People Power forces government to protect Brazil's most threatened tribe
“We are Awá. We don’t want to live in cities. We want to live here. We have much courage, but we need you close to us. We don’t want anything… but to live as we live and be who we are. We just want to be Awá.”
These are the desperate words of Piraí, a member of the Awá tribe, named by Survival International as the world’s most threatened tribe. The Awá (or Guajá) are an indigenous group of people living in the eastern Amazon forests of Brazil. There are approximately 350 members left and 100 of them have no contact with the outside world.
For generations, the Awá lived far from the rest of humanity, picking fruit, hunting, and following the seasons' rhythms in their patch of the lush Brazilian Amazon rainforest. However, years of illegal logging and land grabs have brought their people to the brink of extinction. Over 30% of one of the Awá’s territories has already been deforested and loggers are rapidly closing in on their communities and have already been marking trees for deforestation as little as 2 miles away. About 180 illegal sawmills have sprung up around the Awa's land and a rail line carves through the forest, allowing trains to shuttle tonnes of iron ore from the heart of the Amazon to Atlantic Ocean ports, with much of it headed for Chinese steel mills. When the railway was first put in, development from outsiders exposed the Awá to disease and violence and their population was decimated.
But apart from the loggers and their guns, one of their biggest problems is the fallacy that Amazon Indians must inevitably conform to "modernity". Although people have been saying it for generations, it isn't true: tribes are destroyed by labelling them backward, and pretending they stand to benefit from "civilisation". It's fundamentally racist, and the evidence points, glaringly, and to our shame, in exactly the opposite direction.
Katia Abreu, president of Brazil’s National Agriculture and Livestock Federation, is one who ascribes to such a view. In a recent opinion article for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo he said the Awá “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." But what is the better life that Abreu speaks of? Many of Brazil’s displaced indigenous people end up with no home, no job, no land and no opportunities once they are dragged from their forest home into overpopulated cities.
But the plight of the Awá hasn’t gone unnoticed. In April 2012, Survival International launched a world-wide campaign, backed by Colin Firth, Vivienne Westwood, Sebastião Salgado and other celebrities, to protect the Awa-Guajá people. An urgent appeal was sent to Brazil’s government to evict invaders from their forest, and Brazil soccer fans lent their support for the tribe. Online campaigns and petitions have permeated the internet, and with questions being asked by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and front-page stories on the plight of the Awá appearing in Brazil's bestselling newspaper, the government has come under increasing pressure to act.
The government has dragged its feet for more than a decade because of pressure from the agribusiness lobby and despite a judge ordering all outsiders to leave Awá territory within 12 months, the deadline came and went and no action was taken.
However, in a rare and long awaited victory for indigenous rights campaigners, the government has finally taken action and army troops, helicopters and tanks have begun descending on the region, evicting illegal ranchers, loggers and settlers . Security forces have already shut down at least eight saw mills, with machinery and other equipment seized and destroyed.
"This is a momentous and potentially lifesaving occasion for the Awá. Their many thousands of supporters worldwide can be proud of the change they have helped the tribe bring about,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International. “But all eyes are now on Brazil to ensure it completes the operation… and protects Awá land once and for all."
The victory shows that ‘people power’ really does make a difference. It shows that the human spirit does still exist and reveals a sliver of hope for humanity.
Read more: The Last of Eden
Watch video: Earth’s Most Threatened Tribe