Human rights in Brazil: international funders must empower David against Goliath

Ana Valeria Araujo and Lucia Nader both address issues of human rights within Brazil's emerging economy, particularly the lack of domestic funding for human rights projects despite massive economic growth over the past decade and yet persistent social inequality.

While Lucia Nader may be correct in saying that “human rights have a bad name” in Brazil, the June protests over cuts to the public services have shown that there is a growing hunger for social justice amongst the Brazilian people as the profits of its economy fail to trickle down. These protests showed the inherent need for rights-based economic development in Brazil; economic development on its own is not enough. 

Brazil’s booming economy has perhaps indicated to international funders a lesser need for human rights project funding. But collapsing funding schemes for so-called emerging economies misinterprets the international human rights struggle entirely. Does anyone believe China, the world’s second-largest economy, has rid itself of human rights abuses or the need for human rights funding?

Many human rights NGOs do not accept money from government or corporations, although they do often rely on international trusts and foundations. International giving to Brazil should not be diminished further because firstly, domestic sources such as charitable individuals from the middle classes cannot yet be relied upon, and secondly because international recognition and legitimacy of human rights struggles is still essential for impact. The ‘boomerang’ effect of transnational advocacy networks and the sharing of best practice between human rights funders and advocates worldwide offer invaluable strategies for empowerment at grassroots levels.

In some cases it is “economic development” itself that undermines human rights protections for the poorest and most vulnerable.  Brazilian citizens and indigenous peoples in the Amazon, who are fighting the construction of the Belo Monte Dam and the increased industrialisation of the region, is a clear example of this.

A strong economy does not indicate a government sensitive to human rights concerns – far from it. It is an unfortunate truth of our global capitalist society that the power of public and private actors to violate the rights of the most vulnerable is in fact aided by strong economies.  More public money is made available, for example, for these rights-violating mega-infrastructure projects such as the Amazon dam.

An economy without accountability

Brazil’s economy is still largely based on primary commodities. It is an ‘extractivist’ economy with large agribusiness, mining and construction companies – many of which are now multinationals.

The country’s biggest mining company, Vale SA, is also the second-largest mining company in the world and owns and operates the world’s largest iron mine, containing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of revenue for the country. Vale SA’s relatively recent privatization in 1997 alongside Brazil’s unequal, commodity-based economic growth is indicative of Brazil’s turn towards neoliberalism.

The private company’s massive economic interests in the Amazon shows a dispossession taking place, not just for the indigenous peoples whose land is threatened by the industrialisation the region through mining and dams but for all Brazilian citizens.  For example, the taxpayers who fund the public Brazil Development Bank (BNDES) have effectively paid for Vale’s stake in the Belo Monte Dam.  The private mining company is offered the same cheap financing from BNDES as state-run Eletrobras and Petrobras, and it is widely believed that the electricity from the dam will be used for the expansion of the nearby Carajás mine rather than provide electricity for the people of Brazil.

The communities that have been fighting the Belo Monte Dam project have done so on both domestic and international fronts, and with success – in invoking their right to consultation enshrined in the Brazilian Constitution, they have to date halted construction. This has happened before however, and the hiatus is precarious – a lot of money ($11–$18 billion US dollars) has been invested, and construction could begin again at any time.

With various labour and housing rights violations in countries as far flung as Canada and Mozambique, the public controversy over Vale is proof that Brazil’s economic growth is not without victims and consequences, which international funding and support must continue to expose. 

Corporate social responsibility vs corporate accountability

What then, is the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the neoliberal paradigm that seeks perpetual profits and GDP growth at any cost? CSR can do some good, but it often poses a distraction from true corporate accountability for human rights violations.

The former Director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Chris Avery, described the response when he wrote to a large Brazilian company asking about allegations of human rights abuses: “We have a well-developed CSR strategy, and have been building a school,” they countered, without addressing the violation alleged. Community work cannot be equated with transparency and liability for human rights offences; the latter is clearly a lot more difficult and expensive than a good-works project for an unrelated community.

CSR can seem meaningless when corporations actively commit human rights violations. Vale has been caught spying on civil society organisations all over Brazil, allegedly in collusion with operatives from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), and assassinations of human rights defenders who oppose industrialisation and environmental damage are not uncommon in Brazil. 

CSR also provides a charitable, philanthropic guise for rights-violating companies. Vale was, for example, the main official sponsor of Rio+20, the high-profile international sustainable development conference held in 2012.  Unsurprisingly, human rights were not top of the agenda. When Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch Jan Egeland asked the Brazilian delegation about the inadequacy of human rights commitments made at the conference, he was told by the Brazilian ambassador to the UN that rights were “‘extremely delicate’ in the discussions” and that although “rights are a key issue for Brazil, Rio was not the place to press forward on it”.

That said, Brazilian citizens are ‘waking up’ in defence of their rights against corporate power and government corruption – or so went the slogan for the recent million-strong, countrywide protests.

As for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and the increasingly influential grassroots Xingu Alive Forever Movement, we can only hope that the Brazilian Constitution can hold its own against the might of its biggest and most powerful public and private economic actors. Progress for Brazilians should not be marked in corporate profits and contracts, but in a flourishing civil society where all actors have an equal voice and rights. This still requires significant investment from international funders.