Survival Alert: Brazil Dismantles Democracy in Assault on Indigenous Rights

Survival Alert is a fortnightly update on the state of indigenous peoples around the world from Survival International. Founded in 1969, Survival International is the globe’s foremost organization working for tribal peoples rights.

The recent discovery of a “lost” report detailing shocking atrocities committed against Brazilian Indians during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s serves as a stark warning at a time when the country’s indigenous tribes are once again facing an onslaught against thier rights.

The so-called Figueiredo report documented horrific crimes such as mass murder, torture, enslavement, bacteriological warfare, sexual abuse, land theft and neglect against Brazil’s indigenous population at the hands of powerful landowners and the government’s own Indian Protection Service.

Dynamite was hurled from a small plane onto a village of ‘Cinta Larga’ Indians below. The Indians were seen to be in the way of a group of rubber barons’ commercial activities.

Some tribes were completely wiped out as a result, and many others decimated.

It caused an international outcry and led to the foundation of tribal rights organization Survival International in 1969.

One of the most gruesome episodes described in the Figueiredo report was the “massacre of the 11th parallel,” in which dynamite was hurled from a small plane onto a village of “Cinta Larga” Indians below. Later, some of the killers returned to finish off any survivors. The Indians were seen to be in the way of a group of rubber barons’ commercial activities.

Much has been achieved in terms of the rights of indigenous people since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1980s: Indigenous people currently have exclusive and “original” rights to their land; most territories in the Amazon have been recognized; the population of many indigenous tribes and communities is increasing; and organizations working in their interests are thriving—but these achievements are now in jeopardy.

Dilma Rousseff is the only president since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985 who has not met with indigenous tribes, and her unilateral view of development looks set to turn the Amazon into an industrial heartland to fuel Brazil’s fast growing economy.

One bill currently under discussion would prohibit the expansion of indigenous territories. This would have disastrous effects on indigenous tribes living in Brazil’s rich agricultural mid-west and south where violent land conflicts are already acute, and indigenous people such as the Guarani-Kaiowá are waiting for their ancestral land to be demarcated.

The tribal people are up against a powerful rural lobby and politicians owning ranches on indigenous land. During recent violent clashes between police and local Terena Indians in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, one Indian was shot dead and several others wounded.

A proposed constitutional amendment would give congress (dominated by the agricultural and mining lobby) the power to participate in the process of demarcating indigenous land, causing further delays and obstacles to the recognition and protection of territories.

Even where land is recognized, loggers and settlers violate the rights of indigenous people with impunity. The Awá, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil, who number just 450, have lost an astounding 31 percent of their forest heartland. About 100 Awá are uncontacted and on the run in a desperate attempt to evade the chainsaws and guns.

In the mineral-rich Amazonian state of Roraima, politicians are backing a draft mining bill. If approved by congress, it would open up indigenous territories to large-scale mining for the first time. And while Brazil’s controversial hydro-electric dams program in the Amazon will provide cheap energy to the mining companies which are poised to operate in indigenous territories, it will destroy the lands and livelihoods of thousands of Indians.

Frustrated at the lack of consultation and angry at the assault on their rights, Brazil's indigenous people have resorted to direct action—storming congress, occupying dam sites, blockading railway lines, reclaiming sacred land, mounting hunger strikes, and committing suicide.

Kayapó, Arara, Munduruku, Xipaya and Juruna tribes recently occupied the site of the controversial Belo Monte dam in a desperate attempt stop it from destroying their land and livelihood. They are now facing eviction amid fears of further violence against them.

As COIAB, the Amazonian indigenous organization recently stated, “The current government is trying to impose its colonial and dominating style on us. … [it] has caused irreversible harm to indigenous peoples using bills and decrees, many of them unconstitutional.”

And Marubo Indians declared, “We want President Dilma Rousseff to turn this country into a real ‘democracy’ and to consider indigenous peoples’ achievements in the guaranteeing of their territories. After 513 years of massacres and genocides, we want the guarantee of demarcation to be a source of pride for these peoples in their history, and we want to be able to look to an image of a Brazil with a better future.”

It is now up to President Rousseff to ensure that this dark episode in Brazil’s history of violating the rights of indigenous tribes, as documented in the Figueiredo report, does not repeat itself. 

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