Amazonian tribes are at risk and the planet lies in the balance
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The yano, a doughnut-shaped, thatched house inhabited by the Yanomami tribe, can shelter several hundred people under one roof and is a human extension of the forest – a symbol of one tribe’s harmonious relation with the natural world. Like all of Brazil’s 305 tribes, the Yanomami rely on the environment for their livelihood and spiritual wellbeing. A seminomadic people, they live by hunting, gathering and fishing, their botanical and zoological knowledge honed over hundreds of years of using 500 plant species for food, medicines, hunting poisons, body paint and to weave hammocks and baskets.
Brazil’s indigenous peoples have survived more than 500 years of genocide since the first European colonists arrived: from an estimated 6-10 million in 1500, the population crashed to some 100,000 individuals in the 1950s. Due to its resilience and ingenuity, in the last six decades the indigenous population has risen to now comprise some 900,000 individuals but, over that time, the Yanomami in Brazil have witnessed profound changes to their world. An isolated people with little or no immunity to Western diseases, many died from flu and measles transmitted by workers bulldozing a highway through their land in the 1970s. In the 1980s, they lost 20 per cent of their population to disease, as well as violent attacks when illegal goldminers invaded their land.
‘In an increasingly homogenised world, the incredible diversity of indigenous peoples is vital’
Today, the Yanomami and other tribes are under threat yet again – this time under Brazil’s new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. Far from valuing their environmental expertise, he ridicules them: ‘Indians are smelly, uneducated and don’t speak our language’, they ‘live like cavemen’. He wants to ‘integrate’ them into Brazilian society, despite a wealth of evidence showing it would destroy tribes’ autonomy and reduce them to an exploited, landless poor. Bolsonaro’s integration is unlawful and nothing more than a neocolonial land grab with the aim of stealing resource-rich indigenous lands and creating a pool of cheap-wage labour.
Since Bolsonaro’s election victory in October 2018, waves of colonists, loggers and miners have invaded communities, destroying property, stealing resources and threatening the inhabitants with violence. Bolsonaro says he wants to open up these areas to corporate mining, frequently mentioning the ‘rich’ Yanomami territory where communities are battling the invasion of up to 20,000 illegal goldminers – despite mining in indigenous territories being prohibited under the constitution. The Yanomami recently wrote to Bolsonaro explaining that: ‘Our wealth is not in being able to sell our land and to take out the gold. Our wealth is living well on our land, in the forest and having clean rivers and good health.’
There are 450 illegal mining hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon and, each year, an estimated 221 tonnes of toxic mercury are released into this ecosystem, spilling into the earth and rivers and contaminating the water the indigenous population drink and in which they bathe. Brazilian researchers recently found that 56 per cent of Yanomami communities surveyed near mining camps had levels of mercury above the limit set by the World Health Organization.
June saw an alarming 88.4 per cent rise in illegal deforestation, compared with June 2018. Some scientists warn that, if deforestation is not curbed, we are edging nearer to the ‘tipping point’ when unchecked deforestation will push the Amazon rainforest and its hydrological cycle into cataclysmic and irreversible decline. Former environment minister Marina Silva recently warned that Bolsonaro is transforming Brazil into an ‘exterminator of the future’.
Indigenous peoples are key to the protection of the Amazon – scientific data shows that upholding their land rights is the most effective and cheapest way to conserve forests and help mitigate climate change. Tribal peoples are the eyes and ears of the forest; they are the first to detect and report invasions and fires. In some regions, where the authorities are totally absent, many tribes are forced to take matters into their own hands and regularly patrol their territories to expel logging gangs and miners. But this is dangerous work – their bows and arrows are little defence against firearms and many have been murdered in the last 30 years.
Despite this bleak state of affairs, there is hope. Indigenous organisations are strong, led by articulate representatives, and Bolsonaro may have underestimated their determination. After mass indigenous protests countrywide in March, the government’s bid to abolish the indigenous healthcare department was successfully opposed – the health minister backed down within a week. In June, the indigenous movement persuaded the National Congress to vote for the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) – the government agency set up to protect indigenous peoples and recently handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture – to become one department again and return to the Ministry of Justice. One judge alluded to ‘an undisguised residue of authoritarianism’ in the president’s actions.
In an increasingly homogenised world, the incredible diversity of indigenous peoples is vital. They are part of our rich human tapestry, offering us valuable and different ways of being and thinking, ways based on reciprocity and sustainability. As Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa warns in his autobiography The Falling Sky: ‘If the shamans’ songs stop being heard in the forest, white people will not be spared any more than we will’.
Fiona Watson is Research and Advocacy Director at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. She has been with Survival since 1990 and worked on many campaigns for indigenous peoples’ rights in South America and is a specialist on uncontacted tribes in the Amazon
This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today