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Civilizing Brazil’s Native Indians

May 13, 2008

Khadija Sharife

While doing research for an article on the ecological state of the Amazon biome (or global ecosystem) in Brazil, I sought to get in contact with as many Brazilians as possible, especially those residing in the favelas or slum regions of Brazil; cumulatively, in Rio and the capital of Brasilia alone, the favelas house about 24% of the total population, many of these second- and third-generation “indigenous forest peoples” who are now, according to researchers, living in their sixth century of deliberately enacted genocide.

This is primarily due to the stained, distorted pair of special sunglasses through which certain aspects and realities of our world can be made visible or invisible, superior or inferior, perpetuating misconceptions and facts in favor of a narrow world-view superimposed on “indigenous” peoples, perceived as culturally and scientifically backwards. The mentalities associated with those who have chosen to remain outside the monolithic door of civilization is often described using racist undertones, a justification perhaps of the many different legal and illegal methods of abuse, torture, land expropriation, expulsion and exploitation of the Indians.

The environmental degradation is the resulting (and irreversible) effect of deliberate government policies coupled with those powerful lobbies that control the cattle, soy, sugar and coffee industries…

For years, environmentalists have been documenting the effects of ecocide through the unsustainable and forced industrialization of cash-cropped monocultures on the native populations inhabiting the Amazon, Cerrado or Savannah regions and the transitional land; as it turns out, there is no way to quantify environmental destruction without simultaneously documenting the genocide of the forest peoples …

The environmental degradation is the resulting (and irreversible) effect of deliberate government policies coupled with those powerful lobbies that control the cattle, soy, sugar and coffee industries — which has propelled Brazil to rise to the status of “the world’s leading agricultural powerhouse,” as Colin Powell called it, not a random consequence of “progress.”

Brazil has the sixth-largest economy on Earth, with a purchasing parity of $2-trillion; it is also the globe’s leading exporter of beef, soy, chicken and sugar cane.

Mass deforestation accompanies the slash-and-burn techniques that procure land for the foreign soy multinationals such as Cargill, Bunge and ADM, who own more than 60% of the soy and other monoculture markets, the majority of which is exported to Europe in the form of chickens commercially or intensively reared in Brazil by the same multinationals.

Brazil has also achieved the dubious status of being the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter; 78% of this is attributed to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, 60% of which lies in Brazil. Already, 21% of the Amazon biome has been deforested.

With the deforestation comes mass acceleration of global warming due to the influx of potent carbon trapped beneath the rainforest’s surface, environmental pollution and fragmentation, loss of wildlife endemic to the region, illegal timber and wildlife trafficking, the displacement, internal trafficking and enslavement of native peoples, and the creation of slums.

Father Ricardo Rezende claims that the statistics concerning the enslavement of indigenous peoples are just the tip of the iceberg. The real figure he states, “is 250 000 or more” — the bulk perhaps comprising women and children working on plantations.

the indigenous, according to Brazilian law, have no rights over their land, no formal titling and no legal recourse.

Brazil currently has 215 remaining tribes and 53 uncontacted or isolated tribes, yet the indigenous, according to Brazilian law, have no rights over their land, no formal titling and no legal recourse.

Although the rights of the indigenous are acknowledged by international law, the government has promptly marginalized the issue by appellating inhabited land as “common” or “empty land.”

In 1981, the government additionally decreed a law yet to be voided that natives were those defined by their “Indianness”; that is, their clothing, manner of speech, whether they used modern utensils and contraptions, how “Indian” they looked and what language they spoke. Those who spoke languages such as Spanish or Portuguese, who used forks and knives, who wore jeans and ate chocolate, were subsequently “emancipated” from the state of being “Indian” and lost the right to live on Indian land.

Daniel Cabixi, a Pareci Indian, declares that this “emancipation” was a lethal weapon that would simply take from Indians every chance and weapon they had to protest against the infringement of their rights.

In order to understand better the underlying situations and the methods used by multinationals to obtain land, I interviewed several first-, second- and third-generation slum dwellers, through a local priest and an NGO worker as well as an official of Survival International, described by Miriam Ross as “an organization supporting tribal peoples worldwide … It stands for their right to decide their own future, and helps them protect their lives, lands and human rights.”

I asked her how many tribes or indigenous peoples lived in Brazil, specifically the Cerrado and Amazon regions, and whether they were imbued with the same human rights as the non-indigenous peoples (descendants of colonizers).

“In Brazil, indigenous people are legally considered ‘minors’ and cannot own their land — they just live on and use areas of government-owned land which have been recognized as ‘indigenous territories’ or ‘parks.’ This is despite the fact that international law on indigenous and tribal peoples, which Brazil has signed up to, recognizes those peoples’ rights to ownership of their land.

“The situation in Brazil is problematic because any land recognized as indigenous, usually by presidential decree, can be and often is reduced in size or annulled by subsequent presidential decisions.”

Maria, a second-generation Indian slum dweller, described to me the process through which Indian land is made “available.”

“The grileiros are land thieves. Sometimes they come smiling with money and alcohol or food; sometimes they just force you to get off the land by threats and physical harassment. They force us to sell the land to them; we are not safe if we don’t. We have no protection.”

The natives, known as caboclos, are then forced into the slum areas either on land made barren by intensive soy monocultures or trafficked through to the urban favelas.

The land is then legally sold to multinational purchasers.

“the Indians have to constantly defend their land from those who want it and the natural resources on or under it…”

Says Miriam: “There is a wide spectrum of opinion within Brazil [concerning perceptions of Indian land]; however, the Indians have to constantly defend their land from those who want it and the natural resources on or under it — loggers, ranchers, mining companies, government, soy companies et cetera.

“There is a common perception that the Indians have ‘too much land’ yet since the 1500s, Indian tribes have been reduced from 1000 to 215.”

What knowledge is lost when indigenous land is expropriated?

“Entire cultures, ways of life, and ways of understanding the world; languages; incredibly detailed and intimate knowledge of the particular tribe’s particular environment. The Yanomami, for example, use 500 different species of plant for food medicine, artefacts and house building.”

How complicit is the government in the forced removal and displacement of the native tribes?

“Sometimes they are wholly responsible. There is a draft law that will, if approved, allow mining on indigenous territories. In other instances, the problem is the government’s failure to protect the tribes and their land from, for example, illegal gold miners.”

It would appear that diseased premise of modern agricultural philosophies have executed, in the name of “science,” the continued genocide of the indigenous ecology perceived as having no worth save that attached to it as nothing more than unfinished resources.

Thy name is civilization, of course.

Khadija Sharife is a 22-year-old freelance journalist, musician and the Deputy Director of the Phoenix Environmental Institute. She writes in her own capacity.

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