By Vanessa Andreotti
Brazil is voting to legalize the destruction of the Amazon forest and the extermination of Indigenous peoples, the forest’s last line of defense.
It is not just the people of Brazil who will suffer in the face of their government’s smartly coordinated attack on humanity’s future. All of us, across the world, are set to suffer the consequences of the tragedy unfolding before us in the Amazon.
You may be asking, ‘Why should I care?’ In a world of competing crises, it’s certainly a fair question. But the future of the Amazon rainforest must be a priority – if we lose it, we lose our future.
Proposed legislation and a landmark case in Brazil’s highest court would remove laws that protect the Amazon rainforest and many other ecologically sensitive areas, and would also have a severely detrimental effect on the rights of Indigenous peoples. The government plans to open the Amazon and other protected areas to predatory mining, logging and farming.
We usually refer to the Amazon rainforest as the lungs of the planet, but it is much more than that. Perhaps it’s better to understand the Amazon as both the lungs and the kidneys of the planet, filtering carbon and regulating water currents. If we extend the metaphor, we can say that the planet’s lungs and kidneys are being attacked by the pathogens of greed, arrogance, and indifference, with implications for other vital organs and the very metabolism of the Earth.
Indigenous peoples in Brazil inhabit and live off vast swathes of ecologically protected land. The government plans to take away their land and their rights, allowing the lands to be exploited by predatory businesses.
The coordinated legal and judicial attack has been referred to as an attempt to “erase Indigenous peoples from the map in Brazil” and as a “‘stampede’ of legislation that threatens to accelerate the destruction of the Amazon”. Unfortunately, these are not exaggerations. The United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, has also expressed concern about what is unfolding in Brazil.
One bill, which gives amnesty to landgrabbers in Indigenous territories, was approved by the lower house of the Brazilian legislature in early August, after being supported by 296 lawmakers to 136. There is no question the bill will be approved by the Senate, the upper house, and then signed into law by President Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned on this very platform.
Another bill, which is still to be voted on by the lower house, cancels Indigenous peoples’ right to be consulted over what happens in their territories, as well as their right to remain isolated.
And today, the Supreme Court will hear a landmark case on the demarcation of Indigenous territory. The lawsuit argues that Indigenous peoples are entitled only to the lands they occupied on 5 October 1988, when Brazil’s constitution was promulgated. It tries to erase the history of dispossession, destitution and oppression from before that date.
All of these attacks on Indigenous peoples’ rights contravene Brazil’s constitution, as well as the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous peoples in Brazil talk about the laws that cancel their rights and land titles as “the legalization of their extermination” and as a “civilized massacre”. If they lose their rights to their land and the right to be consulted about what happens to their land, the portents will be grim for the Amazon. The consequences would, of course, be global.
More deforestation will push the Amazon beyond the tipping point, turning it from a rainforest into a savanna or grassland. The Amazon will go from a vital carbon sink that helps us slow down climate change to a dangerous carbon source that will accelerate the heating of the planet. This is already happening in some parts of the forest.
If the deforestation of the Amazon continues, we will see more extreme temperatures and forest fires like the ones currently ablaze in Canada, Siberia and the western US. There will be more floods, like those seen in Turkey, China and Germany, and more droughts leading to food and water shortages as in Madagascar and Ethiopia. There will be an increase in unpredictable severe weather events, more species will suffer extinction; inequality will grow as will polarization and conflict. There will be more people displaced by climate change throughout the world. It will all be unavoidable. We will also be faced with another genocide of Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples make up just 4% of the world’s population, but they protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The fight against the climate crisis – the fight against our own extinction – depends on the survival of the lands for which Indigenous peoples are responsible, and on the upholding of their rights to relate to, exist in and look after these lands. Without their land titles, without their rights, they cannot defend the land or its biodiversity.
