Recently, the National Indian Foundation of Brazil released the first-ever pictures of an indigenous tribe they found during a 2017 expedition. The images will be used to help study uncontacted tribes people.
FUNAI official Bruno Pereira says, “The more we know about isolated communities’ way of living, the more equipped we are to protect them.” There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the decision to release these pictures and videos. Instead of focusing on videos and pictures, maybe we should focus on something important. Where’s the actual effort to protect these people?
Just last year, there was an alleged indigenous massacre that took place in the Javari Valley. It was reported that ten people had been killed. The culprits were believed to be a group of gold miners, “garimpeiros” in Portuguese, or bushmeat hunters working for them. Three months after an anonymous tip, the government sent a team to investigate. This team was a joint operation between FUNAI, the army and Brazil’s environmental agency.
When the team entered the valley, they traveled upriver to interview local miners. Along the way, the army destroyed ten illegal dredging stations. This was meant to deter garimpeiros from coming back into the reservation. When the team reached the site of the killings, they found no evidence to prove a massacre had occurred. They did no excavations, no follow-up interviews and no underwater dives.
The team also did not have police investigators or forensic experts. While I believe there’s a possibility that this massacre was made up, I think the Brazilian government should have allocated more resources towards this investigation, especially since the miners told stories of dismembering the bodies of natives and throwing them into a river full of carnivorous fish.
The killings of indigenous tribes are a common occurrence in the Amazon. In 2012, the Awa tribe almost went extinct from aggressive loggers and land barons. Many of these logging companies illegally trespassed on Awa land, and actively participated in an extermination campaign. They used lorries and tractors to run over the homes of Awa villagers, sometimes killing children or whole families.
They destroyed a third of Awa territory and exposed many of them to foreign diseases. Additionally, they also had to face down the hired gunmen of rich land barons, sent to assassinate them for their land. These land grabbers would hire pistoleros to hunt down and kill Awa tribesmen who weren’t willing to leave.
Once the tribesmen were killed, these land barons used the land for logging or other activities, such as farming and illegal hunting and fishing. While the military expelled many of these illegal settlers in 2014, many of them returned the following year.
Pollution is another problem that plagues indigenous tribes. In 2018, a mining company owned by Vale began mining nickel deposits near the Catete river. The local Xikrin tribe used that river for swimming, bathing and fishing. Eventually they noticed the effects, which included itchy skin and a burning sensation in their eyes. They also noticed that a lot of fish species were dying off. A Professor from the Federal University of Para found traces of nickel in the river sediment, as well as dangerous levels of iron, chromium and copper. Federal prosecutors are now attempting to gain a settlement from Vale and hope to use the money as compensation to the affected villages.
The Brazilian government has actively limited the rights of indigenous people for economic gain. In 2017, President Michel Temer’s government cut FUNAI’s budget by 40 percent. This budget cut led to the closing of three remote bases, all of them in the Javari Valley (the site of the alleged 2017 massacre).
2017 also saw the slowdown of land demarcation. A group of rural politicians known as “bancada ruralista” voted for multiple constitutional amendments to weaken the land rights of indigenous tribes. They wanted this land to be used by farmers and cattle ranchers to boost economic growth and get Brazil out of a recession.
I believe that the controversy surrounding the video footage of these uncontacted tribesmen is ridiculous. The numerous violations of environmental, human, and land rights that the indigenous face should be the focus of controversy.
I also find it appalling that the Brazilian government would allow the extinction of an entire group just so they can fix their failing economy- an economy that failed through their frivolous public spending. Brazil needs to discontinue their neo-imperialist policies and make a concerted effort to stop illegal activities in the Amazon.
The needs of mining companies, farmers and loggers should not trump the needs of people who have lived in the Amazon for centuries. The Brazilian government promised these people a right to privacy and a right to their ancestral land. They broke their promises and have chosen to ignore their own laws in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
The infringement of indigenous rights is not just a Brazilian problem, but a government problem. Canada, the US, Australia and Mexico have also ignored the rights of indigenous people. Whether it’s Standing Rock or Trans Mountain, governments continue to take what they want from the indigenous. It seems that the historical failures of the past will continue on into the future.