Disinherited: Tribes of Brazil

With projects like the Belo Monte dam as well as the continued illegal use of indigenous land now it as important time as any to raise awareness in Brazil’s indigenous tribes and their dwindling population. Today we are bringing you an excerpt from a new book highlighting the problems that Brazil’s indigenous population are having to endure.

Five million people, it is thought, were living in Brazil when Europeans first landed there 500 years ago. Five
centuries of murder, torture, disease and exploitation have ravaged this native population. Today there are only 350,000 Brazilian Indians, and hundreds of tribes have been eradicated without trace. The fact that this was genocide is indisputable.

Fifty percent of European Jews died at the hands of the Nazis; the number of Indians in Brazil has fallen by over 93% – European settlers and their Brazilian descendants have killed millions, or brought about conditions in which their death was inevitable. Brazilian Indians today encompass a great diversity of peoples, living in tropical rainforests, grasslands, dry scrub forest and deserts. Some are now virtually indistinguishable from the mass of Brazilian poor. Many – in some cases despite centuries of intense contact – still maintain a very separate identity. Others have no contact with outsiders – Brazil is probably home to more ‘uncontacted’ tribes than anywhere else on earth.

Such diversity is common in South America. But four things make the Brazilian Indian situation unique:

  • There are a great many little-contacted, and so very vulnerable, tribes;
  • Indian land ownership rights, although established in international law, are not acknowledged by the state;
  • the government has an Indian affairs bureau, and plenty of money for projects to benefit Indian peoples;
  • in spite of this, bar a few cases, the authorities have failed to protect Brazil’s tribal peoples – some now facing their sixth century of genocide.

Brazil is the only South American country to have an active and sizeable government Indian affairs department, now the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). The department was founded early in the last century by a compassionate army officer, and is specifically charged with protecting and assisting Indians. But it failed to prevent the demise of Indian tribes at an average rate of at least one tribe every 2 years during the course of the 20th century – at certain times, the Indian agency itself has actively contributed to the genocide.

Successive Brazilian governments have failed to put an end to this appalling human tragedy. Powerful lobbies have always been at work trying to undermine those individuals within government, and within FUNAI itself, who are sympathetic to the Indians’plight. Many politicians gain money and votes from loggers and miners, while others have their private accounts bloated by the diversion of international ‘development’ funds. The armed forces are continually inventing a spurious foreign threat, which they use to justify the militarisation of the border areas – where Indians live – and thus to increase their own status and power. All these find the tribal peoples of Brazil ‘in the way’of their plans and ambitions. More often than not, their views have gained the upper hand and any pro-Indian laws and decrees have been weakened or thrown out altogether. No sooner are the boundaries of an Indian reserve formally laid out (‘demarcated’) on the map than a powerful lobby tries to have it reduced or eradicated.

Over the last half century billions of dollars have flowed into the country from international agencies like the World Bank – practically all of it originating with North American and European taxpayers. The relentless work of Indian supporters has ensured that a portion of this – small, but still amounting to millions of dollars – has been allocated for the government to protect Indian land. Moreover, the Brazilian government itself undertook to complete the demarcation of all Indian lands by 1993. But one-third of the territories have still not been demarcated, and even where they have, the land is not properly protected: those who invade it illegally – and often violently – do so with impunity.

If demarcation is completed and properly enforced, it does offer a modicum of protection – but even then no real security. Indian tribes remain vulnerable as long as Brazil refuses to uphold the international law which states that tribal peoples own their land, a law which, amazingly, Brazil itself formally ratified in 1965 and then promptly forgot. It is a staggering travesty of natural justice – as well as both Brazilian and international law – that in the 21st century, not one of the peoples who have inhabited Brazil for at least the last 10,000 years are deemed to own any part of it.

If this situation is compared with that in neighbouring Peru, not generally noted for its benign attitude towards Indians, then it is even clearer that Brazil has a very great deal to be ashamed of. Peru is a much poorer country (nearly twice as poor per head as Brazil), it has not received massive international aid to fund its Indian programme, it is home to more Amazonian Indians than Brazil; and yet whereas in Brazil the very best Indians can hope for is reserves – which they can merely use without actually owning any of the land – Peruvian Indians have, since 1974, enjoyed proper land titles conferring full communal ownership, in perpetuity. An average of two Peruvian Indian communities received a land title every week in the first few years after the 1974 law came into force.

It may be true that the worst excesses of Brazilian history have now ceased: the deliberate poisoning of whole Indian villages, bombing and strafing of longhouses ‘in the way’of road builders, massacres of hundreds of Indians at a time – all these are things of the past and hopefully will never recur. It is also true that social scientists are no longer advising the Brazilian state to eradicate Indians, as they once did. And over the last 30 years a small but vigorous lobby of Indian supporters has grown up which permeates to senior levels of the Brazilian state and church. Most important of all, a movement of Indians themselves has taken root and given rise to dozens of Indian organisations pressing for their own rights.

Yet it remains the case that Indians are still being killed and virtually no one is ever successfully prosecuted for it. Today Indian children as young as nine are committing suicide in despair at their lack of land and a future. And a large number of Indians are still succumbing to fatal diseases which they catch as a direct result of the invasion of their lands: a recent malaria epidemic, sparked by miners, killed nearly 20% of the Yanomami in only seven years.

Tribes contacted recently, and who are being contacted now, still risk annihilation. If they survive at all, they face decimation and enormous suffering, just as they would have done in past centuries. The only long-term solution – the only guarantee of security for Brazil’s Indian peoples – is for the Brazilian government to honour international law and finally recognise Indian land ownership. Its refusal to do so is a clear demonstration of the most extreme institutional racism; but it is so ingrained in Brazilian attitudes that even many Indian supporters fear that if the question is raised it will provoke strong anti-Indian feeling in the corridors of power.

This article is an extract from Disinherited: Indians in Brazil, a publication from Survial International. We will be publishing further extracts from the book in the near future but if you can’t wait you can download the publication here.

Visit survival-international.org for the latest news on Brazil’s indigenous population.

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