The indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon might be the first and last line when it comes to protecting the world’s largest rainforest and the so-called lungs of the Earth.
While depictions of tribal communities as innocent and noble “stewards of the environment” may be sentimental, stereotypical and in some ways even racist, the fact remains that indigenous communities are the ones who benefit the least and are harmed the most by projects that aim to exploit and develop the land on which they live. Therefore, for them, the protection of the Amazon is an imperative and seen as a matter of life and death.
When indigenous territories are divided by modern political borders, things also get more complicated and risky for the most exposed of peoples, as has been the case for the Matsés people of Brazil’s Javari Valley Indigenous Territory. The Matsés community’s territory extends across the border into Peru, and while the Javari Valley is protected by Brazilian law, it is vulnerable to mineral exploration and eventual oil extraction on the Peruvian side.
In addition to the clear dangers posed by deforestation and habitat destruction of sections of the Earth’s most biodiverse regions, the Matsés are concerned about the poisonous pollution that would undoubtedly result from oil drilling in the Amazon — and they are prepared to fight to protect themselves.
A village leader is quoted in the Guardian:
I don’t want to die contaminated or from some illness transmitted [by a company]. If they don’t understand our no means no, there’ll be conflict that’ll lead to people being killed.
—Waki Mayoruna, Lobo village head, Javari Territory
Matsés on both the Brazilian and Peruvian sides of the border are united in their opposition to oil exploration and extraction by the Canadian-based company Pacific Rubiales Energy, which holds concessions on 1.5 million hectares in Peru’s section of the Javari Valley.
What right, they ask, does a Canadian or multinational company have to damage the Amazon and put its human inhabitants at risk? The indigenous communities in the region have lived there since before any colonial borders were drawn, yet they have had little say in granting rights of exploitation to Pacific Rubiales Energy. But then again, those with the most natural rights often have the least political influence.
The Javari Valley is one of the most pristine areas of the world, a place where the presence of previously uncontacted tribes was first documented only a few years ago. When these isolated peoples were observed in a flyover in 2011, Brazil’s government agency for indigenous affairs, FUNAI, stated that oil exploration on the Peruvian side of the Javari Valley constituted a definite threat to the tribes’ survival. And while things may be less than ideal for Brazil’s indigenous peoples, Brazilian law, in the case of the Matsés, at least seems to offer a bit more protection than its counterpart across the Peruvian border.