Around the world, and particularly in Latin America, indigenous peoples are at the vanguard of the fight for justice on issues of human rights and the environment — often risking their lives in the process.
In the fight to preserve the planet’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, the way of life — and individual lives — of indigenous communities are on the line. For people such as the Matsés of Brazil and Peru’s Javari Valley, actions like organizing against multinational mining projects are a matter of life and death.
Some fight to isolate, some to unite
In the case of voluntarily isolated peoples — especially those in Brazil, which is home to the greatest number of individual isolated indigenous communities and greatest diversity of these peoples — some experts believe any contact whatsoever between these communities and the outside world should be completely avoided.
Sydney Possuelo, the former chief of FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs department, told the indigenous rights group Survival International:
“I believed it’d be possible to make contact with no pain or deaths. I organized one of the best equipped fronts that FUNAI ever had. I prepared everything… I set up a system with doctors and nurses. I stocked with medicines to combat the epidemics which always follow. I had vehicles, a helicopter, radios and experienced personnel. ‘I won’t let a single Indian die,’ I thought. And the contact came, the diseases arrived, the Indians died.”
Solidarity against state-sponsored murder
Meanwhile, activist groups are mobilizing to promote indigenous solidarity throughout Latin America and beyond.
Ayotzinapa Caravana 43 por Sudamérica, an organization dedicated to seeking justice for the 43 student-teachers who were disappeared in Mexico last September, recently made its way to Brazil, where members were welcomed by the indigenous Maracanã community. The Iguala kidnappings have been traced back to local government officials and police, as well as organized crime structures and even possibly Mexico’s Federal Police and members of the military.
Already linked to the indigenous Zapatista movement in Mexico’s Chiapas State, the Ayotzinapa organization aims to continue forging alliances with indigenous rights groups in Brazil, who have a history of victimization at the hands of rich landowners working together with the powers of the state.
A hazard to be native?
The direct threat to indigenous peoples’ lives is not part of a dark past that only appears in Brazil’s history books. It is clear, present and — tragically — on the rise. A recent report found that murders of indigenous people rose by 42 percent in 2014 compared to 2013. The study, by the Catholic Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), an organization that works with indigenous communities facing displacement, criticizes the Brazilian government’s failure to accurately and effectively define and protect indigenous territories.
In the northern Brazilian state of Pará, which is one of the focal points of both legal and illegal deforestation and the violation of indigenous rights, a recent ruling by a federal judge effectively stripped indigenous inhabitants of their legal identity, labeling them “false indians” and thereby opening up their land for industrial exploitation.
The rationale of the judge — and thereby Brazil’s Secretary of Environment — was that the indigenous individuals in question do not have indigenous names or “rituals.” However, according to Jane Felipe Beltrão, vice president of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology, this is due to a long legacy of slavery, cultural repression, persecution, slaughter and ultimately homogenization at the hands of colonial powers.
The fact that Brazil’s indigenous population has a long history of having its rights denied is hardly a valid legal argument for denying those rights once again. Yet it would appear that once again, the state is sponsoring the violation of those rights precisely because these communities are on the front lines against the deforestation of their homelands.