Brazil's Treatment of Its Indigenous People Violates Their Rights
International pressure must be brought on Brazil to protect its native peoples against industrialisation of the Amazon
- May 29, 2013
- Fiona Watson
- The Guardian
These are challenging times if you happen to be an indigenous inhabitant of South America's largest democracy. Not since the dark days of Brazil's military dictatorship, when the indigenous people were regarded as "obstacles to progress" and their lands were opened to massive development schemes, have they faced such an assault on their rights.
The fortuitous discovery of the landmark Figueiredo report, which documented appalling crimes against Brazil's tribal peoples during the 1940s, 50s and 60s and led to the creation of the tribal rights organisation Survival International in 1969, has re-ignited debate, and serves as a warning at a time when the denial of land rights and killing of indigenous people continues.
On one side is an intransigent president whose unilateral view of development looks set to turn the Amazon into an industrial heartland to fuel Brazil's fast-growing economy. On the other there are Brazil's 238 tribes, determined to defend their hard-won constitutional rights and protect their lands and livelihoods for future generations. Tellingly, Dilma Rousseff is the only president since the fall of the dictatorship in 1985 who has not met with indigenous peoples.
This is a battle for the rule of law and the right to self-determination, a cornerstone of the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. As the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon, or COIAB, recently stated: "The current government is trying to impose its colonial and dominating style on us … [it] has caused irreversible harm to indigenous peoples using bills and decrees, many of them unconstitutional."
One bill under discussion would prohibit the expansion of territories occupied by indigenous people and will affect villagers living in the rich agricultural mid-west and south, where violent land conflicts are most acute and where Brazil's powerful rural lobby includes politicians who own ranches (many now selling sugar cane to supply Brazil's burgeoning biofuels industry) on land due to be returned to the indigenous people.
It will be particularly disastrous for the Guarani in Mato Grosso do Sul state, living in roadside camps or overcrowded reserves. Their leaders and shamans are systematically attacked and murdered by ranchers' gunmen as they attempt to regain their ancestral land, tired of waiting for the federal authorities to take action.
A proposed constitutional amendment would give congress (dominated by the agricultural and mining lobby) the power to participate in the process of demarcating land occupied by the indigenous population, causing further delays and obstacles to the recognition and protection of territories. This would put the wolf in charge of the sheep.
Further north, in the mineral-rich Amazonian state of Roraima, politicians are backing a draft mining bill. If approved by congress it would open up indigenous territories to large-scale mining for the first time. The Yanomami people's land, the largest forested indigenous territory in the world, is subject to 654 mining requests alone. A Yanomami spokesman, Davi Kopenawa, said to Survival International that mining "will destroy the streams and the rivers and kill the fish and kill the environment – and kill us".
And while Brazil's controversial hydroelectric dams programme in the Amazon will provide cheap energy to the mining companies that are poised to operate in territories occupied by its indigenous people, it will destroy the lands and livelihoods of thousands of its inhabitants.
Even where land is recognised, loggers and settlers invade with impunity. The Awá, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil, who number just 450, have lost an astounding 31% of their forest heartland. About 100 Awá are uncontacted and on the run in a desperate attempt to evade the chainsaws and guns.
Frustrated at the lack of consultation and angry at the assault on their rights, Brazil's indigenous people have resorted to direct action – storming congress, occupying dam sites, blockading railway lines, reclaiming sacred land, mounting hungers strikes, and committing suicide.
Much has been achieved in Brazil since the 1988 constitution came into force: indigenous people have exclusive and "original" rights to their land and most territories in the Amazon have been recognised; the population of many indigenous groups and communities is increasing; and organisations working in their interests are thriving. However, all these achievements are now in jeopardy.
As Brazil prepares to host the football World Cup and the Olympics, and seeks a permanent seat on the UN security council, its human rights record will be scrutinised. International pressure and public opinion have played a key role in support of the rights of indigenous people – they can and must do the same now.