Awá: Saving Earth’s Most Threatened Tribe

Republished from The Argentina Independent

Photo courtesy of Survival

Photo courtesy of Survival

In March 2012, Brazilian judge Jirair Aram Meguerian ordered that the nation’s government had to evict all loggers and settlers working illegally in the demarcated region belonging to the indigenous Awá tribe within 12 months. Fourteen calendar pages have come and gone, and the government has still not completed a successful eviction. But the issue is still of utmost importance. Two weeks ago, coinciding with National Indigenous People’s Day, Brazilian aborigines occupied congress to protest a law that would give congress power in the demarcation of tribal lands. Furthermore, the quandary facing the Awá people is at a crux, and if changes are not made soon, the tribe may face extinction.

The failure to carry out the evictions simply marks the latest obstacle in a long series of misdoings against the Awá, deemed the world’s most endangered tribe by human rights NGO Survival International. Despite the area they inhabit being demarcated as a protected region in 2005, after a two-decade battle for such a distinction, these illegal loggers continue to threaten the existence of the Awá people, both by destroying the forests that constitute their home and by using firearms against the indigenous people they come into contact with. The tribe is believed to be numbered at about 360 people, with roughly 20% more thought to be living without contact with the outside world. Without increased action by the Brazilian government, the chances of the Awá of avoiding the fate of countless other persecuted tribes, of becoming little more than footnotes in a history book, look bleak.

The Tribe

Located in four regions within the western half of the Brazilian state of Maranhão, the Awá people -a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers- are marked by a deep connection with the natural environment they inhabit.

Awá tribe members are known to have many pets, including boars, vultures, and coatis (relatives of the raccoon). It is even common for Awá women to breastfeed animals such as capuchins, howler monkeys, and small pigs, and coatis are known to share hammocks with the Awá. In fact, many families have more pets than they have children. And while animals such as monkeys are a source of protein for the Awá, the hunters try to avoid killing animals they recognise as former pets released into the wild.

“When we find a baby animal, we want to look after it,” an Awá woman called Parakeet told Survival International. The names of Awá people change throughout their lives as more suitable titles arise. “When [the animals] are older, they become independent and go back to the forest. Sometimes when we’re out hunting, I’ll see one of our pets and say, ‘don’t hunt it!’ I would never eat an animal we raised. We looked after it, we watched it grow. If I ate it I would feel terrible. I can hear the howler monkey that used to be my pet singing in the forest. My pet lives in the forest, and now it’s going to make a family of its own.”

The Past

The troubles faced by the Awá people date as far back as the 1950s when ranchers and loggers approached their territory after the construction of road BR322. A major threat to the tribe materialised in 1967 when large deposits of rich iron ore were found in the hills of Carajás, which lie to the west of the four regions occupied by the Awá. This resulted in the installation of the Great Carajás Project, a series of dams, smelters, and cattle ranches — and, in 1985, a railway — funded by the US, Japan, the EU, and the World Bank. The project decimated the area’s forests and just 14 years after the discovery of iron ore in the area, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) reported that over half of the 56 indigenous people contacted in 1976 had died.

In the following decades, organisations such as Survival, FUNAI, the Indigenous Missionary Counsel (CIMI), the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), and the Pro-Indian Commission of São Paulo have pressed for increased protection of the indigenous population, calling for Awá demarcation as early as 1985. The Brazilian government was lethargic in its response. In 1999 the government noted 240 cases of illegal occupation in the Awá region, and in 2005 the territory was officially demarcated by the state as a tribal territory, thanks in part to a petition submitted by Survival International. Meanwhile, the logging and ranching industries continued to threaten the Awá’s survival with assaults against the environment and acts of violence against the indigenous people.

By 2010, about one-third of the area occupied by the tribe had been destroyed, and experts deemed the situation genocidal, a characterisation that is still held by advocates to this day.

The Present

Currently, the Awá face more danger of extinction than ever. In 2012, FUNAI released evidence that the illegal loggers were but 3km away from the Awá’s location. While the government failed to act on Judge Meguerian’s orders, the Awá’s sustainability remained in jeopardy. The tribesmen are now afraid to hunt, because they do not want to be seen by the loggers or ranchers and put themselves at risk of being killed.

As roads increasingly spring up in the territory, another great fear is that the invaders will encounter uncontacted Awá tribe members. It is believed that they would have severely adverse reactions to the loggers and ranchers because of their lack of interaction with the outside world. “A common cold could kill them,” states Survival.

According to Survival, “there are several accounts of [uncontacted aborigines] being killed by loggers and ranchers, but there is no recent confirmed data and encounters are not reported.” Survival has recorded video footage of loggers illegally occupying the area, but were unable to take action as the loggers are typically armed.

“It’s not too late for the Awá, but it soon will be,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International. “It is entirely within the Minister of Justice’s capabilities to evict loggers, but he must act today. If he doesn’t, tomorrow the Awá will be gone.”

