The continued existence of isolated indigenous peoples in South America is deeply entwined with the issues of colonialism, human rights and environmental protection.
For isolated tribes, colonialism is not a characteristic of a forgotten era replaced by independence, neo-colonialism or the conversion of uncultivated land for industrial uses. These all represent present, looming and direct threats to these groups’ way of life and even continued existence.
Indigenous rights in the Americas
Under the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, indigenous rights — including land rights — were given unprecedented international attention and acknowledgement. Brazil was among those countries that ratified adopting the proposal, while the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand were not, though all four later endorsed in an informal, non-legally binding way. The U.S., Canada, several Caribbean nations — including Cuba — along with Belize and Guyana, have also failed to ratify the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights.
The Organization of American States (OAS) along with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), is working toward creating the Declaration of the Americas, which builds on the UNDRIP by adding inter-American courts — though it seems that, once again, the U.S. and Canada will opt out.
Brazil, as the country with the largest number of individual isolated indigenous communities, as well as 60 percent of the Amazon rain forest, is at the forefront of all of these issues.
A recent OAS study found voluntarily isolated indigenous peoples living in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.
From Mint Press News:
The study also found that Brazil is the country with the greatest diversity of indigenous peoples in isolation, followed by Peru and Bolivia. The current version of the OAS declaration includes Article XXVI, agreed by consensus in 2005, specifically for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation to have the right to remain in that condition and to live freely and in accordance with their cultures.
Brazil’s triumphs, failures and challenges
Brazil should be taking the lead on the closely related issues of indigenous rights and Amazon deforestation. But will it?
Despite recent setbacks, Brazil has had significant success slowing deforestation, largely due to concerted efforts of the federal government, along with environmental and indigenous rights activists. Still, large landowners, corporations, land speculators, ranchers and corrupt politicians will undoubtedly continue their efforts to ramp up deforestation in order to fill their own pockets.
If Brazil keeps allowing the large-scale development of the Amazon, it will be a major barrier to any chance of a future that 1) is environmentally sustainable, and 2) guarantees the continued existence of as of yet non-colonialized, voluntarily isolated indigenous communities.
Part of the problem is the understanding of what is environmentally sustainable and non-harmful to native tribes and what is not, such as in the case of the S11D mining project in the Amazon.
Vale, the Brazilian state-owned mining company in charge of the project, claims it was designed to cause minimal environmental impact. Vale’s project leader talks about “maintaining preservation and sustainability,” while the company’s own environmental and sustainability manager says that archeological sites — particularly 187 caves that were inhabited by indigenous peoples from prehistoric times to around 500 years ago — will suffer “irreversible impact.”
Naturally, environmentalist groups are against the project. Vale has a history of not consulting indigenous people or local residents, as well as failing to complete environmental impact assessments before starting iron mining projects in the north of Brazil.
When faced with the choice between economic development, and human rights and sustainability, despite many positive efforts, Brazil will probably choose the former.