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SOS Amazon

March 3rd, 2009

One of the most lasting images of the World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil was the human banner made by indigenous leaders, who used their bodies to spell out a bird´s eye message of “SOS Amazon” in Portuguese, to draw attention to the fragile region.

The human banner was organized by the Coordinating Group of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, one of the major groups that participated in the forum, campaigning for indigenous rights, particularly in the South American jungle, where various economically-driven projects are having grave reverberations on native peoples.

This year´s World Social Forum, held Jan. 27-Feb. 1 in the heart of the Amazon, helped indigenous peoples push for improved enforcement of their rights. Some 1,900 indigenous peoples, representing 120 ethnicities participated, the highest indigenous participation in the forum´s history.

Representing the 44 million indigenous residents of Latin America – 10 percent of the region´s population – was the Pan-Amazonian Assembly, one of the main events in this Forum in which more than 80,000 people from 150 countries participated.

In a statement, participants in the assembly said mining and hydroelectric projects in the Brazilian Amazon are threatening indigenous ways of life, adding that the struggle for the demarcation of lands and the recognition of collective rights of the indigenous, Afro-descendents and traditional communities of the region are a paramount concern.

Indigenous peoples attacked

Violence against Brazil´s indigenous communities remains a major hurdle for human rights and sustainable development in this country. Between 2003 and 2007, there were 271 killings of indigenous peoples throughout Brazil, according to figures from the Indigenous Missionary Council, a branch of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops.

The average number of annual killings jumped from 57 in 2006 to 92 in 2007, the organization´s report said.

Serious agrarian conflicts over indigenous lands that are illegally occupied reflect the worsening situation facing the country´s indigenous population. Although Brazil´s Constitution outlines the requirements for the demarcation of indigenous lands, it is not observed in many cases – one of the indigenous population´s greatest concerns, especially in the Amazon region, home to 163 indigenous ethnicities, or 270,000 individuals, approximately 80 percent of Brazil´s indigenous population.

Demarcation and conflict

Meanwhile, of the 504 indigenous lands in the Amazon region, less than half have demarcated their lands in the government-run public registry, and the holdup in the process allows for more conflicts such as in the Raposa Serra do Sol reserve in the Roraima state.

In this case, one of the principal voices of support to the indigenous cause in Brazil is the bishop of Goiás Velho, Mons. Tomás Balduíno, who recognizes that federal police and the Justice Ministry have worked to remove rice farmers that have taken over indigenous lands in the area.

The Raposa Serra do Sol reserve, a 1.7 million-hectare (4.2 million-acre) swath of Amazon, was demarcated in 1998. A decade later, police were called to remove the rice farmers. But the state´s governor José de Anchieta asked the Supreme Federal Tribunal to suspend the eviction, as the court debated more than 30 claims questioning the demarcation. The vote on the motions, which began last August, was later suspended among a public outcry, both nationally and internationally. The reserve is home to some 19,000 indigenous people, including members of the Macuxi, Wapichana, Taurepang, Ingaricó and Patamona peoples.

Other conflicts in the area are on the reserve of Ñanderu Marangatu indigenous reserve in the Mato Grosso do Sul state, the traditional land of the Kaiowá Guaraní.

These are emblematic cases, considering the high level of suicides in these communities, which are attributed to the destruction of their traditional way of life. Between 2006 and 2007, 61 indigenous people committed suicide, reports show, many of them in Mato Grosso do Sul, home to sugarcane plantations, whose development has employed indigenous workers for hard labor.

Mons. Balduíno says that renewed activism by social movements could accelerate the process of ensuring indigenous peoples´ rights in Brazil, such as land reform. But he said that the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has historic ties to Brazil´s social sectors, has helped “paralyze social movements and popular organizations.”

He added that the government´s backing of agro-business goes against the interests of landless indigenous Brazilians.

But a new perspective of social movements after Lula leaves office in 2010 should learn from other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Paraguay, “where popular organizations are stronger and united, and where there is a strong indigenous component.”

This article (in English and in Spanish) The Latinamerica Press Email – Independent information from Latin America and the Caribbean – was produced by Comunicaciones Aliadas, and written by José Pedro Martins in Sao Paulo.

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