The Brazilian indigenous population is one of the most vulnerable populations globally. Through research at Indiana University, Alicia Lorena Gonzalez aims to influence policymakers who can protect indigenous communities by underscoring the importance of land sovereignty.
“Brazilian indigenous populations have no automatic land sovereignty. The process for land to be approved by the state is more like a lease,” said Gonzalez, who is an alumna and International Studies M.A. student at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
Her research analyzes the socio-environmental effects of policy dismantling under former Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, in which environmental policies were used to purposefully erode land rights of indigenous populations.
“I examined forest fires, COVID-19, and illegal land grabbing as case studies in my research,” said Gonzalez.
The lack of government protection of indigenous land has led to forced migration and previously isolated indigenous communities encountering diseases to which they have no immunity.
“I look at health policies that were undermined in Bolsonaro’s administration and severely limited resources to properly combat the spread of COVID-19. The state was negligent to the higher rates of contamination in indigenous communities,” said Gonzalez.
She is also examining the international law component.
“I’m connecting how the dismantling of government policies are being regarded by the International Criminal Court and regional courts,” she said. “Bolsonaro’s actions in allowing Indigenous land to be farmed or developed has led to disease being spread more easily to isolated communities who have no immunity. These could be looked at as crimes against humanity.”
Gonzalez says Indigenous people are using the word ‘genocide’ to describe Bolsonaro’s policy dismantling.
“He allowed people to invade indigenous lands and did not punish them. It is state law to punish people who are invading illegally, land grabbing illegally, and mining illegally,” said Gonzalez. “The state has a constitutional obligation to protect indigenous communities. I think they are very right to use the word genocide since that has been such a big part of history for indigenous people.”
Not having enough land to sustain their livelihoods is one of the biggest issues with weak government protections on indigenous land. Gonzalez explains that ample space is required for the necessities of everyday life: growing food, fishing and hunting.
“Indigenous communities are under the Brazilian government’s tutelage,” said Gonzalez. “Although the government has given them demarcated land, native people do not ‘own’ their land. It’s basically a loophole where the government can hold power over the land. After the government issues them demarcated land, then no other communities or illegal invasions can take place, but it still happens all the time.”
Gonzalez says that because Indigenous people have a stronger connection to the environment, they see atrocities against nature as deeply personal.
“There is a very big difference of how they view everything as one component, and how they view animals,” said Gonzalez. “Indigenous cultures integrate animals into their lifestyle and I would say ‘adopt’ them into their families. They don’t separate themselves from nature. We have to understand that.”
Gonzalez says the indigenous people who decide to maintain contact with Brazilian society advocate for the communities who don’t want to be contacted.
“They are very aware and keeping up with government policies. They organize protests and work with transnational organizations like Survival International to put out reports sharing the history of national resource extractivism,” she said. “They have the view that they’re not just fighting for themselves. They’re fighting for their families, their kids.”
With new Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva now in office, Gonzalez says indigenous people are hopeful that he prioritizes indigenous issues.
“After Bolsonaro spent four years terrorizing indigenous rights by policy dismantling and defunding, Lula can hopefully ease the tensions within the Amazon,” said Gonzalez. “Under Lula, a Ministry of Indigenous People has been created for the first time in history and Joênia Wapichana is the first elected indigenous person to serve in Congress. Lula has a lot to prove over the next four years to improve the situation with indigenous communities, reinstate the prior protections that existed to maintain the Amazon, and allocate resources to Amazonian indigenous people.”
Because Gonzalez has proficiency in Spanish, French, and Portuguese, she can read source materials that are informing her research. She received a prestigious Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship that funded her study of Portuguese at IU. She is also a Graduate Fellow of the Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development, which supports research related to development and helps prepare IU students for careers in international development.
After she completes her thesis and graduates, Gonzalez says her career goal is to be a research analyst to influence policymakers through advocacy for vulnerable populations throughout Latin America, including Brazilian indigenous communities.
As a first-generation Mexican American student, Gonzalez says that representation in academia and in Latin American research is important.
“Being Latino as just a presence is inviting,” she said. “I understand the issues of immigration from being part of this community and remembering the struggles that came before. Not only at the personal level, but at the academic level.”