The “Genocide of Brazil’s Indians” should be a headline relegated to the past. Unfortunately, it is all too up to date. Since the 1980’s – when that kind of headline was all-too frequent – indigenous peoples in Brazil made huge strides, but now all of it is threatening to unravel, with disastrous results for the environment, human rights, and the planet. In the face of enormous odds and with the help of allies in Brazil and in the international community, indigenous peoples in Brazil have made great strides since the late 1980’s: about 20% of the Brazilian Amazon is protected as indigenous lands — the country’s best-protected forests; rights are enshrined in the Constitution, and for a time, deforestation rates dropped from their mid-1990’s high. The Rainforest Foundation is proud to have been part of that struggle–indeed it is where we began.
Today, however, all of that is being unraveled by the government, with close ties to powerful agribusiness interests. The results so far: rainforest lands have lost their protected status, environmental and indigenous rights are being gutted; and there is a marked increase in violence. Brazil is already notorious as one of the most dangerous places for indigenous and environmental defenders: in the last 13 years, 900 indigenous people have lost their lives just because they have insisted on their human rights. Most of these murders have gone unpunished and many have barely been investigated.
Just in the past few weeks, ten rural workers were murdered by the police in the Western Amazon. Local politicians are calling for public celebrations to honor the “patriots” who committed the murders. In another part of Brazil around the same time, thirteen Gamela indigenous people were viciously attacked for defending their lands; some had their hands chopped off and others were shot in the back. The Guarani Kaiowa in Mato Grosso do Sul have suffered almost incessant attacks over the past several years, including the murder of their leaders.
Indigenous lands and protected areas are also under frontal attack. Environmental regulations are being gutted, and almost 1.5 million acres of protected areas lost their designation as protected land. A proposed law that would move demarcating indigenous lands from the Executive to Congress – dominated by the agribusiness lobby – is moving ahead, threatening not only future demarcations, but potentially existing ones. Another bill would open up mining on indigenous lands. FUNAI, the agency tasked with ensuring indigenous rights is at risk of losing the little power and budget it has and now there is speculation that government wants to eliminate the agency all together. The current situation in Brazil can indeed be described as genocide.
It was with this backdrop that Sting reunited with Raoni in Brazil last month, reconnecting with the Kayapo leader and activist, and reaffirming his commitment to the rainforest and our planet. Just like they did some thirty years ago they shared the stage at one point in Sting’s latest concert. Together they continue to insist that Brazil honor its commitments to protect the rainforest and indigenous rights. Raoni made his concern clear, explaining that deforestation is increasing and that indigenous rights have never been so threatened. Sting’s message was simple, “Please listen to him, please support him.”
The assassination of Chico Mendes in December 1988 shook the world, and brought worldwide attention to the burning of the rainforest, and to those who were defending it with their lives. At the same time, indigenous peoples in Brazil were organizing successfully against a huge dam in the Amazon and pushing to ensure their rights were included in Brazil’s new constitution. Both the indigenous movement and the international rainforest movement were born. Now that violence against indigenous and environmental defenders is again on the increase, we need to renew those strategies: support local organizations and front-line defenders on the ground, and raise our voices at home. Our governments clearly aren’t doing it, so it’s up to us.