In Brazil, the worst aspects of colonial barbarism, destruction, subjugation and exploitation are still happening on a daily basis. This situation may be far away from the political crisis that has beset the federal government in Brasilia, just as it is isolated from the bustling cities of São Paulo, Belo Horizonte or Rio de Janeiro, site of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
Yet the businesses and infrastructure of this still rapidly developing economy have deep connections to the crimes of this country’s colonizers — both past and present. Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, slavery and murder of indigenous and poor populations are endemic.
Slaves of the Amazon
A recent report by São Paulo-based NGO Repórter Brasil published a list of 340 Brazilian businesses that were fined by the country’s Ministry of Labor and Employment for using slave labor between May 2013 and May 2015.
Though slavery was abolished in 1888, appalling conditions have continued throughout the country, especially on farms in the Amazon region.
In Brazil, slave labor is defined as worked carried out in life-threatening or degrading conditions as well as bonded labor, wherein individuals work unpaid in order to settle a debt with their employer.
Historically the worst slave conditions in Brazil have been found in cattle ranches in the Amazon where state power is difficult to reach and where exploitation is more violent.
— Leonardo Sakamoto, head of Repórter Brasil
Since 1995, when the Brazilian government began policing and prosecuting slavery, some 50,000 people have been liberated from slave-like conditions.
— FLEX (@FocusOnLabour) February 9, 2016
Indigenous forest guardians: The Amazon’s first only defense?
In the northern state of Maranhão, sometimes the only thing standing between the illegal destruction of the original Amazon forest cover are native tribal militias, who patrol their homelands against land grabbers, loggers and ranchers. Though officially designated as indigenous lands and protected by law, these virgin rainforest tracts are not being sufficiently defended by government forces. So, the tribes that live there have taken matters into their own hands.
Forest fires set by criminal groups, gunfire and death threats have become routine occurrences for native Amazonians and indigenous rights activists in the region. The criminal gangs set these extremely destructive fires in order to divert the patrols’ efforts away from policing their own lands.
Luciano de Meneses Evaristo, a director for Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, told National Geographic:
The fires are not natural. They’ve been started by loggers who are stealing timber from the indigenous reserves.
The actions of the illegal loggers and other criminal groups threatens the survival of tens of thousands of indigenous Brazilians, including members of uncontacted tribes. Patrol members have been wounded by gunfire, while arsonists have damaged the villages and crops of thousands of indigenous people.
Isolated Amazonian tribe threatened with genocide
Further south in the Amazon, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, an uncontacted tribe called the Kawahiva face extinction if they come into contact with ‘Old World diseases’ like influenza and even the common cold. In recent decades it is believed that the Kawahiva have avoided contact, invasions and attacks by becoming nomadic.
— The Ecologist (@the_ecologist) February 8, 2016
But loggers, ranchers and agricultural interests continue to reach deeper into virgin rainforest where the Kawahiva live. Unfortunately, their land has not yet even been designated by the government as a protected Indigenous Territory, though groups like Survival International are campaigning for action on the part of Brazil’s Minister of Justice.
Corruption and murder in the Amazon
In 2015 alone, 45 activists were killed in the Amazon, including a local Communist Party leader in the state of Pará.
According to activist, former depute editor of National Geographic Brazil and ecologist at the Federal University of Recôncavo of Bahia, Felipe Milanez, the contemporary expansion into the Amazon began under the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 70s. Now industries, both illegal and legal, have increased their activities in the region and with catastrophic results.
He told the Guardian:
It has been a humanitarian catastrophe for indigenous peoples and local collectives — even today genocides are happening — and caused an ecological holocaust.
Powerful loggers and ranchers often have the support of corrupt police, prison officials and even courts, making it very difficult to arrest, prosecute and punish criminal acts in the Amazon. This also makes being an activist an extremely dangerous and daunting existence.
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