Brazil's Olympic triumph - don't mention the genocide!

Brazil's Zo'é tribe are starting to recover from epidemics in the 1980s and '90s now that their land is protected. Photo: Survival International.
Brazil's Zo'é tribe are starting to recover from epidemics in the 1980s and '90s now that their land is protected. Photo: Survival International.
In the thick of the Olympic frenzy, one voice that was systematically excluded from mainstream narratives is that of Brazil's Indigenous Peoples, writes Lewis Evans, who have fought to survive through centuries of dehumanisation, theft and genocide. And now they face a fresh attack as a proposed constitutional change, PEC 215, threatens a new round of indigenous land theft.
If PEC 215 is passed, the Guarani's biggest source of hope - their battle to have their land protected - will suffer. Powerful people would gladly see them destroyed, and this technocratic adjustment to the law would play right into their hands.

Whatever your view of the Olympic Games, there's no doubting that they focus attention on the host country. All kinds of peripheral issues are dredged up by the international media, picked over, and scrutinized.

Brazil this year has been no exception. The country was already making headlines around the world off the back of the Zika virus, economic crisis, and political turmoil that have all embroiled the country.

By the time the world's biggest sporting jamboree rolled into Rio earlier this month, there was no shortage of 'big issues' for journalists to pick up on and use to flesh out the 'context' of the games.

However, one issue has been notable only by its absence: the plight of Brazil's tribal peoples. It hasn't been for a shortage of crises either: in the past few months alone indigenous Brazilians have faced shootings, arrest and beatings, systematic land-theft, forest fires and racism.

All of this has been more or less overlooked, in favor of puff pieces about golfers avoiding dirty water, or the impeachment of former president Rousseff. In effect, an ongoing genocide has been glossed over by the world media's limited attention span.

A murderous history

This is pretty tragic considering Brazil's murderous history. For over five hundred years now tribal peoples, who lead lives that are largely self-sufficient and extraordinarily diverse when their rights are respected, have seen their lands, resources and labor stolen in the name of 'progress' and 'civilization'. Many were decimated by diseases to which they had no resistance. The survivors faced massacres, land theft, slavery and racism.

This horrific humanitarian crisis is ongoing. Since Europeans first made landfall, indigenous people have faced persecution. Many in the west assume that the fight is essentially over, that the indigenous lost and that tribes are a thing of the past.

But while the situation is undoubtedly bleak, this is far from the case. Brazilian tribal peoples are contemporary societies who deserve to have their rights respected. Their annihilation today is the result of consciously pursued policy and land theft, not the inevitable arc of history or unfortunate accidents.

Troubling new developments

Take a plan currently being proposed by the Brazilian congress, known as PEC 215. This obscurely titled change to the country's constitution presents a devastating threat to Brazilian tribes and their land rights. On the surface, it might look like a small, even benign tweak to the law, aimed at facilitating economic development. In reality, it is a fundamental attack on tribal peoples' capacity to determine their own futures.

If PEC 215 is passed, the Guarani's biggest source of hope - their battle to have their land protected - will suffer. Powerful people would gladly see them destroyed, and this technocratic adjustment to the law would play right into their hands.

Currently, the mapping out and protection of indigenous territories is the responsibility of FUNAI, Brazil's indigenous affairs department. FUNAI, which sits within the Ministry of Justice, is broadly sympathetic to tribal peoples and their cause, and obligated to putting the country's official commitment to allowing indigenous people to live on their land into practice.

PEC 215 would fatally alter this, instead putting the demarcations into the hands of Brazil's congress. The country's government is currently controlled by right-wingers, many of whom lead the powerful ranching and agribusiness lobbies, and are anti-indigenous. Politicians like Fernando Furtardo and Luis Carlos Heinze make openly racist comments about Indians.

The law would shift the balance of power in Brazilian indigenous affairs away from dedicated experts to people looking to make a quick buck. The real consequences would depend on political and legalistic wrangling, but it could be a catastrophe for Brazil's Indians, opening up tribal territories to federal projects like roads and military bases which are currently restricted by law, and to the extraction of natural resources.

