Political Matters – December 2019

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By Mordecai Specktor

Crises in the Southern Hemisphere

The repression of Indigenous nations in South America invites comparisons to what American Indians faced in the American West during the 19th century: dispossession, massacres and ecological destruction.

In Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, tribal communities are under siege by loggers and miners. On Jan. 1, 2019, Jair Bolsonaro, an admirer of Brazil’s military dictatorship, was sworn in as president. Bolsonaro immediately stripped government funding from FUNAI, the Indigenous affairs agency. He has encouraged economic exploitation of the rainforest and encroachment on Indian reserves.

Writing in The New Yorker, in early November, Jon Lee Anderson describes the situation of Kayapo communities that variously resist and profit from the rush of gold miners and loggers, in an article titled “Blood Gold in the Amazon Rain Forest.”

“Wildcat mining is less pervasive than logging, but it can be more insidious,” Anderson writes. “Loggers usually harvest valuable trees and leave the rest; miners cut everything. Mercury, used in the refining process, leaves rivers poisoned, and the pollution can spread hundreds of miles downstream. The allure of gold attracts fortune-seekers, who bring prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and violence. ‘Letting prospectors into the Kayapo reserve is like leaving your children in the protection of a drug gang,’ Barbara Zimmerman, a Canadian ecologist who has worked with the Kayapo for three decades, told me. In the past few years, according to environmentalists, several hundred thousand acres of the reserve have been destroyed or degraded by illegal mining and logging.”

And in late November, Survival International reported on the crisis faced by another rainforest tribe, the Munduruku: “Leaders and representatives of the Munduruku tribe have denounced goldminers operating illegally in their territory in the Brazilian Amazon, and vowed they will not stop fighting until their problems are solved.”

The Munduruku communities are situated around the Tapajós river deep in the rainforest. “It is one of the most heavily invaded indigenous territories, having been targeted by goldminers for some years,” according to Survival International. “The tribe is angry and concerned about the increasing social and environmental impacts of the invasion. Brandishing a bottle of cloudy water from the Tapajós, Alessandra Munduruku said this week in the capital Brasília: ‘This dirty water is bringing death and disease to our people and our fish are full of mercury.’

“Last month the Munduruku blocked one of the roads in the region to protest against the mining invasion and released several statements to the pariwat (non-indigenous people) warning: ‘You are destroying our sacred sites and disturbing our spirit world. This is bringing diseases and death to our people. We will not accept this destruction anymore… Gold mining is dividing our people, introducing new diseases, and contaminating our people with mercury. Mining brings drugs, alcohol, weapons, and prostitution. And greed.’”
Again, the ravaging of Brazil’s indigenous communities has gained steam since Bolsonaro was sworn in this year.

Jon Lee Anderson writes: “Bolsonaro, a former Army captain whose followers call him the Legend, is an unabashed racist, homophobe, and misogynist. A climate-change denier, he came to power with a vehemently anti-environmentalist message, supported by a powerful lobby known as ‘the three B’s’: Bibles, bullets, and beef, meaning evangelicals, gun advocates, and the agribusiness industry.

Bolsonaro has complained for years that indigenous protections are a senseless brake on development. ‘The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture,’ he once said. ‘How did they manage to get thirteen per cent of the national territory?’ Before he was elected, he described the Amazon as ‘the richest area in the world’ and vowed, ‘I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians.’”

And another critical situation is developing in Bolivia, a country with an Indigenous majority that shares a long border with Brazil. After a disputed election in October and 19 days of civil protests, President Evo Morales resigned, on Nov. 10, at the urging of the Bolivian military and police factions. A number of government officials affiliated with Morales’ MAS (Movement for Socialism) party also resigned in the face of threats and fearing for the safety of their families. Morales, the first elected Indigenous president in the Western Hemisphere, had been in office for 14 years. He was granted asylum in Mexico.

An opposition senator, Jeanine Añez, declared herself president on Nov. 12, and an anti-Indigenous, Christian fascist regime has taken control of Bolivia. Anti-government protests have been met with live fire, leaving at least 20 dead and scores wounded.

The U.S. government could act to protect Indigenous communities in Brazil and Bolivia; however, Trump is enamored of authoritarian leaders and will not lift a finger to help.