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Brazilian diversity

2010 Census to reveal how many ethnic groups and languages exist in Brazil Carlos Haag

CELSO JUNIOR/AGÊNCIA ESTADO An ironical fact related to statistics is that nowadays we have more reliable statistics on how many Brazilian Indians inhabited Brazil in 1500 (according to the calculations of the National Indian Foundation/ Funai, they totaled 5 million people) than how many inhabit Brazil today. In 2000, a study conducted by Funai stated that the indigenous population was no bigger than 450 thousand people, or 0.2% of the Brazilian population. However, data from the Demographic Census conducted that year by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics/ IBGE stated that the indigenous population totaled 734 thousand, or 0.4% of the Brazilian population. The National Health Foundation/ Funasa, an entity linked to the Ministry of  Health, stated otherwise: the native population totaled 520 thousand people, that had been provided with health care at the Special Sanitary Districts for Brazilian Indians. However, which of these figures actually portrays the demographic dynamics of  Brazil’s indigenous population- Nobody knows. “The census criteria and the dates vary; there are ethnic groups on which there is simply no information; very little is known of the Brazilian Indians who live in the cities. We are still totally unfamiliar with the enormous contemporary social diversity of the Brazilian Indians; we don’t even know how many Brazilian Indians or languages exist in Brazil,”  says anthropologist and demographer Marta Maria Azevedo, a researcher at the Center for Studies on Population/ Nepo at the State University of Campinas/ Unicamp. “It is very clear that there is a lack of detailed population information systems to guide and evaluate public policies for the indigenous population.”

With the intention of exploring this issue, in 2001, Marta obtained the support of associations of  Brazilian Indians and anthropologists to convince the IBGE to improve the way to obtain such data for the Demographic Census of 2010, scheduled to begin in August and end in December. After many discussions, the IBGE agreed to include two new specific questions for people who advise that they are Brazilian Indians when asked by the census taker what is his or her skin color or race (the options are white, black, yellow, pale brown and Brazilian Indian). If the respondent states that he or she is a Brazilian Indian, he or she can inform the ethnic group or tribe he or she belongs to and the tribal language normally spoken at home. In addition, the questions will be part of the sample questionnaire (aimed at a smaller group of people and extended to a bigger population through statistical sampling) and will be included in the full questionnaire to be answered by all Brazilians. “This way, all the existing Brazilian Indians will be covered by the census, which was not the case in the previous Censuses. As they are a minority, they tend to disappear in statistics when their answers are restricted to a sample,”  explains anthropologist Artur Nobre Mendes, general coordinator of strategic management at Funai. “In this way, we hope to get a better and detailed idea of the Brazilian Indian reality in the following categories: ethnic groups, geographical distribution, migration patterns, income group, educational background, health issues, etc.,” says statistician Nilza de Oliveira Martins, a researcher at the IBGE Research Department. During other Censuses, the data obtained did not identify each Brazilian Indian ethnic group, because the criterion used was the “generic Brazilian Indian”  criterion. As a result, approximately 260 different Brazilian Indian ethnic groups living in Brazil were not identified. “The existing data only specified the “Brazilian Indian type,”  although it is widely known that Brazil has a significant Brazilian Indian social diversity. This will be remedied in the new Census.”

In the 1872 Census, the first such survey conducted in Brazil, the main concern was to find out the size of the Brazilian slave population. The respondents at that time were classified as “freemen” and  “slaves”;  the ethnic groups were divided into white, black, pale brown and caboclo (mixed Brazilian Indian and European or African ancestry). The caboclo group included Brazilian Indians and their descendants. The IBGE, created in 1936, conducted its first Census in 1940. This time, the skin color/ethnic categories were limited to white, black and yellow; the item also included a blank space to be filled out by the census taker if the skin color of the respondent could not be established. As there was an excessive number of variations, the IBGE grouped the different answers under the category “pale brown”  a criterion that included the Brazilian Indians. In 1991, the Brazilian Indian category was included in the item “race or skin color”  and investigated on a nationwide level for the first time by the Census. This enabled separating the category of people who had described themselves as “pale brown”  in the Censuses conducted until 1980. The 2000 Census maintained the same specifications and methodology based on the spontaneous answer of the respondent; in other words, the question was worded in a way that made the respondent classify him or herself under the category he or she believed he or she fitted into. In the case of the Brazilian Indians, the concept was applied to those living on Brazilian Indian lands and to those living in urban areas.

“Although an item on the Brazilian Indian population had been included in the 1991 Census, the census coverage was incomplete in terms of the information on this population; only the Brazilian Indians living in the centers run by Funai, in the Brazilian Indian missions and in some cities were included in the census. In addition, the inclusion of a single question (race/skin skin color) in the sample questionnaire, in which the respondent himself specified his skin color or ethnic origin, hampered further confirmation of the respondent as belonging to the Brazilian Indian category,”  explains demographer Pery Teixeira, a professor at the Federal University of Amazonas.

Fernando Gabeira/Folhapress Brazilian Indians at a conference on indigenous peoplesFernando Gabeira/Folhapress

There were no coverage-related problems in the 2000 Census. However, the self-identification issue prevailed, which led to the finding that the Brazilian Indian population had seemingly increased by 150% in the period between the two Censuses (from 294 thousand to 734 thousand), something which, according to specialists, is very unlikely in the Brazilian demographic context. “This increase was due to a higher number of people classifying themselves as Brazilian Indians when they were asked about their skin color. These are people who had previously told the census takers that they were brown-skinned and now felt more confident to say that they were Brazilian Indians. There is one noteworthy example. The State of São Paulo has 2 thousand Brazilian Indians living on the reservations and another 2 thousand Brazilian Indians of the Pankararu ethnic group living in the capital city. This totals 4 thousand people. In 2000, the IBGE had counted 62 thousand Brazilian Indians living in the state. Who were the other 58 thousand?” These are people who know or think they have a Brazilian Indian ancestor but have no idea if they descend from the Xavante or Guarani tribes. “We refer to these people as “Brazilian Indian descendants”,”  says Marta. How does one explain this phenomenon?

