‘The indigenous fight to have their activities, territory, individuality and spiritualism respected’

Interview with Dr Lee Pegler
Northern Corridor map showing Port Barcarena, Brazil
Northern Corridor map showing Port Barcarena, Brazil

On 8 August, we celebrated World Indigenous Peoples Day. With the week coming to a close, we got into conversation with Dr Lee Pegler about his work around indigenous-led justice-based approaches.

His latest project studies civic action for social sustainability in regions in the Amazon where global multinational companies carry out their business.

Global Commodity Trading firms (CTF) are an important but understudied actor in the Global Value Chain (GVC) literature, especially in respect to the social outcomes of their actions at a local level. Brazil is a major commodity trading country and one highly dependent on the logistical and financial activities of CTFs. The focus of his research is to trace and describe the (evolving) role of CTFs: from their international positioning to their actions at the local level in Brazil. How CTFs affect local communities, how locals react, how companies respond and how negotiation takes place are all questions that this project aims to understand.

Can you tell us about how you first started working on this project?

'My area of work is labour within global value chains (GVCs). There are great inequalities in these GVCs, particularly at the beginning of the chain, across groups like factory workers, farm workers, forest workers and indigenous peoples. So my team and I have been running multiple projects since 2010 within themes like the governance of labour, logistics, rights, sustainability and so on. But over the last few years, I’ve been particularly focused on multinational companies that operate out of developing countries and how they impact people.

So our latest project that started in 2018 called ‘Global Commodity Traders and Civic Action for Social Sustainability’ is a series of projects within a big network resulting from many years’ worth of research by different researchers from Brazil, and the Netherlands because there is a major connection between Brazil, the Netherlands, and Europe within the GVC. We're doing studies on the impacts of soya and cacao production on the local indigenous communities, for example.'


Most (CTFs) are headquartered in Switzerland, arrange their logistics and finance through London and Rotterdam is the key port through which they import the products from the Amazon

'GVCs are fundamentally complex. Over time, we found out more about the so-called “trillion dollar club” that consists of the coordinators of these chains. Most are headquartered in Switzerland, arrange their logistics and finance through London and Rotterdam is the key port through which they import the products from the Amazon. This connection triggers a big debate on the logistics and major trade around the raw materials passing through Rotterdam while the traditional story of exploitation at the beginning of the chain still persists.

So the main objective of this project is to understand the role of commodity traders and sustainability.

  • Are they really going to deliver sustainability?
  • How do they conduct their operations?
  • Who are the key stakeholders along the GVCs and how much influence do they have on sustainability and social justice issues?

That is, the form and effectiveness of civic action and social movements.

Have you come across specific cases of interest that highlight the Dutch-Brazilian connection?

Yes. One particular case of real estate controlled by three commodity traders has all sorts of labour issues! As you can see from the map, the production chain originates from the internal regions in the Amazon and leads up to Barcarena. This corridor of movement is basically a Chinese and Dutch assisted logistics plan for the efficient movement of soya and other products out of the Amazon. The biggest ports in Latin America are further south but they are overloaded so they want to now go through the north of Brazil and into Europe from there. Along this chain, fertilizers arrive from China and "in return" (so to speak) the soya is sent back to Rotterdam. Pig farmers in Holland and Germany are the main target market for the soya. This two-way corridor of activity is expected to expand in volume and number of products over time.'

The Dutch government … is doing well and … to enable this, the Brazilian government is opening up land and reducing rights so it's a facilitative environment to a really disastrous situation, particularly for the indigenous peoples

The Dutch, who are great at logistics, are putting in the ports, lines, and barges with help from the Chinese. Dutch companies have been organizing whole networks across Brazil, but this particular one called the northern corridor cuts straight through indigenous territories. The Dutch government says it's wonderful that their companies are doing well and winning contracts to build technology in Brazil. To enable this, the Brazilian government is opening up land and reducing rights so it's a facilitative environment to a really disastrous situation, particularly for the indigenous peoples.

Because of complex legal frameworks in the country, it's difficult for small scale farmers and the indigenous to contest land grabbing by the CTFs. Even if we were to ignore the huge environmental impacts, these are lands that actually belong to small scale farmers and the indigenous. CTFs take over huge areas of land either by stealing it, by altering legal documents, or by using the present bureaucratic system in their favour. Historically, the Amazon has been perceived as an empty space first by the military regime back in the 70s, but also by the present regime and other governments.'

