Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Land rights and climate change in Chile, Brazil



The High Court of Australia last week handed down 'the biggest native title ruling affecting Aboriginal ownership of the land in decades'. According to lawyers representing mining companies the ruling could 'trigger compensation applications from many of the hundreds of native title holder groups around Australia, which could amount to billions of dollars'.

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT) via FlickrThe ruling recognises two losses with regard to land that are to be legally compensated — the economic loss and the 'loss of a spiritual connection to the land' — the latter being a core principle of Indigenous culture and a main component of Indigenous anti-colonial resistance.

The ruling has brought the connection between colonial violence and land exploitation to prominence, in a way that sheds light on historical processes which many governments prefer to ignore. It stands in sharp contrast to Chile and Brazil for example, where both the absence of recognition and planned removal of recognition will continue to limit legal options for indigenous populations, with flow-on effects for the environment.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro remains a prominent example of excluding indigenous communities. At a time when scientists are insisting that indigenous communities are crucial to finding solutions for climate change, Brazil has changed mining regulations in order to open the Amazon to mining companies.

Speaking in Washington DC, Brazil's Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque made contradictory statements aimed at addressing business interests and environmental concerns. The Amazon, he declared, is important not only for environmental reasons, but also 'in terms of its riches', which 'have to be explored in a rational and sustainable way that does not harm the environment'.

Opening the Amazon to mining would require consultation with the indigenous communities, the authorisation of Brazil's national congress and the passing of legislation to regulate such exploitation. More than 37 per cent of Brazil's territory is marked as conservation areas or indigenous terrain.

Economic growth is being cited as the reason why Bolsonaro is seeking to open indigenous lands to mining. Attracting foreign companies is part of the Brazilian government's plans, which is why it is seeking to end dictatorship-era legislation which limits foreign investment in the country.


"A legacy of colonial dispossession and later violence in order to profit from natural resources has rendered land and communities vulnerable, while veering towards refusing recognition of indigenous rights and existence."


Albuquerque is already promoting circumventing the necessary requirements to gain approval for mining exploitation. Consultation with indigenous communities will not allow the possibility of these communities vetoing government decisions. To justify the absence of indigenous input, the Brazilian government pointed to the relatively low number of indigenous people living in the territory, and described the lands as being both isolated and exploited by NGOs.

The importance attributed to indigenous communities with regard to safeguarding the environment is validated by scientists, who contrast exploitation with conservation — the latter a feature of indigenous communities. Climate change — which is impacted by land exploitation — is thus directly linked to colonial occupation. In the words of indigenous author and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, 'We should be thinking of climate change as part of a much longer series of ecological catastrophes caused by colonialism and accumulation-based society.'

Yet while scientists tasked with finding solutions to climate change have found a resource in the observations and practices of indigenous populations, politics and the profit motive impose limitations on the sustainable reversal of damage. 

Brazil is not alone in this. Chile's Diaguita indigenous communities in the Huasco valley for example led protests against Canadian mining company Barrick Gold's Pascua-Lama mine, which threatened loss of land and livelihood as a result of environmental destruction. Glacier protection became a priority after the company put forth a proposal in 2006 to shift ice from nearby glaciers in order to facilitate the mining of gold and silver.

Last year Chile's court ruled in favour of closing the mine, yet the company is still intent on mining Chile's resources, and links between Chile and Barrick Gold continue to emerge — the new vice-president for Chile's national mining company, Robert Mayne-Nicholls, was also involved in the Pascua-Lama venture. In Chile, the absence of recognition of indigenous rights to land is a major factor in land exploitation and one of the main reasons why indigenous resistance in Chile is criminalised by the state.

Brazil is going the same way, as Bolsonaro is clearly blaming indigenous presence for lack of land exploitation by multinational corporations. In both cases, a legacy of colonial dispossession and later violence in order to profit from natural resources has rendered land and communities vulnerable, while veering towards refusing recognition of indigenous rights and existence.

As climate change continues to take centre stage, stepping away from the drivel spouted by leaders and instead highlighting the legitimacy of anti-colonial struggle as the foundation from which to combat all forms of detrimental land exploitation is not just preferable. It is an obligation incumbent on all.



Ramona WadiRamona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

Main image: Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Flickr

Topic tags: Ramona Wadi, Brazil, Chile, Aboriginal Australians



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks Ramona. To step away from the 'drivel sprouted by some of our leaders', go to the Climate Council website for accurate information, e.g. "THE CLIMATE COUNCIL says Australia needs to greatly accelerate action in dealing with climate change, following the release of a new report from the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO. “The State of the Climate report, released every two years, reveals that Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1°C since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency and intensity of many extreme weather events,” said Climate Councillor Professor Will Steffen. “Carbon dioxide is the most important of the greenhouse gases driving climate change and Australia is in the world’s top 15 emitters. Even worse, unlike the trends for most other wealthy countries, our greenhouse gas pollution has risen over the past three years,” said Professor Steffen. Not only is Australia a global laggard on action to reduce pollution, we are also one of the most vulnerable of the developed countries to the impacts and risks of climate change, he said. Australia is experiencing climate change now, with the report noting that eight of the country’s top ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. “Climate change is driving many of the trends we are seeing and further warming is locked in until at least 2030 because of the greenhouse gases we have already emitted. Temperatures will continue to increase with more hot days and fewer cold days,” said Professor Steffen. The report notes that sea surface temperatures have warmed, leading to more frequent and intense marine heatwaves, which in turn have triggered mass bleaching events on large parts of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017. This poses a major long-term threat to the resilience of the Reef."

Grant Allen | 19 March 2019  

The Amazon is the world's lungs. sadly these people just don't get the message! Climate Change will render such exploitation meaningless!

Gavin O'Brien | 24 March 2019  

Similar Articles

Cuba's constitutional reforms bring hope

  • Antonio Castillo
  • 15 March 2019

Cuba's constitutional referendum in February displayed overwhelming support for the government. More than six million voted yes, while around 706,000 voted no. The new constitution represents a step forward for the democratic, economic and social development of the country.


Ending the cycle of violence in Kashmir

  • Tim Robertson
  • 15 March 2019

The world leaders who rushed to condemn the Valentine's Day attack have long remained silent on state-sanctioned oppression in Kashmir. That's no longer a surprise; nor is the fact that the attack was covered by every major western media organisation, while the daily injustices perpetrated against ordinary Kashmiris go unreported.