In some of the most remote and naturally beautiful parts of the globe, people continue to live without electricity, fast food and Saturday Night Live. They’re healthy, functional and knowledgeable, but their lifestyles and security are under threat.
Approximately 100 Brazilian tribes call the Amazon basin home, including the Awá Indians, who adopted a nomadic lifestyle around 1800 to avoid European incursion in the jungle. Today, their way of life is under attack by logging and oil industries.
An estimated 350 Awá natives live in Brazil, and 100 of them are considered “isolated”, having chosen to live separately from the large settlement demarcated for the tribe. These worlds are converging, and not by choice. Three isolated Awá Indians made contact with a settled Awá tribe in January 2015 after hearing chainsaws and witnessing logging trucks around their encampment. The isolated tribe is concerned about survival, and rightly so.
In 2011, a young Awá girl was burned alive by illegal loggers after she wandered out of her village and into the government-protected area of Maranhão. This incident isn’t necessarily isolated; illegal loggers and ranchers are behind the deaths of numerous tribespeople and the decimation of the villages they once inhabited.
So how has the fight for land in Brazil become so violent? And what is being done to ensure that Awá tribe populations don’t continue to fall?
It all starts-—and maybe paradoxically–with the desire to grow. In 1964, the Brazilian government passed a land law to encourage development in the Amazon region. This law gave land rights to those who could cultivate the land or produce on it. If the individual demonstrated “effective use” of the land for a year and a day-—which the Brazilian government effectively decided meant clearing large swaths of forests, those who inhabited them, and creating cattle pastures—-they could claim the land as theirs.
In other words, land would only be yours if you engaged in large-scale production activities (or if you had the power to bribe judges to grant you land titles; or you just made up the titles yourself). This type of relationship with the environment ran in obvious opposition to indigenous perspectives on land use, meaning that indigenous people would have a really hard time convincing the Brazilian government that they made “effective use” of land and that it was therefore theirs.
With the law encouraging the commercial use of land, ranchers really began to dig into areas traditionally “held” by indigenous tribes. These ranchers impertinently clear land for cattle pastures, which become unproductive within 10 years. If ranchers were to “revitalize” this infertile pasture, it would cost $110 per acre. Such a price helps explain why 50 percent of ranch lands stand abandoned and why ranchers are pushing further and further into the Amazon in pursuit of profit.
In 1982, while still under military rule, Brazil received a 900 million dollar loan from the World Bank and the European Union, under the condition that native lands would be identified and protected. Brazilian officials didn’t exactly heed to the loan’s language, and first used these funds to build a railway to the Carajas Mountains, where a state-owned mining company mined iron ore. This railway bisected Awá hunting grounds, exposing the tribe to violence and disease.