Minority language planning in Brazil: The case of São Gabriel da Cachoeira

17 minutes to read
Daniela Meireles

In 2002, a bill authored by the councillor Domingos Camico Agudelos and approved by the City Council of São Gabriel da Cachoeira recognisedthree native languages in Brazil as co-official languages for the first time. The Municipal Law 145 lifted Baniwa, Nheengatu and Tukano, languages spoken by the majority of the city’s inhabitants, to the status of co-official language alongside Portuguese. In addition, according to the Law, public and private bodies should serve all citizens in these four languages, and official institutions should provide official documents in all four languages, and support the learning and use of them in schools and in the media. Nevertheless, twelve years later (in 2014), Domingos Camico Agudelos, now deputy-mayor of the city, admitted facing difficulties to implement the Law. This paper intends to investigate the causes of the Law’s failure by means of language policy analysis .


São Gabriel da Cachoeira is situated in the northern region of Brazil.


Language Policy and Planning

Language planning can be considered a set of ideas, rules and practices implemented by some actor, not necessarily but usually governmental agencies, when it comes to the macro level, that aim at an intervention (to promote or interrupt a change, for instance) in the language use of one or more communities for one reason or other (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997). The term “language planning” was introduced by Haugen (1959) as “the activity of preparing a normative orthography, grammar, and dictionary for the guidance of writers and speakers in a nonhomogeneous speech community” (cited in Johnson, 2013, p. 27). Thereafter, Kloss (1969, cited in Johnson, 2013) proposed to differentiate between the activities included in LPP as corpus planning and status planning, or in other words, as dealing with language form and language function.

Although many scholars attempted to distinguish these activities, Kaplan & Baldauf (1997) argue that, in practice, it is impossible to do so: “any change in the character of a language is likely to result in a change in the use environment, and any change in the use environment is likely to induce a change in the character of the language” (p.28). Cobarrubias (1983) shares the same opinion: “The allocation of language functions responds generally to extralinguistic factors that may often result in or necessitate changes in the corpus of a language in order for it to fulfill a specific function or a number of functions” (p.42).

Cooper (1989, cited in Johnson, 2013) added a third activity when it comes to language planning and policy (LPP), which is acquisition planning, dealing with the strategy in which a language will be taught in order to boost the number of users and the use of a language. Hornberger (2006) interprets acquisition planning as “efforts to influence the allocation of users or the distribution of languages/literacies, by means of creating or improving opportunity or incentive to learn them, or both” (p.28).

Finally, there are also scholars who believe that one more activity can be considered when developing language planning, i.e. prestige planning. For Haarmann (1986), “[t]he term prestige planning could be paraphrased as `planning with regard to elements of evaluation in the ethnic identity of a speech community’” (p.87). The main proposal is to avoid “stereotyping categorisation” (p.90) that could cause discrimination and animosity among the target of LPP by balancing the corpus and status planning activities. 

“When trying to change the image of the language by modifying the value structures held by the target population, the main aim of language promotion is to nurture confidence by improving its prestige or image and by raising its profile among the target population.” (Shouhui & Baldauf, 2012, p.4)

Corpus and status planning are considered productive activities, while prestige planning is seen as a receptive activity that can influence the way corpus and status planning activities are carried out and received (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997). This is probably the reason why for many scholars prestige is still considered a secondary effect of status planning (Haarmann, 1986).

In addition to the scope of LPP, there are other factors involved when planning a language intervention, as suggested by Cooper (1989, cited in Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997), namely: the actors (e.g. the government, institutions, groups and individuals), the behaviours one attempts to interfere with, the target group (the people for whom  LPP is made), the finality (e.g. language standardisation, regenesis, unification, simplification, maintenance), the conditions or the context in which LPP is elaborated (e.g. situation, structural, cultural), the means or the way the policy will be put into practice (e.g. promotion, persuasion, coercion), the decision making process, and the expected effects on the behaviours one attempts to influence.

The relation among some of these elements can determine the type of LPP as classified by Johnson (2013), regarding its origin (top-down or bottom-up), means and goals (overt or covert), documentation (explicit or implicit), and in law and in practice (de jure or de facto). LPP will be top-down if developed by a governmental agency and bottom-up if developed “by and for the community they are meant to impact” (p.10), schools for instance. It will be explicit if officially documented and implicit if the LPP happens independently of official documents. It will be overt if the intention is openly expressed and covert if it includes “hidden agendas” (Shohamy, 2006, cited in Johnson, 2013, p.11). It will be de jure if based on laws and de facto if based on practice.