Indigenous people almost never receive any of the profits these projects generate. Instead they are forced to stand by and watch as the environments they have been dependent on and managed for millennia are trashed. Robbed of their ancestral land and livelihoods, they are forced into the mainstream of a society which does not accept them.

Genocidal consequences

Developments like this could have genocidal consequences for the most vulnerable peoples not only in Brazil but on the planet - uncontacted tribes.

We know very little about them, but we do know that there are more than 100 around the world, the great majority in the Amazon basin. And we know that whole populations are being wiped out by violence from outsiders who steal their land and resources, and by diseases like flu and measles to which they have no resistance.

Brazil used to mandate 'contact expeditions' to find these people and take the decision about their relationship with the wider world out of their hands. These proved so disastrous that they have now been banned. Instead, uncontacted tribes are supposed to have their territories protected, so that their right to determine their own futures can be respected. It is for the tribes themselves to decide what course their lives should take.

There are problems with the implementation of this policy, however. Not all uncontacted tribes have recognized territories yet and so exist, unknowingly, in a perilous legal no-man's land. One such people - the Kawahiva in the western Amazon - are at serious risk of being contacted, as their territory is overrun by bandit loggers and cattle ranchers.

In April 2016, pressure from Survival International supporters pushed Brazil's Minister of Justice into signing the decree ordering the protection of their land - but it has yet to be fully carried out.

A traumatic history

It is impossible for any of us to imagine the trauma of forced contact with industrial society. For some peoples, like the Akuntsu, contact led to violence. Ranchers and loggers moved in, destroyed as much of the forest as they could, killed most of the Indians, and then turned their forest into grazing land.

Now only four members of the tribe survive. Their shaman, Konibu, died earlier this year. He took invaluable knowledge of his culture and way of life with him to the grave. Within a generation his people's genocide will be complete.

For others, disease has been the real killer. With no history of exposure to outside diseases, uncontacted peoples are extraordinarily vulnerable. A single cough, an item of clothing, a brush up against someone carrying the wrong type of germs, can all be fatal. As one man from the Zo'é people (see photo), forcibly contacted by missionaries in the 1980s, put it:

"After the outsiders came, Zo'é became sick and some died. Back then ... there was diarrhea and there was pain. Fever killed many, many Zo'é."

The memory of this horror lasts. In some cases, it can still be powerful hundreds of years later. In Arariboia indigenous territory, on the northeastern fringe of the Amazon, Guajajara Indians go out of their way to protect their forest and the uncontacted Awá people who live there. They know what contact means and what outsiders could do to their tribal neighbors. Olimpio Guajajara, leader of a small group of volunteers who call themselves the "Guardians" said:

"We are defending our territory, so that the uncontacted Awá can survive. We have managed to reduce the number of loggers on our land and we hope to force all of them out. Otherwise, the Awá could be wiped out. We just want them to be able to live in peace."

Tellingly, he has also refuted the American academics Kim Hill and Robert Walker, who have created international controversy with their call for 'controlled contact' with isolated Amazonian tribes. They claim that contact is inevitable, and that it should be carried out almost preemptively, to avoid disasters like those seen in the recent past.

Olimpio takes a different view: "We are aware that some anthropologists have been calling for ‘controlled contact' with the uncontacted Indians... We will not allow this to happen, because it would be another genocide."

Ultimately, the best way to enable tribal peoples to defend their lives, protect their lands, and determine their own futures, breaking the cycle of hundreds of years of genocidal violence, slavery, and racism, is to give them their own land and respect their wishes. Both 'controlled contact' expeditions and PEC 215 would undermine this essential humanitarian principle.

The struggle for land, and life

The case of one people, the Guarani Kaiowá from the center-west of Brazil, shows the effects of land theft on Brazil's tribes more strikingly than any other. Since most of their land was stolen to make way for ranching and intensive soya bean and sugarcane cultivation, many of them are forced to live in abject squalor on roadsides or on small patches of reoccupied land.