Brazil had – and still has – a more favorable environment for people to self-identify themselves as Brazilian Indians. The 1990’s were a very good decade for the Brazilian Indians; more specifically, the 1988 Constitution guaranteed the Brazilian Indians’  diversity rights; at the Rio-92 Conference, they were linked to environmental preservation, which led the Brazilian Indians to be portrayed positively in the media. “Another factor was the research study on the DNA of Brazilians, conducted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), in 1997, which revealed that 45 million Brazilians had Brazilian Indian ancestry,” says Marta. “Facts such as these reinforced the ethnic identity of the Brazilian Indians and made them proud of descending from this ethnic group. This was a change from previous times, when prejudice obliged Brazilian Indians to hide their ethnic origins. In the past, Brazilian Indians were viewed as an ethnic group that tended to disappear. The 2010 Census, however, will probably show that Brazilian Indians total 1 million people, 500 thousand of whom are Brazilian Indians that belong to defined ethnic groups and languages.”  The existence of the “Brazilian Indian descendant,”  however, affected the reliability of the information found in the 2000 Census. “It raised more doubts than certainties and the new Census will help us explain these issues. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that every self-declared Census is a self-portrait of reality and cannot be viewed as an instrument of accurate ethnic knowledge,”  says Artur Mendes. “But distinguishing languages and ethnic groups will provide us with a clue about the true Brazilian Indian. If the respondent is unable to answer which Brazilian Indian group he belongs to and the language he speaks, we will know that this respondent is a “generic Brazilian Indian”.”

This new structure will allow the Census to help Funai evaluate the actions implemented in connection with the Brazilian Indians. “If we notice that more people from a given ethnic group are living in cities rather than on the reservations, we will have to revise our programs. If  Brazilian Indians continue migrating to cities – even though they are granted reservations to live on – then something has escaped us.”

“Above all, the Census data will help the State and the Brazilian Indian organizations to improve the social control over public policies for the Brazilian Indians. The various levels of government will have a stronger base for thinking about and evaluating policies,” Marta says. “The policy makers always take official data into account, which in the case of the Brazilian Indians, has always been  precarious historically. And now, thanks to more accurate numbers, the Brazilian Indians will finally gain official visibility and will have more power to argue for their demands with agents of the State,”  says Gersem Baniwa, general coordinator of  Brazilian Indian education at Secad, the Bureau of Continued Education, Literacy and Diversity at the Ministry of Education. In Gersem’s opinion, however, the most important data will be the identification of the existence of  Brazilian Indians in urban areas, where they do not have any special protection from the federal and state governments, and in general live in extreme poverty, with no access to health care. “I believe that the results of the Census will lead to a re-evaluation of our action-related assumptions and will generate a new discussion of the actions of the agents, which currently focus only on Brazilian Indian land, but that in the future might focus on urban centers,”  adds Artur Mendes.

Another important aspect of the results of the 2010 Census lies in the field of linguistics, as this will be the first survey on Brazilian Indian languages spoken in Brazil. It is estimated that from 150 to 180 different languages are spoken by Brazilian Indians. “Brazil is a multi-language country and society is not aware of this fact. We have to retrieve this singular Brazilian diversity,” says Nilza. This is of immense wealth, in spite of the losses: it is estimated that 75% of the Brazilian Indian languages have disappeared in the last 500 years. “The fact that determines the future of a given language is the transmission of the language to the next generation. Of the 150 Brazilian Indian languages, at least 21% are seriously threatened with extinction in the short term because very few people speak them and because these languages are rarely transmitted to the new generations,”  says linguist Denny Moore, from the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi museum. “The question on which languages are spoken at home will reveal the country’s wide cultural diversity and will identify whether a specific language tends to become extinct or if it is still alive: if only old people speak a given language, then its tendency is to disappear. In addition, this item will be a criterion for identifying the Brazilian Indian population in the Census,” says Nilza. “Foreigners and Brazilians themselves usually view Brazil as a country with an enviable linguistic homogeneity, which seemingly helps consolidate the nation’s political unity. Our imagination has created an ideal formation comprised of three ethnic groups (the Portuguese, the Africans and the Brazilian Indians) that only express themselves in one common language: Portuguese,” says linguist Gilvan Muller de Oliveira, a professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. The new Census, however, will provide a chance to retrieve Brazilian Indian languages.

“It will be possible to develop specific projects to revive languages in Brazilian Indian schools and communities and, in the case of the endangered languages, it will be possible to register their grammar structures and tape speakers, thus making this information accessible for research purpose or to enable future generations to speak an extinct language again,”  says Artur Mendes. “A language bears the imprint of a people’s entire universe. The entire Brazilian culture is in the vocabulary and it is very painful to lose the identity of a group, its myths, its religion, etc., when a language becomes extinct. This is the problem of missionary work: when the missionaries destroy the language of the Brazilian Indians, they destroy the natives’ heritage.”  “In short, because of these aspects, the 2010 Census will provide a new view of  Brazilian Indians. They are a portrait of our country,”  says Marta. “Getting better acquainted with the Brazilian Indians qualitatively and quantitatively will help reduce society’s prejudice against them,”  Gersem points out. “The numbers will show society that Brazil has many ethnic Brazilian Indian groups and languages and that this is not an invention of anthropologists. This is not an invented discourse or diversity – it is Brazil’s most profound reality.”