Other components of LPP, although they are not always visible, are its ideology and orientation. According to Ricento (2006), LPP has “repercussions on other languages and ethnolinguistic groups” (p.5) and decisions regarding the language selection and reason “reflect power relations among different groups and socio-political and economic interests” (p.6). That is why, when analysing LPP, it is necessary to consider “ideology, ecology, and agency in explaining how and why things are the way they are” (p.6). Cobarrubias (1983) reached the same conclusion: “Language-status decisions are affected by ideological considerations of powerful groups and counteracting forces” (p.6).

Johnson (2013) created an orientation framework based on the models developed by Kloss, Wiley and Ruiz to show how the connection “between language and social control” (p.37) works. According to Kloss and Wiley, the orientation can be towards promotion, expediency, tolerance, restriction, repression or it can be just null. Promotion-oriented is when the government supports the official use of minority languages by allocating resources. Expediency-oriented is when the intention is to promote but not to expand the use of minority languages. Tolerance-oriented is when the actors recognise but do not interfere in the use of minority languages. Restrictive-oriented is when the use of minority languages is legally prohibited. Repression-oriented is when the actor attempts to eradicate minority languages. Finally, null-oriented is when the actor not even recognises the existence of minority languages (Johnson, 2013).

On the other hand, Ruiz (1984, cited in Johnson, 2013) defined three orientations in LPP: a language-as-problem orientation, a language-as-right orientation, and a language-as-resource orientation. The first one occurs when the agent treats the minority language as an obstacle for majority language acquisition. The language-as-right orientation occurs when bilingual education is implemented, considering the acquisition of the dominant language and the maintenance of the mother tongue of individuals (one-way additive bilingual education). The last type, language-as-resource orientation, occurs when bilingual education is implemented for every inhabitant, independent of whether they're a native or not (two-way additive bilingual education).

In expediency-oriented, restrictive-oriented, repression-oriented and null-oriented LPP, the minority language is considered a problem. In a promotion-oriented, two-way additive LPP, the minority language is seen as a resource and a right. In a promotion-oriented, one-way additive LPP, the minority language is considered only a right. In tolerance-oriented LPP, the way minority language is seen will depend on local LPP (Johnson, 2013).


Law 145 on minority languages in São Gabriel da Cachoeira

As mentioned before, Law 145 of the city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira determined that Baniwa, Nheengatu and Tukano would from then on be co-official languages in the municipal territory. One of the peculiarities of this city is that 95.5% of its 37.896 inhabitants are indigenous peoples, unlike the rest of Brazil, where the indigenous population represents only 0.4% of the total, or 896.900 people. Interesting to note is that between 1991 and 2000 the number of the population who declared themselves as being indigenous, rose with 10.8% per year, a phenomenon considered atypical by the researchers responsible for the official census. According to them, the increment had no demographic reasons, but it could be explained by the improvement in the public policies offered to indigenous peoples in that period (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, 2012).

Before that, an ethnocentric ideology prevailed, in which indigenous people were considered incapable and the overall consensus was that they should “evolve”, until they are integrated into society (Fundação Nacional do Índio, n.d.). In the 1910’s, many indigenous schools were managed by Salesian missionaries on a boarding school basis, where speaking Portuguese was mandatory and the use of the children’s mother tongues was prohibited (Iubel, 2016). The native children were separated from the warmth of their families and from contact with their own culture. The Statute of the Indian, a federal law established by the military government in 1973, was an advance for recognising Brazilian cultural diversity. It declares, for instance, that the literacy of natives must be in their mother tongue and in Portuguese (Presidência da República Federativa do Brasil, 1973). Yet, the Brazilian government kept focusing on integration, which was ambiguous in itself since diversity was supposed to be protected (Fundação Nacional do Índio, n.d.): “The goal of the Statute was to make indigenous people gradually cease to be indigenous. Hence, the recipients of this law were (…) owners of temporary rights, compatible with their condition and that would last while this condition lasted” (Araújo, et al., 2006, p.32).

