California Forum

Viewpoints: For native peoples, land is life

The Awá tribe of Brazil shows us that where tribal peoples’ land is not protected, they cannot survive – but if it is protected, both they, and the rain forests, will thrive.

The Awá of Brazil are the world’s most threatened tribe. Years of illegal logging and land grabs have brought them to the brink of extinction. But apart from the loggers and their guns, one of the biggest threats to their survival is the fallacy that Amazon Indians must inevitably conform to a Western or industrialized lifestyle.

Although people have been saying it for generations, it isn’t true: Tribes are destroyed by labeling them as backward and pretending they stand to benefit from “development.” It’s fundamentally racist, and the evidence points, glaringly, and to our shame, in exactly the opposite direction.

The survival of tribal people is in the interest of all humanity; their diversity shows us how alternative ways of living can be successful. They have invaluable and unique knowledge of their environment, particularly of plants and animals. The Awá know their forests intimately. Every valley, stream and trail is inscribed on their mental map. They know where to find the best honey, which of the trees are coming into fruit, and when game is ready to be hunted. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Awá are always on the move. They are not aimlessly wandering – their nomadic way of life nurtures a fundamental bond with their lands.

When land is taken, tribes simply don’t survive. On the other hand, when it’s protected, most of their problems evaporate. That can happen if no one else wants the land, it’s inaccessible to outsiders or, most importantly, there’s the political will and strength to ensure it remains with the Indians. Awá land has been legally demarcated, but its boundaries are not respected by the loggers, ranchers and settlers. The federal police have the authority to evict them and keep them out, yet the government has taken little action to do so.

Although the loggers and ranchers are breaking the law, they are linked to very powerful local interests. To oppose them requires political inclination at the highest national level. So far, this has not been seen as an urgent priority.

On their own territory, the Awá can adapt to change as they wish. Some individuals might leave to explore the outside, but most will return home to its invaluable advantages: free food and housing, as opposed to scraping a living in shantytowns and slums, where life is usually violent, degrading and short.

Indeed the forced “integration” of these peoples is the theft of their self-sufficiency and their condemnation to the lowest rung of a steep and greasy ladder – or worse, death. When a 550-mile-long railway was built across Awá land in the 1980s, the authorities decided to contact and settle many of the tribes people whose lands it cut through. Disaster soon followed in the shape of malaria and flu: Of the 91 people in one community, just 25 were alive four years later.

Yet we believe, profoundly, that there will still be Amazon Indians at the end of the century. It merely entails respecting the laws and rights that governments claim to uphold.

We have seen tribal peoples’ lands protected repeatedly over the last 40 years. The largest little-contacted tribe in Amazonia, the Yanomami, survived because a 20-year campaign led by Survival International secured the protection of their lands in 1992. They remain steadfastly Yanomami. The Awá will doubtless survive as well, but only if the campaign in defense of their land is similarly vociferous.

In June, Brazil’s military launched a major ground operation against illegal logging around the land of the Awá. Hundreds of soldiers, police officers and Environment Ministry special agents flooded the area, backed up with tanks and helicopters to halt the illegal deforestation. Despite this effort to protect the Awá’s territory, the forces have not moved onto the Awá’s land, where trees are being rapidly felled. In September, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Americas’ leading human-rights body, demanded answers from the Brazilian government about the plight of the Awá.

With the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil will be under the international spotlight. During this time, the international community will have to consider how the country’s government protects the human rights of all its citizens. Join us in ensuring the basic rights of Brazil’s first citizens are protected as well.