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The right to be left alone

Interview: Anke RasperAugust 9, 2013

As Brazil's economy expands, the pressure to develop indigenous territories also increases. Large companies and the government use the stereotype of "primitive" tribal peoples as an excuse to force development on them.

Awá women also extract the resin of the Brazilian redwood tree(maçaranduba tree) to light houses at night. Today, their forests are being illegally logged and the Awá have become the Earth's most threatened tribe; they live under the threat of extinctiondue to violent attacks and the theft of their land. Location: Brazil Photo: © Toby Nicholas/ Survival Photo: ©Joanna Eede/Survival International
Image: Toby Nicholas/ Survival

Fiona Watson is field and research director at the London office of Survival International, a worldwide movement for indigenous and tribal peoples' rights.

DW: A year ago your organization Survival International launched a big international campaign on behalf of the Awa, which is a tribe in the Amazon jungle in Brazil. What is the situation for the Awa now?

Fiona Watson: The situation is incredibly serious for the Awa. They are earth's most threatened tribe. That is because there are so few of them. There are only about 450, of which about 100 have no interaction or contact with national society. They are on the run from the loggers and the chainsaws, which are operating to full extent on their land. The Awa have lost a huge amount of their tropical forest - over 30 percent in one of the key areas. This is devastating for the Awa because they rely entirely of the forest.

But isn't their land protected?

It is. It has been recognized and was demarcated years ago. What is happening to the Awa is totally illegal under Brazilian law and under international law on tribal peoples.

The problem is that you are operating in the Amazon, where there is very little presence of the federal authorities. In the eastern Amazon, where the Awa live, it's like the Wild West. You have the loggers, who are heavily armed, going in in gangs, cutting down the forest. It is extremely difficult situation to keep under control. There is also a huge amount of corruption.

What do you think has happened since you have started your campaign on behalf of the Awa?

Since Survival launched our campaign just over a year ago puts the Awa on to the map. That means people are starting to hear about the Awa. We supported them for the first time to go down to Brasilia to lobby the authorities themselves. We also managed to get a huge amount of people around the world to join up to our icon, which is where people are holding up a sticker saying: "Brazil, save the Awa!" Over 50,000 people around the world have written to the Ministry of Justice saying that the government must sort out the situation now, before it's too late.

Fiona Watson, field and research director at Survival International in London.
Fiona Watson has been supporting tribal and indigenous peoples for over 20 yearsImage: Survival International

And has the government shown any reaction so far?

We have just heard this week actually that the Ministry of Justice has finally said that there will be a major operation that will include the federal police, the military, the environment agency and the governmental forest department. They are going to go in to the area imminently and clear out all the invaders. That is a very positive and very necessary step. The government itself has said, it's going be tough, which is why they're going to put the army in there.

At the same, there are currently several laws pending in Brazil that would have a negative impact on indigenous people and on other tribal groups in other parts of the country.. How likely is it that these laws will be passed?

I think that today in Brazil we're seeing the world's sixth largest economy, a huge booming economy. Brazil is really expanding and this is coming at a huge social cost particularly to indigenous peoples and the Amazon and the other parts of Brazil in the south. So as Brazil is expanding there is more and more pressure on indigenous territories.

In the Brazilian parliament there is a very strong agricultural lobby, a lot of senators and deputies are lobbying against the recognition of more indigenous territories. They are also attempting to pass all sorts of legislation that would make it easier for the government to build roads, highways, all sorts of development in indigenous territories. The indigenous movement is deeply opposed to that, because they know from past experience, that once their lands are invaded in this way, they will simply get swallowed up.

The poison curare, which Yanomami hunters have long used on the tips of arrows to paralyze prey, has been appropriated by western medicine as a muscle relaxant.Location: Brazil Photo: ©Fiona Watson/Survival
Indigenous Yanomami hunters in BrazilImage: Fiona Watson/Survival

There is a lot of economic interests involved. People want to exploit the land. But there are around 100 indigenous tribal groups around the world who currently don'tt want to be contacted by civilization as we know it. They want to remain uncontacted. Is that realistic at all in this scenario?

Yes, I think it is realistic, because what this all boils down to is human rights and tribal peoples' rights. They have rights within Brazil and within many countries around the world. They have rights under international law and the UN has a very comprehensive declaration of the rights of tribal people and indigenous peoples. It is their right to live on their land in the way of their choosing. That is the issue. It's not about whether they're contacted or not. They have clearly said they want to remain uncontacted. That's obvious from the fact that they are often fleeing from invaders. Maybe in 20 or 30 years, they will decide that they do want contact with the surrounding national society, but that should come when they feel they are ready. It is their choice. I think what the uncontacted are trying to do is just self preservation. They know what contact means, they've seen it happen.

What is going on in Brazil is happening in other parts of the world as well. Do you see any hope in other parts of the world, where there are more rights for indigenous and tribal groups?

There is a lot of hope coming from the indigenous and tribal movements themselves. There are many indigenous and tribal organizations around the world. They become more and more active and articulate and vocal for their rights. We have seen that in Brazil recently with indigenous people storming the congress, demonstrating, insisting that their voice be heard, insisting that they be consulted, and give their free, prior informed consent to any development on their land. They are standing up. Also recently we saw the Supreme Court in India ordered that they must be consultations with the Dongria KondhTribe in Odisha State where "Vedante," a mining company wants to build a huge bauxite mine on a sacred mountain, sacred to the Dongria. It's really positive that the Supreme Court said the Dongria must be consulted. And that consultation is happening.

Bildnummer: 52411529 Datum: 19.12.2007 Copyright: imago/imagebroker Indigenous girl weaving a basket in the Amazon basin. Konzentration; 2007, Brasilien, Nordbrasilien, Amazonas, Amazonasgebiet, Amazonasbecken, Einheimischer, Einheimische, Kind, jung, Brasilianer, Brasilianerin, Land, Leute, Korb, flechten, flicht, flechtet, Flechter, Flechterin, Korbflechter, Korbflechterin, Flechtkunst, Kinderarbeit,; , hoch, Kbdig, Einzelbild, , Handwerk, Wirtschaft, Arbeitswelten, Gesellschaft, , Reisen, Südamerika
National governments do not have the right to impose their will on Indigenous peopleImage: imago/imagebroker

How about the image of tribal indigenous people? That's also one of the things you are trying to change: The stereotypical image of primitive people. Do you feel that has changed over the past year?

I think there is a slow change, even though there is a lot of work ahead. Because tribal people are facing hundreds and hundreds of years of very deep prejudice and that doesn't change over night. But by sensitizing the media and public opinions we can achieve something. For instance, we launched the "proud not primitive campaign" in India, where there is a very strong notion in national society that tribal peoples in India are primitive. We are already starting to see results from that.

The other important thing is that major companies and governments use the wrong idea that tribal people are primitive and backward as an excuse to force development on them, which really means stealing their land from under their feet for development projects. That's another reason, that we see this language is being used.

It is important also along with the campaign to talk about the right of self determination. Tribal people have that right to determine how they wish to live and not have it imposed on them by outside society.