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Brazil: Amazon’s Indians and rainforest under attack

Attacks on Amazon Indians and on their land rights are threatening vital areas of rainforest indigenous people have preserved for centuries

SourceJan Rocha


Main image: Gamela indigenous people talk to police after the brutal attack by farmers in Maranhão state, Brazil. Photo: Ana Mendes/Indigenous Missionary Congress (CIMI)
SÃO PAULO, 9 May, 2017 − A recent violent attack on a group of indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest of northern Brazil is seen by environmentalists as a symptom of a new climate of hostility towards such groups, fuelled by conservative congressmen’s attempts to undermine land rights. As indigenous reserves, which occupy 23% of the greater Amazon region, are spaces where most of the rainforest is still intact, this represents a growing threat to the forest’s future – and therefore could impact on climate change. The attack, by farmers armed with guns, knives and machetes in the northern state of Maranhão left up to 13 Gamela Indians in hospital with bullet and knife wounds. The Gamela, who number about 1,200 people, have been occupying cattle farms established on what they claim is their traditional land. In the disputed areas, forest has been cleared and replaced with cattle pasture.

Rainforest preservation The attack is part of a disturbing trend in Brazil that indirectly threatens the preservation of large areas of the Amazon rainforest.

Satellite maps produced by ISA, an environmental NGO, clearly show the relation between indigenous areas and the preservation of the forest. The Indians preserve the forest because they need its natural resources. A 2014 study by Imazon, another Brazilian NGO, showed that in the Amazon region indigenous reserves accounted for under 2% of deforestation, while privately-owned areas accounted for 59%. Even in government-run conservation areas it was 27%, because of the frequency of illegal invasions by loggers and farmers. But by October 2016, satellite images from INPE, the Brazil Space Research Institute, that is responsible for monitoring the Amazon region, showed that deforestation in indigenous reserves had almost tripled, mainly due to illegal logging and invasions. INPE detected an overall increase of almost 30% in deforestation for the region. A study carried out in 2015 by IPAM, an NGO set up after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to produce scientific knowledge about the Amazon  − found that the indigenous areas, estimated to contain 13 billion tonnes of carbon, will have avoided 431 million tonnes of carbon emissions between 2006 and 2020.
“Forests maintained by the Indians function like natural air conditioning and as climate regulators of the region they are in”
In addition to their role in absorbing carbon and their low rates of deforestation, indigenous areas have a healthy effect on their surrounding areas, according to IPAM researcher Paulo Moutinho.
Paulo Moutinho
He says: “Forests maintained by the Indians function like natural air conditioning and as climate regulators of the region they are in.” Yet in spite of the obvious advantages of respecting indigenous areas, not just for their inhabitants but for the whole of Brazil and for the global climate, government and politicians seem more interested in clearing the forest for agricultural and mining projects. Sonia Guajajara, a co-ordinator at the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil (APIB), says: “Although the whole world is discussing the reduction of deforestation to contain global warming, and Brazil has presented targets for reducing illegal deforestation, we are not even managing to do this. It is very worrying.”
Sonia Guajajara. Photo: Amazon Watch
She blames the relaxation of environmental laws, the advance of agribusiness, the building of dams that lead to deforestation of large surrounding areas, and the government`s development policies, as well as an increase in illegal logging in the reserves.

Reducing land rights

In order to free more land for cattle ranchers and soy producers, the powerful landowners’ lobby, which now dominates both the congress and the government, has tabled 189 bills aimed at reducing the land rights and autonomy of indigenous and other traditional communities. Other proposed bills will also relax environmental legislation. A parliamentary committee of inquiry dominated by the rural lobby has also accused anthropologists and missionaries who work with indigenous groups of being in the pay of foreign interests, and has proposed that Brazil’s Indian affairs agency, Funai, should be closed down. A peaceful demonstration by more than 3,000 indigenous people from all over Brazil in front of the congress building in Brasilia on 24 April was met with teargas and rubber bullets, and the demonstrators were prevented from entering the Senate to take part in a public hearing. Funai’s budget has been cut by 44% as part of the government’s austerity programme. The Minister of Justice, who is responsible for Funai, is reported to have held over 100 meetings with farmers and producers, but none with representatives of Brazil`s indigenous people, who number about 900,000 out of a total population of just over 200 million. The 252 groups speak over 150 languages. The Amazon contains not only the largest indigenous community, the 50,000 strong Ticuna, but also small groups of “isolated” Indians, who still shun contact with the outside world. One of Funai’s tasks is to protect these groups from the advance of loggers and miners, but the cuts have led it to close most of its forward posts in the region, leaving up to 5,000 isolated Indians on Brazil`s border with Peru at the mercy of invaders. – Climate News Network

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