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Native Leaders Are Being Killed in the Amazon Because They Want the Right to Live

The likelihood of indigenous disenfranchisement can increase as a country becomes more prosperous.

Imagine a United States that was still at war with its native tribes. Imagine that the Indian reservations that dot the American landscape had no respected boundaries and that Apaches were encamped in eastern Arizona, Mohawks inhabited the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Lakota still hunted on the Great Plains.

Now imagine that all these tribes want is land of their own and to be treated like human beings, and instead of honoring that desire, American companies level Arizona, strip mine the Green Mountains and burn the Great Plains. In the process, the native peoples of these lands are systematically ignored, brutalized and then murdered in ways that are as horrific in their details as they are for their regularity.

In South America, no imagination is required. This is happening right now.

Ambrósio Vilhalva was a Guarani leader who spent decades campaigning against the planting of sugar cane on his tribe’s former lands. Vilhalva starred in the award-winning film Birdwatchers and traveled the world to speak about the Brazilian government’s failure to protect native Guarani land. In December 2013, after months of death threats, Vilhalva was found dead in his hut from multiple stab wounds.

Marinalva Manoel was also a leading figure in the Guarani Indian repatriation movement. In November 2014, she was found dead on the side of a highway after being raped and stabbed to death.

Edwin Chota was an activist leader of Peru’s Ashaninka people who for years fought against illegal logging in the Amazon, going so far as to confront armed loggers with a machete in his hand. In September 2014, Chota and three other Ashinanka men were ambushed somewhere on the Brazilian-Peruvian border and gunned down with shotguns.

José Isidro Tendetza Antún was the former vice-president of the Shuar Federation of Zamora, a native Ecuadorian tribe. An outspoken critic of Amazonian deforestation, Tendetza was scheduled to speak at the UN Climate Summit in Lima, Peru. After disappearing on November 28, Tendetza’s body was unearthed from an unmarked grave, his limbs bound with blue rope and his bones broken from torture.

These are but four high-profile deaths in a struggle that has lasted for decades. Indigenous lives are regularly lost in the fight for land rights against clear-cutting businesses and ranchers with deep pockets. Most frightening of all, South American governments seem largely incapable – or at worst, unwilling – to stop these brutal murders.

Natives Are Denied a Seat at the Democratic Table

This past December, delegates from 190 countries congregated in Lima, Peru to set guidelines for reducing carbon emissions and adapting to global climate change. Despite making a place for its own indigenous tribes at the summit, Peru failed to legitimately address the problems of those who are the “frontline witnesses of climate change,” as Juan Carlos Riveros, Conservation Director of World Wildlife Peru, told Planet Experts.

Peru’s native tribes represent a whole segment of the population that lacks full access to the democratic system, said Riveros, largely due to their lack of legal land.

Diana Ríos, the daughter of Jorge Ríos, one of the men killed with Edwin Chota in September, was present at the Lima summit. She, like many native South Americans, was there for one, essential reason. As she explained to Planet Experts’ Mythili Sampathkumar, “I want my land…that’s where I live and eat, and it’s where my saintly grandparents lie.”

Today, even land that native people own is not safe from degradation. Chota’s Ashinanka people live in a region that is estimated to contain 80 percent of the illegal logging in Peru. Meanwhile, between June 2014 and the COP20 conference in Lima, no less than five separate oil spills occurred in the Peruvian Amazon, the first dumping an estimated 84,000 gallons of crude into the jungle.

Such spills could become common in Peru as, despite a pledge to generate 60 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, the country has opened up 75 percent of its rainforest to oil companies. Deforestation, agriculture and other types of land use currently make up 61 percent of the country’s carbon emissions.

For native Ecuadorians, just gaining a seat at the democratic table has proven a challenge. On their way to the Lima conference in December, Ecuadorian activists were stopped no less than six times before their bus was finally confiscated by police.

Defending Indigenous Rights Against Apathy and Big Business

Andrew Miller is the Washington, D.C. Advocacy Director for Amazon Watch, an organization that works directly with indigenous communities in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to fortify the long-term ownership and defense of their lands.

In an interview with Planet Experts, Miller explained that the struggle for indigenous rights, as recognized in international treaties and declarations, “frequently runs counter to the economic development plans of governments, regardless of political orientation.” This struggle is not limited to the Amazon, he acknowledged, but also around the world.

“Natural resource extraction within indigenous territories is a central focus of both right-leaning and left-leaning governments around the [Amazon],” he said. This makes any attempt to articulate grassroots concerns or highlight indigenous voices an awkward experience at even the high-minded COP20 talks.

Regarding the frequency of murders among indigenous leaders that occurred in late 2014, Miller lamented that it is “outrageous but not surprising.”

