people (compared to an overall rate of 4.9 suicides per 100,000 people nationally). And that is only for Brazil’s entire indigenous population; in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the rate is 166 suicides per 100,000. And while the numbers are extremely high, they reflect a broader trend in other parts of the hemisphere, including the US, where suicide rates among indigenous youth between the ages of 15 and 34 is 31 suicides per 100,000 people, more than double the national average of 12.2 per 100,000. These rates among indigenous peoples are tragic and constitute a very real emergency among indigenous peoples. Tragically, the findings, while horrifying, are in some regards unsurprising; among other issues, the lack of jobs, the poverty, the racism, and the failure to protect or respect indigenous cultures and rights in Brazil all factor into the elevated rates of suicide among indigenous youth.
Of course, indigenous peoples have regularly faced discrimination, repression, and disregard, be it in their expulsion from their homes near World Cup sites, with the Belo Monte dam, or even industry using racist stereotypes to defend taking indigenous lands. In this context, Brazil’s indigenous peoples are increasingly pushing back. The Belo Monte dam is not the only one that’s threatening indigenous lands and livelihoods. Indeed, in an attempt to address future energy needs for its growing population, Brazil’s government has made hydroelectric energy a centerpiece of energy policy for the country while focusing less on alternate forms of renewable energy like wind power. Unfortunately, in addition to taking a heavy toll on the environment, these dams also directly affect the lives of the communities who live near them, many of whom are indigenous peoples living on protected lands. The Munduruku peoples on the Tapajós River are one such people. Although their lands are legally recognized and protected, and although they have not entered into an agreement with the government regarding constructing a dam on their lands, that has not stopped preliminary research into and work on a dam from taking place. In response, the Munduruku have threatened to declare war on the government for what they are calling a military invasion of their lands. While an actual war is unlikely, the intense rhetoric has not only made clear that the Munduruku will not quietly step aside for the government to destroy their lands; it has also drawn attention to their cause among activists, environmentalists, and others. Thus, while war would not help anybody, heightened attention to the Munduruku’s cause may help deny the government from acting unilaterally at the expense of indigenous peoples and rights.
Nor are the Munduruku alone in standing up for their rights. This week, a group of indigenous protesters occupied the floor of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies in protest against a proposed bill that would allow congressional oversight in the mapping of indigenous lands. Ranchers support the bill, which is as unsurprising as is a clear reminder of the ongoing inequalities in Brazilian congressional politics, where the landholding elites are closely tied to politicians through business ties or familial relations, especially in the North and Northeast. These connections have led to centuries of inequality and encroachment upon indigenous lands and rights. That indigenous peoples are pushing back against the bill (and the cronyism it signifies) and the dam (and the disregard for their lands and rights) are important reminders of both the ongoing racial and structural discrimination indigenous peoples face, and their agency in pushing against a system that has for too long attempted to marginalize them and deny them their livelihoods and their basic rights as citizens.