Answer to Map #64

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Answer: This week’s map was a choropleth showing the percentage of the population in each Brazilian state that is comprised of indigenous Brazilians.

Unfortunately, some people had trouble this week because there are a few different ways of defining and counting the number of indigenous people. Some people who looked up similar data found numbers slightly different from those of our map. Ours come ultimately from the 2010 Brazilian census, but for those of you who don’t read Portuguese there’s a handy table on Wikipedia. If you found different data and were confused as a result, we’re sorry about that.

The more one digs into Brazilian demographic data, the more difficult it becomes. In Brazil, there are five official “races”: white, brown, black, yellow (that is, Asian), and indigenous. A person’s race is mainly determined by his or her skin color. That means that two siblings who have different skin colors might choose to classify themselves as different races. Such an arrangement would be unusual in the U.S., where racial categories are based mainly on ancestry.

As is the case elsewhere in Latin America, there are many Brazilians who are descended from one or more ancestors native to the Western Hemisphere. But such a person wouldn’t necessarily classify him or herself as “indigenous.” Only a small percentage of Brazilians with strong ties to specific communities identify themselves as indigenous. This makes Brazil different from some of its neighbors, such as Bolivia, where the majority of the population identifies as indigenous. This distinction is as much about politics as about strict definitions of descent.

Brazil was colonized by Portugal beginning in the late 15th century. Europeans from many different countries have been immigrating to Brazil since that time. Portuguese colonists also imported an estimated 4.9 million African slaves, making Brazil the single largest destinations for slaves. Brazil was also the last country in the Americas to outlaw the slave trade (1831) and to abolish slavery (1881). The result is that Brazil has an extremely diverse population. By some calculations, Brazil has more citizens of some African descent than any country in the world besides Nigeria. (This statistic can be somewhat obscured by the way Brazil conducts its census—remember, many people who are descended from one or more African ancestors would select “brown” or even “white” rather than “black” if one of those options better reflected their skin tone.)

Our map shows that Amazonas is the state with the highest proportion of indigenous Brazilians. But even Amazonas only has a small number of indigenous residents: about 3.6% of the population. That percentage decreases as more and more people of other races move into the interior of Brazil, pursuing jobs in such industries as mining and logging. As the Brazilian rainforest is destroyed, the traditional way of life of indigenous Brazilians is also threatened.

Brazil has more “uncontacted” people than any other country in the world. This term refers to people who live out of contact with global civilization. Bear in mind that the people in question may have chosen to live in a traditional way beyond contact of communities linked to the rest of the world. Since humans have visited pretty much everywhere on this planet, it’s now very unusual for a new community to be contacted for the first time.

In Brazil, as in other countries, a considerable amount of land has been set aside to be inhabited only by its indigenous inhabitants. Unfortunately, since this land is often extremely remote, it is difficult for authorities to police it against illegal activities, especially logging. In fact, a majority of the timber industry in Brazil is conducted illegally. Logging companies are often well funded and well armed.

The ongoing conflict between illegal loggers and indigenous communities is now the subject of an important court case. The indigenous Xucuru people have filed suit against the Brazilian government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an international court. They allege that the Brazilian government has failed to uphold its own constitution, which pledges to protect indigenous peoples on the land set aside for them. The result of this court case could have far-reaching ramifications for the legal protections given to indigenous communitites elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

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