Can you give us a few examples of community responses from the indigenous population that stood out to you the most? 

'A major part of our study is to examine the forms and the effectiveness of community responses. One major tool that indigenous people use is the ILO Convention 169, that gives people the right to participate. Brazil signed the ILO convention in 2003 and it stipulates that major companies can't do anything unless they talk to the indigenous first and not just talk to them, but also get their agreement.

Many legal and environmental groups are trying to enforce this. They initiate research and by building a dossier of public documents they're trying to advise the community, the indigenous people of what their rights are against land grabbing. In this way, the communities fight back with the help of NGOs to challenge the opaque systems of land ownership in the country.

I’ve also worked with a strong NGO group run by lawyers, most of whom are indigenous, advocating for land rights called Terra de Diretos. We worked along with them and local Rural Workers Unions to look into local land rights documents that would help them to publicize what people's rights are.'

The state's failure to acknowledge or even support the indigenous community was an issue even before the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, of course, it has only got a lot worse. Can you tell us about challenges that indigenous populations face while trying to organize themselves to protect themselves from land encroachment during the pandemic, but also when lobbying for better health care and better access alongside that?

'Frankly, this concept/attitude of considering the Amazon to be an open space has persisted for a long, time but was played up again throughout the military regime and of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. The decimation of the indigenous language and its recasting by others (from the 16th century) went alongside this approach to land. Yet over the labour period starting from the 90s, new territories and spaces were set up. Social Security and medical systems were opened up to a bigger number of people. So a lot more of the dispossessed and a lot of the people who were pushed out of the system, were brought back into being covered by social policy in Brazil. Certainly not all of them were covered, but many of them were, especially in comparison to the current regime.

There is a big debate in social studies circles around whether the current state is an ‘absent’ state or an ‘activist’ state? It almost seems like a death wish because the government has been so aggressive towards the indigenous and other minority groups to the point where it's as good as signing a death warrant on them in terms of increasing mining activity in their homelands. The government has gone out of their way to prevent minority groups from having their rights, changed territorial conditions and have been outright abusive to indigenous communities and the urban poor in particular.

Within the “When Disaster Meets Conflict’ study led by Thea Hilhorst, I coordinated the Brazilian study which was carried out by ISS PhD researchers Renata Cavalcanti Muniz and Fiorella Macchiavello. They created a snapshot into the lives of urban poor domestic workers and the indigenous workers during the pandemic. In one sense the indigenous were saying that they’re already isolated, so maybe they would protected from the virus. In many other crises in the past, other anthropologists have suggested that they have been alright and they have adapted themselves well.'

The indigenous populations in the Amazon are putting up a commendable fight against the Brazilian government’s lack of adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic

But they have recognized that COVID-19 is more than just your normal crisis so there is more engagement. Some communities have luckily had access to health systems for vaccinations and for help. At a national level in Brazil, despite the aggressive federal regime, many of the state governments are actually being quite helpful. There is a resulting fight between the federal regime and state governments who are often trying to do something very different. So this disconnect between regime and state, much to our surprise, is sometimes helping. Different coalitions between health workers, NGOs and local government are working with indigenous groups to get medical supplies, masks.

The federal regime however remains aggressive. Recently they reopened mining sites which are really going to decimate many of the local communities in particular. But state governments and others are trying to help beyond being just defensive. They're trying to articulate and advocate for change through internet networks and data networks to connect with other communities. They're really trying to get out and say, this is our lifeblood, this is our land. The rivers are our life! And they want to have their activities, their sense of territory, individuality and their sense of spiritualism, more respected - as communicated by a group of over 40 indigenous and local community groups in their Carta do Encontro Das Aguas, Santaren on 17 June 2019. 

The indigenous populations in the Amazon are putting up a commendable fight against the Brazilian government’s lack of adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are fighting an epic battle, not only trying to prevent being infected by the virus, but also encroachment by multiple actors on Amazonian land—a process that continues despite the pandemic.

Read this post on the ISS blog for more on this

Assistant professor
Lecturer of Work, Organization and Labour Rights within the Social Policy for Development Major
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