The failure to reach the deadline for evictions should result in daily fines for FUNAI, said Alice Bayer, spokeswoman for Survival International, but she thinks it is unlikely that they will actually be paid.

“The situation is clear cut: the invaders are illegal and must be removed,” Bayer said. “The solution is simple and plans are already in place. They now need to be put into action before they become useless ideas that were implemented too late to save lives.“

The Misconception

While it is possible the Brazilian government has dragged its feet in matters regarding the protection of Amazonian tribes simply due to lack of urgency, there are signs of an ideologically based belief that the tribes are simply undergoing an inevitable and necessary assimilation into Western society.

One politician who has espoused such beliefs is senator Katia Abreu.

“Who benefits from [increased protection of the indigenous groups]?” Abreu asked. “Not our country, which today enjoys the best and cheapest food in the world and boasts of being the globe’s second-largest food exporter…. Neither do the Indians (sic), who as their numbers show don’t need more physical space, but sanitation, education and an efficient health system. They need, in short, a better life, like all of us.”

Bayer denounced that view.

“The view of Senator Abreu stems from a position of racism, which sees the life of self-sufficient tribal peoples as ‘backward’,” she said. “She seems to be proposing that tribal peoples would be better off if they joined mainstream society. But we have seen time and time again that the forced integration of tribal peoples into the mainstream can have devastating consequences, often leading to addiction, disease, and dependency on government handouts.”

Survival made a strong push to fight such ideology with its ‘Progress Can Kill’ report, released in 2007. The report notes how assimilation into “progressive” cultures often ravages the lives of those in indigenous communities, commonly leading to maladies such as alcoholism, suicide, starvation, obesity, and sexually transmitted diseases, if not all-out extinction.

Survival also confronts the opinion, raised within the Brazilian political sphere too, that the case of the Awá cannot be deemed genocide, as hundreds of lives are at stake, not thousands or millions: “Apart from [the number] having no relevance in law, such an interpretation discriminates against Amazon Indians (sic) who are numerically small.”

The Campaign

Survival International launched a new campaign to protect the Awá in 2012, including a short film depicting the troubles the tribe is facing as well as a detailed and interactive website that cites the reasons that governmental measures are necessary and educates readers on the Awá people. Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth narrates the short film and has worked as an advocate for the cause, hoping to raise international awareness of the issue.

Thus far, over 50,000 letters have been sent to Brazilian Minister of Justice José Eduardo Cardozo, who is the focus of the campaign and who is addressed by name by Firth in the video. The campaign’s Facebook page sports 34,000 likes, and the organisation also provides an opportunity to donate money to support the cause.

Survival has been involved with the case of the Awá since as early as the 1950s when one of its founders, Francis Huxley, went to the area and did research regarding the uncontacted aborigines. The organisation has continually petitioned the government to address the issue in the decades since and has published various reports on the Awá’s crisis, in addition to the ‘Progress Can Kill’ report. The organisation is funded primarily by small donations, as it does not accept money from any governments in order to avoid political influence.

The Hope

The works of the Survival campaign have not resulted in an effective governmental eviction of the illegal loggers and ranchers, but support and awareness has increased for the cause around the world. Actors like Firth and Gillian Anderson have raised awareness, Brazilian football supporters have taken on the cause as the 2014 World Cup approaches, and the ‘awáIcon’ logo has popped up worldwide in photographs and as street art to support the cause.

And while the Brazilian government still has a long way to go in terms of protecting the Awá tribe, it did ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention No. 169, an international law created in 1989 that secures land rights for tribes. Brazil is one of only 22 countries to ratify the law, although there have been questions as to whether or not it is actually being followed. Furthermore, the nation ratified “the genocide convention, which imposes a duty on the state to investigate and prosecute if genocide is suspected,” per Survival International.

However, the most inspiring bit of hope in the Awá narrative may lie in the story of a man named Karapiru. In 1978, his community of uncontacted Awá people were attacked by a gunman. He escaped, and spent the next ten years in complete isolation. Eventually he was found, and, because the attending anthropologist was unable to understand Karapiru’s language, members of various tribes met with him in hopes of finding a linguistic connection. Finally, he met with an indigenous man named Xiramuku. As The Atlantic’s Joanna Eede reports, “Not only could Xiramuku understand Karapiru’s language, but he used one specific Awá word that instantly transformed Karapiru’s life: he called him ‘father’.” Karapiru was reunited with the Awá people and integrated back into their culture; a miraculous, storybook ending.

The beacon of hope that lies in storybooks, however, is threatened by the sawmill of colonialisation found in history books. If drastic efforts are not made by the Brazilian government to heed the plight of the Awá, hope might be all that tribesmen like Karapiru have left.

“I hope the same things that happened to me won’t happen to my daughter,” said Karapiru, according to The Atlantic article. “I hope she will eat lots of game, lots of fish, and grow up to be healthy. I hope it won’t be like in my time.”

Do people believe indigenous people in the region are being sufficiently protected? Click here to find out.



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