Desperation in Brazil

I am just back from a whirlwind tour of Brazil. Whenever I am there, I visit the Indians of the Amazon basin who are involved in a non-profit cooperative we helped set up through The Body Shop foundation. These are tribes who have every reason to be desperate and angry, but who manage instead to be hopeful, resourceful and steadfast. I am always inspired.

These tribes are being attacked from all sides by loggers, timber poachers, miners, fishermen, squatters and the massive, entrenched corruption of local and national bureaucrats. This is a population on the precipice -- "white man's diseases" such as chicken pox, malaria and intestinal parasites killed more Amazonian Indians last year than in the previous eight years combined. Those deaths are a direct result of the Brazilian government taking responsibility for Indian healthcare away from the Indians themselves and handing it over to corrupt bureaucrats.

The Amazon Co-op is designed to develop business initiatives that will allow the Indians to be financially self-sufficient. It has established, for instance, the only ISP/Internet cafe in Altamira, a city of 70,000 people on the edge of the reserve. Profits from the business go to fund education for the children of the six participating tribes.

But despite such successes, there is a feeling of desperation at the Co-op. The Indians are struggling against corrupt Brazilian municipalities that fail them right and left: many local politicians who are charged with protecting the Indians and their land are in cahoots with illegal loggers. A recent $100 million World Bank grant to the Brazilian government for Indian health care programs has nearly evaporated without any significant improvement in health services, and a disturbing increase in fatalities.

In 2000, for example, 12 Indians from the Arawete tribe died of chicken pox during an outbreak that contaminated more than 90 percent of all the tribes -- all while the local government was supposed to be putting the World Bank money to use in the control of infectious diseases in the Indian reserves.

On another recent occasion, an Arawete Indian sought treatment for a skin disease and was sent to a clinic run by the local government. He was returned to his tribe untreated, and soon a majority of his tribe had contracted the infection. Some Indians believe the government is intentionally withholding treatment, or worse, deliberately infecting Indians with the intent of wiping out native populations and taking back the vast, resource-rich land of the reserves.

With what resources they can muster, the Co-op has helped the tribes build their own health clinic, an herbal "green pharmacy," and clean water systems for their villages, with little or no help (and sometimes in the face of sabotage, incompetence and neglect by local officials and agencies).

Now the organization is fighting to win EU funds to set up a patrolling program around the perimeter of the reserve to keep out squatters, illegal miners and timber poachers who steal approximately $26 million worth of mahogany logs from Amazon Indian land every year, according to Greenpeace. The Brazilian government does nothing to prevent the theft, and nothing to punish the thieves.

Anita Roddick is the founder of The Body Shop and a lifelong activist. Email her at anita@anitaroddick.com.

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