“The degree to which they are defending their communities and peoples, indigenous (and other grassroots) leaders find themselves in direct conflict with powerful economic and political interests,” he said. “If you don’t go for the carrot (often involving selling out for pennies), prepare for the stick. Global Witness has issued several excellent reports on the phenomenon. Brazil, Peru, and Colombia are amongst the most deadly countries for environmental and land rights defenders.”

The most horrific aspect of these murders is the apparent apathy with which they are received by South American governments. The actual murderers are rarely caught and the individuals behind the murders are never implicated.

“Political violence against indigenous peoples is carried out with virtual impunity,” said Miller. “Occasionally, the actual gunmen might be identified and arrested. But the intellectual authors – the people behind the violence – are effectively protected. The regional context is one in which legitimate social protest is increasingly criminalized. The degree to which protest is effective, organizers can expect to face spurious legal charges and spend years in court, if not eventually in jail. Peru’s Bagua trial is emblematic of this trend. Fifty-four indigenous and other grassroots leaders are being tried, while no official responsible for the June 5, 2009 confrontation is facing similar charges.”

The likelihood of indigenous disenfranchisement can increase as a country becomes more prosperous. Recently, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appointed Senator Katiá Abreu as the country’s next minister of agriculture, a controversial choice given Abreu’s ambitious plans for Brazil’s agricultural industry. That industry is now 23 percent of the country’s economy, and Abreu wants to see it grow to rival the United States’. Her advocacy for clear-cutting forests to make room for farmland has led Greenpeace to dub Senator Abreu “Miss Deforestation.”

Abreu’s relationship with Brazil’s indigenous population is contentious, to put it mildly. In 2013, she told a Sao Paulo newspaper that FUNAI, the government agency that oversees indigenous rights, is undemocratic because it gives disproportionate weight to indigenous matters. Brazil’s tribes, she said, are entitled to 12 percent of the country’s territory but only compose one percent of the population.

“Katia Abreu is not opposed to concentration of land ownership in the hands of a small number of people,” said Miller, “she’s just opposed to those people being indigenous.”

According to Miller, the growth of Brazilian agribusiness and the expansion of large estates for soy, sugar and cattle has resulted in an increasing concentration of land ownership. “That process is frustrated by the ongoing existence of indigenous territories, explaining the agribusiness lobby’s desire to transfer titling powers from the executive to the legislative in which they exercise an outsized influence.”

Meanwhile, in pulling stewardship away from native peoples – whose relationship with the land has always been harmonious – agribusiness is essentially aiming to shoot itself in the foot.

“The viability of the ecosystem as a whole depends on the rainforest,” said Miller. “Terrifyingly, we face the possibility of what’s called the ‘die-back’ scenario, in which the Amazon tips into inexorable decline. Perhaps too late, the agribusiness interests are going to realize they can’t survive with greatly decreased rainfall that would result from an Amazonian collapse.”

Experts believe that Amazonian deforestation has cost Brazil its “flying rivers,” water vapor that is transported via air currents to other parts of the region. Without the flying rivers, Brazil’s capital, Sao Paulo, is now suffering its worst drought in 84 years.

Looking to the Future: The Amazon in 2015

The goals of the Amazon’s indigenous tribes are as varied as the tribes themselves, but some elements are universal. According to Miller, they include “autonomous self-government, the integrity of their ancestral territory, bi-lingual education [and] health care based on their traditional knowledge.”

As to how the relationship amongst developers, governments and natives may evolve – or degrade – in 2015, Miller said the recent decrease in world oil prices will likely play a role.

“Ecuador has accumulated billions of dollars in debts to China,” said Miller, “to be repaid in oil. This could significantly increase pressure for oil drilling, given the amount of oil they now have to send China’s way to repay the $13 billion is greater. In other contexts, the lower price might provide less economic impetus to develop new oil fields, lowering potential tensions.

“Peru is launching 26 new oil concessions in the Amazon over the course of 2015, in addition to renewing existing fields that are extremely contentious. This won’t necessarily lead to overt violence, though increased social tensions are likely as communities demand land titles, remediation of past pollution and consultation around the new blocks.

“Overall, I’d say there are many potential flash points across the Amazon and we’re certainly not expecting 2015 to be significantly less conflictive than recent years.”

In the meantime, what can North Americans do to help the cause? Miller says that Americans should look at their own consumption. Oil, hardwoods, cattle, gold, all of these are drivers of deforestation in the Amazon and grounds for rights violations. Awareness is also key, said Miller. “[W]e should understand how US-based corporations like Chevron are culpable for Amazon and join the battle for accountability.”

Opposing free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership can also influence actions in the Amazon and tip the balance away from investor and corporate rights and back into the hands of local communities.

Finally, Americans can support the work of Amazon Watch and others that are advocating for indigenous rights.

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