‘An ‘epidemic’ of goldminers have illegally invaded the territory of the Yanomami people to pillage its riches, bringing disease and death to the tribe.’ Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
On 1 January, Jair Bolsonaro will be sworn in as Brazil’s 38th president. He has expressed open disdain for the indigenous peoples of Brazil, and it is no exaggeration to say that some of the world’s most unique and diverse tribes are facing annihilation. Genocide is defined by the UN as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Large-scale mass genocides rightly receive global attention, yet countless others go unreported and unpunished because the victims number only a few hundred, or even a few dozen.
Right now, deep in the Amazon rainforest, a small tribe of survivors is on the run. They are the Kawahiva, an uncontacted tribe of just a few dozen people, the victims of waves of horrific attacks which have pushed them to the brink of extinction. We know almost nothing about them, except that they are fleeing chainsaws in a region with the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon. Brazil’s first ever investigation into the genocide of an uncontacted tribe was launched in 2005, and 29 people suspected of involvement in killing Kawahiva were detained but later released, including a former state governor and a senior policeman. The case stalled for lack of evidence.
The Kawahiva’s territory lies near the town of Colniza, one of the most violent areas in Brazil, where 90% of income is from illegal logging. Survival International, the global movement fighting for the rights of tribal people, has recently called for increased police protection for the team responsible for protecting the Kawahiva’s land. FUNAI, Brazil’s Indian Affairs Department, has been prevented from properly carrying out its work in the area due to violence from illegal loggers and ranchers, leaving the tribe exposed.
Preventing a genocide of uncontacted people is not a priority for Bolsonaro. He once said: “There is no indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians.”
Indigenous peoples are frequently regarded as obstacles to the advance of agribusiness, extractive industries, roads and dams. As more rainforest is invaded and destroyed in the name of economic “progress” and personal profit, uncontacted tribes become targets – massacred over resources because greedy outsiders know they can literally get away with murder. These are silent, invisible genocides, with few if any witnesses. The news often only emerges months, if not years, later.
The UN convention on genocide came into force 70 years ago, yet entire tribes continue to be exterminated by the dominant society in order to steal their land and resources. Symbolic of this is the “last of his tribe”, a lone man living in a patch of forest in Brazil’s western Amazon region. We know nothing about him except that he rejects all contact, and survived waves of attacks carried out in the 1970s and 80s against his people and his neighbours, the Akuntsu tribe – of whom just four survive. No one has ever been prosecuted for these genocides. This impervious mentality harks back to the wild west of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Native Americans in the US were slaughtered by the colonists. Indeed, Bolsonaro himself has declared: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”
The majority of the world’s 100 or so uncontacted tribes live in the Brazilian Amazon. They are aware of the outside world, use and adapt outside goods for their own purposes and may engage sporadically with contacted tribes nearby. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyles require vast and acute botanical and zoological knowledge. With this unique understanding of sustainable living, they protect some of the largest and most biodiverse forests on Earth.
Uncontacted people make homes, love their families, tend the landscape, and, like any of us, want to live well and in peace. Where their rights are respected they continue to thrive, but all face catastrophe unless their land is protected.
The largest area of primary rainforest under indigenous control is the Yanomami territory, which straddles part of the Brazilian border with Venezuela. It is home to around 32,000 Yanomami, including some groups who are uncontacted. A “epidemic” of goldminers have illegally invaded the territory to pillage its riches, bringing disease and death to the tribe.
In May, Yanomami reported that two uncontacted members of the tribe had been murdered by miners. FUNAI had closed its protection post in the area due to a lack of funds and, while prosecutors have ordered the post to be reopened, the authorities have not yet investigated the killings.
Bolsonaro opposed the creation of the Yanomami territory in the 1980s, calling it a “crime against the motherland”, and a “scandal”. He affirmed his beliefs in 2017, saying he regarded the creation of the reserve as “high treason”, and there are murmurs that this is an area already in the crosshairs of the new administration.
Bolsonaro intends to take FUNAI out of the justice ministry and into a newly created ministry for women, family and human rights. This is a move sure to weaken the department’s efficacy and clout – it has already been undermined by huge budget cuts. Bolsonaro has appointed Damares Alves as the new minister, an evangelical preacher and congressional aide who co-founded Atini, a controversial group that evangelises in indigenous communities and is subject to an investigation by public prosecutors for inciting racial hatred against indigenous peoples.
After her appointment, she immediately questioned Brazil’s landmark policy to respect uncontacted tribes’ choice to remain uncontacted: “We are going to bring them to the forefront, not because they are uncontacted, but because they are forgotten and left to the care of NGOs. It is the state which will take care of these uncontacted people.” This is Bolsonaro-speak for forcing contact in order to open up and plunder their lands. Bolsonaro’s transition team has already announced that a task force will review the boundaries of a large indigenous territory in the northern Amazon, Raposa-Serra do Sol.
“We are afraid of a new genocide against the indigenous population and we are not going to wait for it to happen. We will resist. We will defend our territories, and our lives,” said Sônia Guajajara, a leader of Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, which represents more than 300 Brazilian indigenous peoples.
Tribes are mobilising themselves to protect their territories using satellite technology and drones to monitor invasions. In the Araribóia reserve in Maranhão state, a group of men from the same tribe as Sônia, the Guajajara, have embarked on a desperate struggle to protect the forests they share with several dozen uncontacted Awá. A spokesman from these “Guardians of the Amazon” explains: “Our forest is being invaded by illegal loggers, right now. It’s an emergency. We patrol, we find the loggers, we destroy their equipment and we send them away. We constantly receive death threats from the logging gangs. But we continue, as our forest is our life. Our uncontacted Awá relatives also live in the forest. They cannot survive if it’s destroyed. As long as we live, we will fight for the uncontacted Indians, for all of us, and for nature.”
Solidarity with the indigenous peoples of Brazil can change the world in their favour. Survival International was founded 50 years ago, following the publication of Norman Lewis’s article Genocide in the Sunday Times in 1969, which revealed some of the atrocities suffered by Brazil’s indigenous peoples last century. We are the only organisation fighting worldwide to stop the extermination of uncontacted tribes. Now, more than ever, we must mobilise our collective power to expose and put an end to these hidden genocides.
Fiona Watson is director of research and advocacy at Survival International
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