They are frequently harassed by mercenary gunmen, who try and prevent them from returning to territory which is rightfully theirs under Brazilian and international law. In June, one man was killed and five others, including a twelve-year-old boy, were seriously injured. This was not an isolated incident by any means.

The Guarani have petitioned the Brazilian government about their case, but amid political chaos and glamorous distractions like the Rio Olympics, they have not got far. As politicians deliberate and their case is endlessly delayed, they suffer. Guarani young people have taken to committing suicide in huge numbers, and depression is rife.

A Guarani leader, Tonico Benites, said: "If we cannot plant, what is our future? Begging is no future. If people do leave the communities the only work they can get is on building sites or in sugarcane plantations. Our young people have no choice but to do degrading work.

"We suffer from racism and discrimination. Until 1988 indigenous peoples in Brazil were not considered human beings in the constitution. This created racism and prejudice. It suggested Indians could be killed, were a free target ... If nothing changes many more young people will kill themselves, and others will die of malnutrition."

A familiar picture

Once again, common themes emerge. We see political failure, economic exploitation, and environmental destruction all conspiring to rob tribal peoples of any sort of future. The attitude to indigenous people on the part of too many is callous to the point of racism.

The theft of their land, it is often argued, may be regrettable, but in the long term it is necessary. It will contribute to the economic 'development' of the country and liberate future generations from lives of poverty as subsistence farmers or hunter gatherers. That the tribes themselves have no say in this is irrelevant to this perspective. History marches on.

People who promote this narrative willfully ignore the fact that tribal peoples almost always lead healthier, happier lives than many in urban-industrial society. They discount the independent will of indigenous people, who are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what form their own 'progress' or 'development' should take. They play down the environmental impact of stealing peoples' land to create mines, ranches and plantations, and contribute to a brutally exploitative history.

If PEC 215 is passed, the Guarani's biggest source of hope - their battle to have their land protected - will suffer. Powerful people would gladly see them destroyed, and this technocratic adjustment to the law would play right into their hands. As Adalto, another Guarani leader said:

"It's a bomb, and it it explodes it will wipe us out... PEC 215 could kill off all the Indians in Brazil... It will harm all indigenous peoples."

Some cause for optimism

People sometimes say that Survival International's mission is hopeless. There is a feeling that the urgent and horrific humanitarian crises we are fighting are too bleak, and that there are too many vested interests standing in the way of a world in which tribal peoples are respected as contemporary societies and their human rights protected.

But the solution to tribal peoples' suffering is simple, and we can make massive positive change. Around the world, energetic and enthusiastic supporters have answered the call and raised their voices, lobbying governments and multinational organizations to respect tribal rights. People power can work.

In Brazil alone, concrete successes have been achieved. In 2016, lobbying and international pressure pushed the Minister of Justice to create several new indigenous territories, including one for the uncontacted Kawahiva. In 2014, a global campaign pushed the government to intervene to save the Awá tribe from annihilation by protecting their forest and evicting illegal loggers.

And, thanks to proper protection of their lands, several Amazonian tribes have not only survived, but started once again to flourish after nightmarish experiences earlier in the 20th century. The Zo'é are growing in population once again after the trauma of contact, as are the Enawene Nawe in the heart of the Amazon.

The future of the Yanomami people also looks brighter after decades of disease and violence brought by outsiders. Years of campaigning by Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, Survival International, and the Pro Yanomami Commission led to the creation of the largest indigenous territory in the world in the northern Amazon in 1992. Now the tribe have a grasp on their own destiny.

We should not be complacent about the condition of any tribe, considering the multitude of threats they face. But there is no need to be fatalistic about the future of Brazil's first peoples either. A global call to action and a shift in perspective on the part of powerful people could change everything. It is up to us to do what we can to prevent further genocide.



Lewis Evans is an author and a campaigner at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples' rights.

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