Therefore, it was not until Brazil formed a democratic government at the beginning of the 1990s that the indigenous movement consolidated, with more political mobilisation and participation, not only as voters but also as candidates (Iubel, 2016). It is also important to stress that it was not until this period that the international community, represented mainly by the United Nations, expanded discussions on indigenous peoples' rights. These matters were discussed at the Earth Summit, in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, the World Conference on Human Rights, in 1993 in Vienna, and the International Conference on Population and Development, in 1994 in Cairo (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2015). This means that the internal indigenous movement benefited from external pressure put on the Brazilian government, which has been a member of the UN since 1945.

The orientation towards native languages ​​has gone from repressive, in which the language was seen as a problem and needed to be eradicated, to expediential, in which the language kept being seen as a problem, but the government promoted the language without increasing the number of speakers. Thus, it was in this favourable context, right after a decade of social achievements for Brazilian natives, that the City Council of São Gabriel da Cachoeira approved Law 145, in 2002. This was an innovative step because the “minority” language was not seen as a problem anymore but as a right, since the State intended to invest in promoting the use of the three co-official languages.

The above becomes clear when scrutinizing the text, which informs us that the municipality will provide public services in all co-official languages, and that it will encourage and support the learning and use of co-official languages in schools and in the media.

The bill was presented for voting by former councillor Domingos Camico Agudelos, also known as Camico Baniwa (mandate from 2001 to 2004), the leader of the Baniwa indigenous community. The project was created by the Institute for Research and Development of Language Policies at the request of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro (FOIRN, from the acronym in Portuguese). Domingos Agudelos was a member of the Administrative Council of FOIRN between 1992 and 1994, and an employee of the Federation between 1995 and 1996 (Luciano, 2011).

Although Law 145 was officially established by the City Council, it can be defined as not only top-down but also bottom-up LPP in its origin, because it was produced “by and for the community” (Johnson, 2013, p.10). “[T]here is overlap within and across categories; that is, a policy can be both top-down and bottom-up” (Johnson, 2013, p.10). The use of these three co-official languages (Baniwa, Nheengatu and Tukano) became explicit and de jure after the passing of Law 145, with the rules being officially documented. Finally, the LPP can be defined as covert if the problem and the reasons for implementing it are not well-identified in the text. The fact that there is a problem is not openly declared, since the Law is basically a set of actions to be adopted by the municipality. However, the problem is implied: for instance, if the municipality is now obliged to produce public documents and institutional campaigns in all co-official languages, it is because the City Council (and the indigenous community) consider not doing this as a problem.

We could be tempted to conclude that the only reason for the establishment of this LPP was to allow indigenous people to have access to public power. This does not make sense if we think back to the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988, which decrees that fundamental education, mandatory for children between 6 and 14 years old, will be taught in Portuguese, and for those who are indigenous also in their mother tongues (Presidência da República Federativa do Brasil, 1988). However, because many of them do not have opportunity to practice Portuguese unless when they are at schools, they do not develop fluency in the language. When they need to access public services in the urban areas of the country, many of them feel insecure or ashamed for not being able to express themselves in another language, this is especially the case for elderly people (Silva, 2013). This means that language ends up being a barrier, preventing people to access to public services. However, this is not the only reason.

According to FOIRN, although the Baniwa, Nheengatu and Tukano languages have thousands of speakers and are perceived as strong languages in the region (Stenzel, 2012), there is a general tendency to language loss in the urban area, especially among youths and children. “The city represents an environment of greater pressure in favour of the displacement of the indigenous languages by Portuguese, the official Brazilian language and the dominant one in spheres of educational institutions, government, media, commerce and services” (Stenzel, 2012). Considering that half of the population, or 19,054 people, lives in the urban area and the statistics show a tendency of increasing migration to this region, this leads us to believe that the extinction of the native languages is only a matter of time. Thus, the real reason for this LPP was to encourage youths and children who move to the São Gabriel da Cachoeira’s urban area to keep using their mother tongues.

