Indigenous rights are a global, not just Brazilian, issue
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Indigenous rights are a global, not just Brazilian, issue

As the crimes of colonialism have evolved into neo-and post-colonialism, the problems of indigenous peoples continue to be tied to international politics. Whether it comes in the form of slavery, the plundering of resources, the spread of disease or outright genocide, native populations are the original casualties of globalization.

More than half a millennium after the Portuguese claimed Brazil as their own, the often-desperate plight of the land’s original inhabitants continues, now at the hands of power structures descending from the original colonizers and their modern international counterparts.

In some ways, things haven’t changed that much since the first Portuguese arrived in Brazil. Threats and conquest these days come in the form of agribusiness, mining firms, logging companies, hydroelectric dams and the drug trade — including the so-called “war on drugs.”

Five hundred years later, national and international powers still want what they’ve got. And despite laws aimed at protecting indigenous land rights, those powers usually get it.

It takes a long time to colonize an entire country

Some remote indigenous peoples, such as members of the Awa tribe, are feeling the effects of the logging industry. With no natural defenses against “Old World” diseases, these communities are particularly vulnerable to common minor viruses. They are also at risk from being shot by loggers, who see them as inconvenient obstacles to making their fortune in the still-virgin rainforests of Brazil and Peru.

From the Australian:

The Awa are particularly threatened because their territory has been invaded since iron ore was discovered in their region in the 1970s. The mining company is trying to extend a railway line next to their land which would open it up to loggers, ranchers and settlers.

A recent article in the Guardian highlights the clear link between European cocaine use and the murder of indigenous peoples. While I say “clear,” I that doubt many people who are reaching for their party drug of choice or self-medication spare much of a thought for the victims of bullets flying through the Amazon. After all, how many of us who buy furniture made of tropical wood bother to ask how it was sourced?

Yet blame for recent massacres of isolated tribe members has been aimed at both loggers and drug traffickers by Peru and Brazil-based indigenous organizations. For loggers, it is the valuable virgin tropical timber, but for narcos, the very isolation these tribes seek to protect also provides cover for drug trafficking. Often, tribes must cooperate or face violence.

Since about 2013 the headwaters of the Envira, where this group comes from, has been free of loggers. That’s why some people believe the “whites” or “non-Indians” who killed various members of this group and burnt their houses must be narcos, rather than loggers, given that this area has become a narco-trafficking route to Brazil. It’s not clear when [the attacks] took place. It seems it was two or three years ago. Currently, the big threat in the upper Envira, in the Alto Purus National Park, is narcos, but if the attacks happened before 2013 it could have been narcos or loggers.

—Beatriz Huertas Castillo, anthropologist (via the Guardian)

Unfortunately, hope is not growing for indigenous groups. Their plight was largely ignored in recent Brazilian elections and, in a country where so much political capital rides on economic issues rather than human rights or environmental concerns, we can expect indigenous welfare to continue to take a back seat to fiscal growth.

In addition to outright murder, problems among indigenous populations include malnutrition, high infant mortality rates, short life expectancies and vulnerability to disease, and aid in the form of medicine and social programs falls short. While some innovation in eco- and cultural tourism may provide needed economic windfalls and help preserve the environment and native traditions, a failure to prioritize indigenous welfare on a state or international level will only lead to a continuation of these problems.

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