The math is simple: if Indigenous peoples lose their rights, we lose most of the biodiversity of the planet. If the Amazon rainforest disappears, it will lead to faster warming of the climate and severe loss of biodiversity. If Brazil’s legislature votes along those lines and its Supreme Court goes along with the landmark lawsuit, a dangerous precedent will have been set for other countries. In the US, for instance, Indigenous peoples fear Bill HR1374, which was passed by the House of Representatives in June, could criminalize legitimate social activism, including protests against pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure.
Unfortunately, recent events in Brazil are not encouraging.
In July, Bolsonaro publicly encouraged armed violence by farmers against Indigenous and Black peoples. A leaked tape released around the same time showed an official from the government agency responsible for Indigenous affairs (FUNAI), telling people to open fire on isolated Indigenous groups in the Amazon.
The president has also recruited some Indigenous individuals and groups to argue his case for Indigenous economic advancement and ‘civilization’ through evangelical conversion. Those who use this argument generally compare Indigenous peoples and their traditional ways to unintelligent animals who block the ‘progress’ of the Brazilian nation. Many Bolsonaro supporters defend the discredited ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ for Portugal’s domination of Brazil from 1500 on feudal, religious, racial, and ethnocentric grounds.
Bolsonaro has also said: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians.” Now, he is trying to legally and judicially finish the job. However, it is important to remember that his mandate comes from powerful lobbyists, who represent unscrupulous local and international mining and agribusiness interests. These interests have significant representation in the Brazilian legislature. The legislative attack on the Amazon and Indigenous land rights was planned years before Bolsonaro and it will outlast him.
As moral and humanitarian arguments seem to be irrelevant in the current context, might other measures have some impact? On 5 May 2021, an open letter signed by 40 international food suppliers and investment firms warned the Brazilian government of an international boycott. Multinational chains, including Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Aldi and Germany’s Metro, urged Brazilian lawmakers to reconsider the bill giving amnesty to landgrabbers, or face a boycott of Brazilian agricultural products such as meat and soy. An international boycott could bolster Bolsonaro’s position at home and embolden his base. That said, it could provide the only international leverage possible if ecocide and genocide come to pass.
International calls to ‘save the Amazon’ are a contentious issue in Latin America. Every Brazilian government has pushed back on the exhortations of foreign governments and international civil society groups on this matter. Bolsonaro has weaponized this resistance to foreign pressure and mobilized patriotic support in defence of Brazil’s sovereignty. He uses the narrative that the Amazon is under threat from a foreign takeover and that it is his job to save it by opening it up to economic use that can benefit Brazilians. This is a smart political move in the context of Brazil’s precarious economic and political situation. That is why it is of paramount importance to hear the voices of the Indigenous peoples in Brazil who are directly affected by the proposed changes.
The Coalition of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), has denounced Bolsonaro in the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Through its ‘Last Warning’ educational campaign, the Federation of the Huni Kui Indigenous people of Acre in the Brazilian Amazon, has issued a call for the world to pay attention to ecocide and genocide. The Huni Kui and other guardians of the Amazon are putting their lives on the line to defend the world’s largest rainforest, as well as humankind’s chance to have a future. They are risking their lives for all of us. Both APIB and the Huni Kui Federation emphasize that if the international community wants to help protect the Amazon, there is a need to safeguard the rights and lives of Indigenous peoples – its last line of defence.
The Huni Kui believe that our planetary responsibilities require us to interrupt our collective indifference. For this, we need to bear witness to the consequences of unsustainable ideals of ‘progress and prosperity’, based on hyper-individualism and over-consumption. The Huni Kui highlight that this may be humanity’s last chance to step up and safeguard the Indigenous peoples and their lands in Brazil and elsewhere. They have sounded the alarm, now we must wake up to face what we have done to the planet and to each other. If the worst comes to pass, this may, literally, be their last warning.
Vanessa Andreotti is a Research Chair in race, inequalities and global change at the University of British Columbia.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.
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