Knowing the problem and the reason for implementing a language policy leads us to identify the activities that this LPP was expected to deal with, and then to evaluate if it is an efficient document or not. Law 145 “attempts to modify the environment in which a language is used” (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997, p.28) and because of this it can be categorised as status planning. Moreover, the planning intends to encourage and support the learning of the co-official languages, which also makes it a case of acquisition planning. Finally, since Law 145 deals with the value of the three native languages, appointing them as co-official alongside Portuguese, and prevents language-based discrimination, prestige planning is also part of the official jurisdiction. Thus far, Law 145 proved to be a good LPP, and its creatoprs seem to have respected all necessary steps to be taken. So why did it not work as it was supposed to?


Implementation problems of Law 145

In 2014, and therefore 12 years since the establishment of Law 145, Domingos Camico Agudelos, who was elected deputy-mayor of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in 2012, admitted facing difficulties to implement the rules. The main reason for these difficulties is the lack of qualified professionals to write or translate official documents in all three co-official languages and the scarce budget available for hiring them (Abdala, 2014).

In fact, Law 145 of São Gabriel da Cachoeira basically failed already in the decision making process. The policy document did not define the funds to finance the production of documents in all co-official languages, nor for the training and hiring of qualified professionals for this work. A large part of the amount of money São Gabriel da Cachoeira receives from the federal goverment is mainly used for educational and health programmes, and by the public payroll: according to Domingos Camico Agudelos, the only income sources in the region come from the public service and the army, which maintains a battalion due to the city's close proximity to the border with Venezuela and Colombia (D24am, 2014). This amount of money is not enough to cover new expenses and, with no financial support to implement the LPP, there is no way it can work.


Domingos Camico Agudelos, deputy-mayor of the city.

Policy and power

Former deputy-mayor of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Domingos Camico Agudelos, however, observed a symbolic effect reached by Law 145: the three co-official languages (Baniwa, Nheengatu and Tukano) are now spoken by indigenous people even in the urban area of the municipality. In 2014, in an interview for the Brazilian public media agency he said: “15-20 years ago, this was impossible because people were ashamed of speaking their mother tongue and preferred to speak Portuguese. Nowadays, if you spend 15 minutes walking on the streets, you will listen to almost all languages spoken here in the municipality” (Abdala, 2014).

Even if it were true, we cannot attest that the growth in the use of native languages in the urban area was caused by Law 145, especially because the government did nothing to cause this behaviour in a practical way. As Kaplan & Baldauf (1997) stated, the “effects of any particular planning project (…) are not easy to determine, because it is hard to know what would have happened if language planning had not occurred” (p.57). If that is already the case for LPP applied in practice, for LPP that was not concretely implemented it is even more difficult.

Although the law could be considered an advance in terms of affirmative policies - that aims “to increase the representation of minorities in areas (…) from which they have been historically excluded” (Fullinwider, 2013) -, the indigenous movement did not stop facing barriers in the ideological field, even with their achievements during the 1990s.


Recent protest in favour of the indigenous rights in Brasilia, federal capital of Brazil.

The indigenous interests go against those of agribusinesses, for instance, especially with regards to land demarcation. However, agribusinesses don't just have economic power, but also political power in Brazil. In the 2014 elections, using a macro level example, 51% of congresspeople elected (263 of them) had had ties with agribusinesses (Marcel, 2014) and because of that they were known as a “ruralist” congressional caucus. As one of the results, a recent Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (PCI) was created to investigate the process of land demarcation made by the National Indian Foundation (Funai, from the acronym in Portuguese) and just approved its report.

Composed mostly of “ruralist” congresspeople, this PCI “does not want to demarcate indigenous lands that are not demarcated yet; it wants to revoke the recent recognised demarcations; it wants to allow “ruralists” to explore indigenous land already demarcated”, according to Luciano Maia, coordinator of the 6th Coordination and Review Chamber of the Federal Public Ministry (2017, p.2).

This gives us an idea of the way power and ideology can influence issues like the investment in public policies for indigenous people. Although it is an example with respect to legislative power, this ideology can be seen in other power spheres and levels (local, estate and federal). That is why Ricento (2006) alleges that analysing LPP corresponds to analysing ideology. Perhaps São Gabriel da Cachoeira’s LPP has been an instrument in demonstrating indigenous power in the region, so they could fight for more equality in the wake of this. However, without effective macro level political support, and being so dependent of federal resources, the evidences suggest that Law 145 became an instrument of delusion for native people with a false perception of power.



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