Political Matters – April 2019

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By Mordecai Specktor

Ethnocide in the Amazon rain forest
We tend to think that Trump is our misfortune, a corrupt and incompetent leader for the United States. However, the National Nincompoop represents a rising tide of authoritarian, right-wing leaders around the globe.

Trump obviously admires these authoritarians – Russia’s Vladimir Putin; the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (“We fell in love”); the murderous president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte; and the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) of Saudi Arabia, who apparently ordered journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered and dismembered last year in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

And then there’s Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and legislator sworn in New Year’s Day as president of Brazil. Dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro was elected “on promises to end crime, right the economy, and ‘make Brazil great,’” according to Jon Lee Anderson’s lengthy profile in the April edition of The New Yorker.

Anderson writes that Bolsonaro “has spent his career gleefully offending women, black people, environmentalists, and gays. ‘I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son,’ he has said. ‘I would prefer that my son die in an accident than show up with some guy with a mustache.’ As a national legislator, he declared one political rival, Maria do Rosário, ‘not worth raping.’ Immigrants are ‘scum’ … He supports the torture of drug dealers, the use of firing squads, and the empowerment of a hyper-aggressive police force. ‘A policeman who doesn’t kill,’ he has said, ‘isn’t a policeman.’”

The ascent of Bolsonaro poses special risks for the one million indigenous people living in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon rain forest – and for the preservation of the vast region that’s been called “the lungs of the planet,” supplying 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen.
Bolsonaro “moved quickly to undermine protections for the environment, indigenous land rights, nongovernmental organizations and basically anyone who disagrees with him,” wrote Carol Giacomo, a member of The New York Times editorial board. In late March, Giacomo talked with Sônia Guajajara, a high-profile indigenous leader in Brazil (bit.ly/times-brazil).

“Just in the first 50 days of the Bolsonaro government there has been a reversal of 30 years of progress,” Guajajara said. “Everything we have been trying to construct, trying to build since then, we are trying to keep standing.”

Giacomo wrote that Guajajara’s work with Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples “centers on securing their rights, including claims to ancestral rain forest lands. Brazil lost nearly 10 percent of its tree cover between 2000 and 2017, according to the World Resources Institute.” Bolsonaro now has called for greater economic investment “to exploit the country’s forests, minerals and other natural resources.”

Just as Minnesota’s Ojibwe bands have been confronting new oil pipelines and sulfide mining ventures across the northern part of the state, Brazil’s indigenous people are struggling with an assault by farming, mining and timber industries greenlighted by the agriculture ministry.

Giacomo reported: “The result is that indigenous people, who have secured government protection for about 13 percent of Brazil’s territory, fear there will be no more lands set aside… Guajajara said.

“Lands that are formally recognized as ‘collective lands’ are owned by the government but guaranteed under the Constitution for the exclusive use of indigenous groups.” Bolsonaro is determined that these lands become “more productive.”

Guajajara told The Times that this assault on the rain forest would lead to doom for indigenous cultures. “And for me, that’s kind of ethnocide,” she said. “Ethnocide is when you kill the culture. Genocide is when you kill the people.”

In fact, Bolsonaro is accelerating a historical trend in Brazil, which has seen conflicts over development and conservation spanning the past 50 years. Of course, indigenous people have suffered in warfare that evokes the 19th century U.S.-Indian wars.

Giacomo cited an Associated Press report about a current civil suit that “accuses the [Brazilian] state of genocide when hundreds, maybe thousands, of Waimiri-Atroari tribe members died between 1968 and 1977 as a highway was forcibly being built through the Amazon…. At a hearing in a remote Amazon reserve [in February], six tribal elders told a judge how the military dictatorship had tried to eradicate them with arms, bombs and chemicals.”

For his part, Bolsonaro asserts that “there’s no such thing as an indigenous people.” But Anderson writes in The New Yorker about traveling to a village of the Xavante, “one of the country’s 305 tribal groups” (bit.ly/anderson-brazil).

Jamiro, a Xavante leader says about Bolsonaro: “He does not respect nature. God created Nature. That is how he sends us our food. We have to take care of nature. If nature is finished off, everything is going to burst.”