By building a coalition, the Network of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) has been able to participate in governmental bodies in order to influence policy in a way that benefits indigenous communities.
The COIAB was founded in 1989, after a decade marked by indigenous protest. Activists realized that protest, no matter how legitimate, was not sufficient to establish the voice of indigenous communities in policy that mattered to them. They had to find a way to speak for themselves instead of having others speak for them. The COIAB provided the foundation for these new forms of struggle and political action. Comprised of nearly 100 indigenous organizations, it represents 165 of Brazil’s more than 220 indigenous communities.
The COIAB participates in a number of government bodies that deal with issues that affect the indigenous population. These include the National Council on the Environment, whose members do not always have an understanding of how environmental issues intersect with indigenous communities, the Joint Consulting Commission of the Integrated Project for the Legal Protection of Indigenous Lands and Populations of the Amazon, which deals directly with indigenous living spaces, the National Biodiversity Commission, the Inter-Ministry Pro-Environment Working Group, and the National Council on Indigenous Education. Between two and eight representatives from COIAB sit on each of these government bodies, working with officials to support the indigenous movement.
Two areas where the COIAB has had particular success in representing indigenous communities at the government level are in the Indigenous People’s Demonstration Project (PDPI) and indigenous health policies. The PDPI promotes the conservation of natural resources and the economic, social and cultural sustainability of indigenous communities. As a project, it is unique because it was the first cooperative relationship between indigenous communities, the Brazilian government, and international actors. Groups within the PDPI are composed of both indigenous and government members. The COIAB participates in the monitoring of PDPI projects.
Indigenous health policies in the past were marked by prejudice and discrimination from health professionals towards indigenous communities. By participating in health policy governmental organizations, the COIAB was able to take on an organizational role in the provision of health services to these communities. This resulted in indigenous supervision of non-indigenous health professionals, preventing the reoccurrence of prejudice and discrimination.
In both the PDPI and health policy cases, involvement in government agencies through the COIAB allowed indigenous communities to play an active role in their own futures, correcting some of the wrongs that had occurred in the past. However, the path to involvement has not always been straightforward. In regards to COIAB’s involvement in indigenous health policy, for example, the focus on health consumed a great deal of the movement’s time, energy, and resources, distracting from other forms of political struggle and the defense of other rights. After five years, the government also decided to take back the administration of health policy, so indigenous groups have comparatively little control today. This is an example of how coalitions like the COIAB must prioritize and be flexible when dealing with government agencies.
In order to effectively advocate for indigenous rights as a coalition, COIAB has needed to put in place several organizational structures including a General Assembly, a Fiscal and Deliberative Council, and an Executive Coordinating Committee. These structures provide for direct and indirect consultation and participation from the various indigenous communities that are members of the coalition. This consultation is important because engagement and recognition of the grassroots is imperative to the success of the coalition at the government level. The COIAB also constantly evaluates its role and influence in the government agencies in which it operates in order to improve its intervention and avoid being passive agents for government programs.
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Involvement in government agencies is not the only tactic that the COIAB uses in order to advance the indigenous movement in Brazil, and it is not a tactic that could necessarily translate to many other situations because of its specificity. However, several aspects of the tactic are notable. First, coalition-building is an effective means of providing a voice for a large and diverse group of actors, though care must be taken in organizing the coalition in a way that allows the voices of all to be heard. Second, presence in the government can be an extremely effective way to allow traditionally marginalized voices to be heard. It may not be easy for an organization to gain permission to have representatives in government agencies, but those representatives can be instrumental in bringing about change. Finally, the experience of the COIAB in indigenous health policy demonstrates the limits of coalition work. While the COIAB was able to have great influence in health policy, it did so at the detriment to its other activism. Organizations must always prioritize in order to take on the work that matters most to them.