Indigenous communities have developed complex property rights with regard to their biological resources and the hereto-related knowledge. The sustainability of their customary practices crucially depends on the legal recognition of customary property rights which in turn is shaped by international law. This paper compares indigenous property rights policies in Brazil and India in the context of internationally binding agreements. Brazilian indigenous groups have successfully used the political opportunity structures to achieve the legal recognition of their customary property rules. Despite its widely recognized legitimacy, however, the Brazilian approach is substantially destabilized by international law. In India, by contrast, the semi-authoritarian character of the decision-making process tends to delegitimize the property claims of indigenous (adivasi) groups. At the same time, the ongoing dispossession of indigenous groups is indirectly supported by the implementation of international agreements. The paper concludes that indigenous groups may achieve the legal recognition of their customary property rules on a domestic level, if they are able to access the political decision-making structures. However, the effectiveness of nationally recognized customary property regulations is seriously harmed by international law, if they deviate from globally dominant approaches.
Thomas R. Eimer is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Radboud University (Netherlands). His research interests focus on property rights regulations in the context of multi-level decision making processes.