Indians of the Amazon

By Megan Mylan

The Future

Indians of the Amazon

T

he landscape is both optimistic and bleak. More than 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been destroyed, its land cleared for cattle ranches, logging, subsistence farming and mining. Some tribes have managed to maintain their traditional ways by moving deeper into the forest whenever they are threatened. But most tribes work tirelessly to find a balance that will enable them to benefit from the modern world while maintaining their identity.

Life for most indigenous Brazilians is dire. Disputes over resources have sparked massacres, harassment, targeted killings and beatings. Tim Cahill, Brazil researcher for Amnesty International, says, “2005 was the most violent year in a decade for indigenous peoples. Thirty-eight indigenous people were murdered; they are living in a very fragile situation.” Cahill says the blatant violence is accompanied by economic violence – Indians have been forced from their traditional lands and live in desperate poverty.

“2005 was the most violent year in a decade for indigenous peoples. Thirty-eight indigenous people were murdered; they are living in a very fragile situation.” –Tim Cahill, Amnesty International

Saulo Feitosa, vice president of the Indigenous Missionary Council, one of Brazil’s leading indigenous rights groups, says the key to the survival and autonomy of Brazilian Indians is a national indigenous policy, “one that respects Indians as equal members of Brazilian society with their own land and culture. Brazil has always treated Indians as a problem and addressed their needs in a disorganized, piecemeal way. If anything is going to change, we need to create a cohesive strategy with a lot of Indian input.”

For Feitosa, it boils down to political clout and prejudice. “This is not a new story. The indigenous people have had enemies with economic interests throughout history. Whether it was the rubber barons long ago or agribusiness today, people with economic muscle run things in this country.”

Both Feitosa and Cahill recognize that the changes to the 1988 constitution have created a lot more political involvement among indigenous groups.

A Growing Political Force

Indians currently hold more than 100 local and national government posts. And the number of indigenous peoples is on the rise for the first time since the Portuguese arrived 400 years ago. The population has risen from 400,000 in the late 1980s to more than 700,000 in 2000, according to the last census. However, Brazil allows individuals to self-define their race, so these numbers may reflect more about public opinion and the self-image of indigenous people than a true rise in the numbers.

The number of indigenous peoples has increased for the first time since the Portuguese arrived 400 years ago. The population has risen from 400,000 in the late 1980s to more than 700,000 in 2000, according to the last census

Even though the constitution set a deadline of 1993 to officially demarcate reservation lands, only 340 of the 580 territories have been ratified. New legislation allowing landowners and speculators to appeal is only further delaying the process.

“We have laws with such potential, but if there isn’t the public will behind them, they’re worthless. We need to get things off the paper and into reality,” says Feitosa.

For Cahill, although demarcation of native land is essential, it’s only the first step. “The demarcation has to be followed by enforcement. Violence doesn’t happen without warning – the government has to fulfill its legal obligation to protect the integrity of the reservation boundaries. And the demarcation needs to be accompanied by a much more open and controlled discussion of the use of resources on reservation land with a great deal of inclusive indigenous participation.”

The resources of the Amazon exist only because the Indians knew how to protect the rain forest, says Feitosa. “They deserve a real voice in its future.”

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