Loggers, Miners, and Dams: Why Brazil's Indigenous Community Is Under Assault

Ranchers are evicting the Guarani tribe in southern Brazil and the Awá people's forests are being felled by loggers.

Indigenous people protest against hydroelectric dams on the Madeira River in the Amazon, Brazil, 2006.
Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth/Flickr

Indigenous communities are under assault in all areas of Brazil. Ranchers using gunmen are evicting the Guarani tribe in southern Brazil. Meanwhile, further north, in the eastern Amazon, the Awá people are watching their forests being felled by loggers; and on the banks of the Xingu River, whole communities are seeing their fishing and water supplies destroyed by the impending Belo Monte dam. This is only a small sample of the many tribal peoples struggling to protect what is rightfully theirs.

While these communities are assailed on the ground, indigenous rights in general are being torn apart in Brazil’s Congress. One bill currently being considered would prohibit the expansion of territories occupied by indigenous people, benefiting farmers and others living in the agriculturally driven mid-west and south, where violent land conflicts are frequent and politicians own ranches on land that would be returned to indigenous people. It would be particularly damaging to the Guarani, who have been waiting years for the federal government to demarcate much of their ancestral land.

Another measure, a proposed constitutional amendment, would give Brazil’s Congress, heavily influenced by the anti-indigenous farming lobby, the power to participate in the process of demarcating indigenous lands, threatening the recognition and protection of territories. Yet another proposed amendment, known as Draft Bill 227, would open up indigenous territories for mining, dams, army bases and other industrial projects. No indigenous people have been consulted about these proposals.

A draft-mining bill, proposed by anti-indigenous politicians in the northern Amazonian state of Roraima, would open up indigenous territories to large-scale mining for the first time if approved. 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". There are currently 654 requests to mine on Yanomami land, the largest forested indigenous territory in the world.

The Brazilian constitution guarantees indigenous peoples’ right to exclusive use of their land, except in extreme circumstances of ‘relevant public interest’. However, even where land is recognized, loggers, miners and settlers invade with impunity. The Awá, for example, have lost over 30% of the forest cover of one of their territories to illegal logging operations.

The current struggles being fought by indigenous communities are even more alarming when viewed in light of Brazil’s past treatment of its indigenous peoples. A recently rediscovered report, authored by Brazilian prosecutor Jader de Figueiredo in 1967, documents horrific crimes against the indigenous peoples of Brazil in the 40s, 50s and 60s at the hands of powerful landowners and the government’s own Indian Protection Service. These crimes included mass murder, torture, enslavement, bacteriological warfare, sexual abuse, land theft and neglect. Some tribes were completely wiped out as a result, and many others decimated. When the report was originally released, it caused an international outcry and led to the foundation of tribal rights organization Survival International in 1969.

One of the many gruesome examples described in the Figueiredo report was the “massacre of the 11th parallel”, where dynamite was hurled from a small plane onto a village of “Cinta Larga” Indians below. Later, men returned to kill off any survivors. Thirty Indians were murdered in total – only two survived. Rubber barons wanted to operate on the tribe’s land and saw them as obstacles.

Since the Figueiredo report and since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s Brazil’s constitution recognizes many fundamental indigenous rights: most territories in the Amazon have been recognized; the population of many indigenous tribes and communities is increasing; and indigenous-led associations and organizations working in their interests are thriving.

These achievements are now in jeopardy. The current assault on indigenous rights in Brazil harkens back to the days of Figueiredo, the dark days of Brazil's military dictatorship, when indigenous people were regarded as "obstacles to progress" and their lands were freely given away for massive development schemes. Indigenous peoples are fighting back on the ground: protesters stormed Brasilia last week and one Guarani woman has been leading her community in a reoccupation of its ancestral land since September. The international community must play its part and call on Brazil to uphold the basic human rights of its indigenous peoples.

Fiona Watson is the research director of Survival International, an organization that champions tribal peoples around the world.

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