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A slow death for isolated communities
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Amazonian indigenous groups, isolated, fight for their right to life and self-determination.

A recent forum found alarming evidence that signs of genocide are beginning to surface in some of the most isolated of the Amazon indigenous communities.

"This genocide begins when their existence is denied," was the consensus at the first International Meeting on Isolated Indigenous Peoples of Amazonia and Gran Chaco, which took place Nov. 8-11 in the port city of Belem in Para, Brazil.

Indigenous leaders, human rights specialists, environmentalists, anthropologists and delegates from the ombudsman offices of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela, as well as representatives from international organizations, met to define a common strategy defending indigenous rights.

"In denying their existence in public opinion, in the media, they are killed in the national and international consciousness," said Brazilian Sydney Possuelo, 65, a representative of the General Coordinating Body of Isolated Indians.

The Korubo of Brazil, the Yuri of Colombia, the Tagaeri of Ecuador, the Ayoreo of Paraguay, the Mashco-Piros of Peru and the Hoti of Venezuela, scattered among 50 groups of a population of approximately 3,000 people, are the isolated peoples who live in inhospitable corners of the jungle that the governments had designated as protected reserves as much for their rich biodiversity as for these ethnic groups’ presence there.

Valuable wood — such as mahogany — and hydrocarbons are located in these forestlands and there is a subsequently strong interest in the land from national and international companies. While these corporations’ activities allow for the entrance of illegal armed workers, they also pressure the governments to eliminate any form of restriction, claiming that these isolated communities do not exist.

Testimonies were given at the Belem meeting, in the form of documentaries and photographs attesting the existence of these small communities that remain in the first phases of contact, or as a result of previous traumatic experience with outsiders, rejected all other contact.

Threats from two sides

According to Possuelo, the isolated indigenous populations are threatened from two directions: the first is an economic threat, and the second is camouflaged as good intentions. The two are perfect to exterminate these peoples.

In the first place, lacking antibodies, the native peoples are vulnerable to measles and influenza epidemics, and are particularly susceptible to certain viruses, such as tuberculosis and malaria.

Secondly, in the case of survival, they seem to be dying off slowly, because the psychosocial impact of the contact changes the cultural patterns and self-esteem of the group that decomposes into dependence and mendicancy, coming in a short period of "dying from sadness" and then extinction.

Beatriz Huertas, a consultant at the Interethnic Association of Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), insists in the importance of "preparing contingency and health emergency plans to prevent the undesired impacts of a contact that could alleviate its affects, and not result in genocide and domination scenarios."

Government and corporations eye natural resources

"The states’ interest in the natural resources present on their land, the lack of information about the [native peoples’] cultural riches, the demographic and industrial expansion of urban civilization, and the lack of legal protection for indigenous rights" have contributed to these peoples’ path to extermination, according to Brazilian Judge Antonio Silveira dos Santos.

However, the Belem meeting proved that the Brazilian government has made a significant change to its strategy to protect isolated communities. The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) has turned from a policy of assimilation to one of respect to their right of self-determination.

The federal government of Acre — on the border with Bolivia and Peru — implemented drastic measures to prevent a takeover by loggers, hunters and tourists in lands inhabited by isolated indigenous peoples, including representatives of the Evangelical churches that force these contacts, prohibiting such actions in these bordering areas.

Similar measures are absent in Peru, according to the Ashaninka leader Haroldo Salazar, president of AIDESEP. Salazar says that while the government designates these areas reserves, it fails to provide effective measures to impede or limit systematic violence and violations of indigenous rights, recognized by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.

Lack of control

Salazar stressed the urgency to grant isolated indigenous groups control over their territory that exceeds the conservationist discourse that places the protection of natural resources higher up on the priority list than the rights of the isolated indigenous.

In the Belem Declaration, signed at the meeting’s end, attendees urged countries in the Amazon region and in the Chaco to officially recognize the existence of these peoples and assume the responsibility to protect them as well as the biodiversity on which they depend. The declaration urged governments to implement the necessary public policies to avoid, prohibit and sanction any unauthorized intrusion in these areas.

Additionally, attendees demanded that these groups’ right to self-determination be recognized, to live freely in isolation, in their traditional lands, choosing for themselves the time and nature of any eventual contact they will have with outsiders.


Isolated indigenous groups defend their rights. (Photo: Manuel Nacimento Ponce)
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