When Cultural Survival is at Stake

Law clinic student takes Brazilian indigenous community's case to UN

Some of us may feel that the environmental news in Brazil is too far away for us to impact, but Cara Libman JD’19 is playing a role closer to the center of the fray. In April, she crossed time zones and language barriers as a student attorney in the Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic (HRIPC) to help an indigenous community facing hardships due to changes to its environment.

Libman and Nicole Friederichs, the director of the HRIPC, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, this past spring to advocate before a United Nations treaty body. While there, they joined leaders of indigenous communities from central Brazil who were laying out their case for halting and rethinking massive agribusiness infrastructure projects.

“Indigenous communities living in the savannah in Mato Grosso [a state about 800 miles from Brasilia, the capital] are up against a booming agricultural export business,” Libman explains. Most of that business is related to soybean exports and the consequent roads, railroads, trucking routes, fences, silos, warehouses, and buildings being built in and around areas that indigenous peoples have historically claimed. One road that’s in development will abut the spiritual center of the indigenous group—the home of its origin story.

As one indigenous leader argued in a letter to the UN:

The savannah is the source of our strength. Agribusiness doesn’t just destroy the forest that surrounds our territories. It pollutes the rivers where we perform our rituals, that we bathe in, and the water we drink. It contaminates the air. Because of this, agribusiness is destroying our dreams, the  source of our spirituality, and our future. Agribusiness contaminates the animals we eat and the game that is essential for our rituals. Without game, we cannot perform our wedding ceremonies. Agribusiness unbalances the world, the savannah, and threatens the very existence of our people.

Clinic student and professor with clients outside the UN
Student Attorney Cara Libman JD’19 (second from left) with Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic Director Nicole Friederichs (far right) and clients at the United Nations Office in Geneva.

In 2019, before the Geneva trip, the HRIPC, working with indigenous community leaders, submitted a communication to the UN treaty body outlining serious violations of indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, natural resources, religion, and culture. The document also expressed concerns about the Brazilian government’s commitment to consulting with indigenous peoples about the infrastructure projects—as evidenced by the weakening of FUNAI, the Brazilian government authority responsible for protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

“When the Brazilian government presents its infrastructure plans to the indigenous community—for building roads and railroad lines—there’s never been an opportunity to reach a consensus on how or if those projects should move ahead,” Friederichs says. “When we talk about the survival of the indigenous peoples of Mato Grosso, it’s cultural, physical, and spiritual. The land is being destroyed where people gather and hunt; the environment is being polluted, and as a result their cultural, physical, and spiritual survival becomes impossible to sustain.”

This May, a month after the Clinic’s advocacy in Geneva, the U.N. treaty body issued a letter to the Brazilian government calling on it to suspend the infrastructure projects in Matto Grosso until it has properly consulted with the affected indigenous communities and obtained their free, prior, and informed consent.

The Bolsonaro administration may not heed the letter’s findings, but it’s important to put the government on notice that they’re being watched, Friederichs says. “I understand that there are benefits for agribusiness exporters,” Libman adds, “but the indigenous people aren’t negotiating on a level playing field.” Forests are clear-cut at a time of massive fires in the Amazon; agricultural runoff is contaminating waterways; and plant and animal life is being destroyed, she says. 

“The approach to development is unbalanced, and there’s a culture at stake.” Through her Suffolk Law clinic experience, Libman is lending her voice to help balance the scales.

[Editor’s note: Nicole Friederichs, Director of the Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic (HRIPC) asked that the indigenous group, indigenous leader, and United Nations body not be named to protect the clinic’s clients from possible retaliation.]



Michael Fisch
Office of Public Affairs

Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs