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Citizenship, Democracy and Justice for the Maxakalí People


When I began working as a judge in the town of Águas Formosas (in Minas Gerais, Brazil), I discovered that the region was inhabited by more than 2,000 Maxakali Indians, who lived in large villages and spoke another language. I researched their access to justice and realized that they suffered from many rights violations. With the support of the Court of Justice of Minas Gerais and the Regional Electoral Court, I created an innovation project to bring citizenship, democracy, and justice to the Maxakali.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

In Brazil, indigenous rights and the access of native peoples to the judiciary are usually dealt with by the federal courts. This is because the Brazilian Federal Constitution states that "federal judges are responsible for processing and judging disputes over indigenous rights. However, these rights mentioned in the Constitution refer to the social organization, customs, languages, beliefs, traditions, and ownership of Indian reservations. As for all the other rights that any Brazilian citizen possesses, the state courts are the appropriate place for indigenous people to seek protection.

Based on this vision that attributes competence to the State Courts to judge cases involving indigenous people, we sought to investigate how access to justice occurred for the Maxakali (or Tikmu'un) ethnic group. As a law and electoral judge in the town of Águas Formosas, which is located in the northeastern region of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, I considered it important to understand the Maxakali's living conditions and social existence. Through research I discovered that the Maxakali did not seek out the State Courts because they did not perceive themselves as having rights and also because they considered this space to be exclusive to the "white man". Furthermore, in social research I found that in the local region the Maxakali suffered from violence and discrimination, and that their fundamental rights were being violated.

In this context I set up a project called "Citizenship, Democracy and Justice for the Maxakali People" in an attempt to change this social reality. Initially, I sought contact with the leaders of the Maxakali people, in order to introduce them to the State Judiciary as a space that is also theirs. They were very receptive, and we began to have meetings and dialogues that brought to light other problems: 1. the Maxakali people were not able to use the electronic ballot box skillfully in elections because of the difficulty in handling the device and also because of the difference in languages. In Brazil, the official language is Portuguese, but the Maxakali speak their own original language; 2. the Maxakali were suffering from land invasions, health problems and abandonment by the state.

Three central problems were in focus: low access to justice; low penetration of electoral justice; and a deficit of social rights. With this scenario outlined, I sought, as a judge, the support of the Court of Justice of Minas Gerais and the Regional Electoral Court, for the development of innovative actions. I also sought partnerships with other public institutions.

Thus, three axes of action were created, all of them innovative in their own way:

  1. In the "Citizenship" axis, with the support of anthropology researchers, we hold "conversation rounds" every three months. In these dialogues, with the participation of the Maxakali and public authorities, the Maxakali express their cosmology and say what are the main problems that afflict them. Based on these meetings, the public authorities seek to take initiatives that will help improve the living conditions of the Maxakali. One example: collective action to issue identity documents and electoral documents for the indigenous people. The meetings occur with simultaneous translation and adopt a "collaborative" methodology, which gives the indigenous people a symmetrical space for expression.
  2. In the "Democracy" axis, mock elections were held, in the Maxakali language, so that the indigenous people could more easily handle the electronic ballot boxes. In the experiment, the parties and candidates were represented by animals from the local fauna. The photographs of the candidates on the ballot boxes were drawn by the indigenous people themselves. Two mock elections took place, representing the two rounds of the electoral process. It was the first time that mock elections of this format took place with indigenous peoples in Brazil.
  3. In the "Justice" axis, the main demands of the indigenous people were mapped by the "Defensoria Pública" (the Brazilian public defender's office) and by the conflict resolution sector of the Court of Justice of Minas Gerais. Based on this mapping, hearings were held in the villages. It was the first time that the Maxakali received the court of justice on their land. The hearings were held with a translator.

In essence, the project succeeded in its mission of alleviating the problems identified, bringing the indigenous people closer to state justice, protecting their rights, and enabling them to participate more actively in Brazilian democracy. The Maxakali were the main beneficiaries of the actions, and the local justice system is strengthened by strengthening its capacity for social impact.

The Court of Justice of Minas Gerais (TJMG) and the Regional Electoral Court (TREMG) have sought to institutionalize the actions, allowing the project to continue to be developed more broadly and eventually be taken to other communities.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

There are four innovations:

  1. The holding of judicial hearings in the Maxakali villages, with translation, bringing native peoples closer to the Judiciary and protecting their rights.
  2. Holding mock elections, with fictitious candidates represented by animals that are part of indigenous daily life. The Maxakali themselves drew the animals that appeared on the ballot screen as candidates. The information material produced was written in Maxakali language. In addition, the president of the Electoral Court and other judges from the state capital visited the villages during the simulations.
  3. A "collaborative paradigm" was adopted, which foresees the protagonism of the indigenous people and the active listening of their voices. The conversation rounds allowed the identification of social demands. Actions by the authorities generated benefits, such as the issuing of documents.
  4. The local justice system was mobilized and united by the project; this generated the participation of public authorities from different sectors and institutions.

What is the current status of your innovation?

As of the submission date, the project is in the phase of disseminating lessons, to understand the possibilities of applying the innovations adopted. In parallel, the results are being evaluated and new actions are being planned.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

  • Maxakali Indians: allowed the actions to be developed and received the project generously.
  • Minas Gerais Court of Justice: made the holding of hearings possible.
  • Regional Electoral Court: provided the necessary technology for the simulated elections to take place.
  • Public Authorities (Prosecutors, Police Chiefs, Federal Prosecutors, People's Lawyers): acted voluntarily in the project's actions.
  • Public employees: acted voluntarily in the actions.

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

Maxakali Indians: They were the main beneficiaries, because they were able to access the courts to seek the enforcement of their rights, and were trained in the use of electronic ballot boxes, improving their democratic participation in Brazil. They were also impacted by the actions of public authorities - who, listening to the demands presented, acted to improve health, accessibility, and the issuing of documents.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

The project has three axes of action: citizenship, democracy, and justice. Therefore, we will point out the results in each axis:

  • Citizenship: 8 "conversation rounds" were held, which allowed the approximation between indigenous and non-indigenous people. Based on these dialogues and on the problems identified, collective actions were carried out to issue documents, for example, and to collect blankets in the winter. In this context, 256 indigenous people received identity cards; 81 received voting titles; and 543 families received blankets.
  • Democracy: Two mock elections were held and two new voting spaces created for the Maxakali. 75% of the indigenous people participated in the mock elections.
  • Justice: 105 lawsuits were filed by the Maxakali to protect their social security rights, to recognize stable unions and to regularize family situations. To date 52 hearings have been held.

Challenges and Failures

The Águas Formosas region is one of the poorest in the state, and this context is reflected in the infrastructure of the courts and available resources. The local court has a high procedural backlog and does not have many servers, so the short time and low number of potential local collaborators were initial difficulty factors. Another complicating factor is the distance between the city and the villages - 80 km on a poorly maintained dirt road. The complexity to operationalize any action in the villages is reiterated: it is necessary to think about infrastructure issues (electricity and internet, for example) and also the displacement of the indigenous people themselves. The pandemic was another difficulty, as it made field actions impossible in some months. Finally, the language issue stands out. The Maxakali speak their own language, which requires simultaneous translation. To overcome these points, we used collective work and a risk matrix, with actions planned to overcome failures.

Conditions for Success

The success of the practice is mainly due to the openness of the Maxakali people (or "Tikmũ'ũn", a self-denomination in their own language), as well as the support of local representatives of the justice agencies. The adoption of a collaborative methodology and of "active and full listening" allowed for the strengthening of the bond of trust, another important point for the success of the project. Finally, another factor that can be attributed to the success of the practice was the parameterization of actions in three thematic axes (citizenship, democracy, and justice). This allowed a more precise delimitation of the problems and implied a strategic confrontation of each of them.


The Court of Justice of Minas Gerais began to outline initiatives for replicating the action, with other indigenous ethnic groups in the state of Minas Gerais. Thus, a working group was created for the design of new actions to be executed. For its part, the Regional Electoral Court will use the methodology of simulated elections in villages of other native peoples, to encourage democratic participation.

Lessons Learned

The main lesson learned is that innovation in the public sector is fundamental to advancing social inclusion. The judiciary is responsible for bringing justice to the people and cannot leave anyone out of this mission. In the case of indigenous peoples, the Brazilian State has a great challenge of inclusion, since indigenous people have been victims of violence and abuse for more than 500 years. Thinking about the social, democratic and legal inclusion of indigenous people allows them to continue their existential journey. And that their culture and environment are preserved as well.

Supporting Videos


  • Implementation - making the innovation happen
  • Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

2 December 2022

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