An investigation in Brazil has begun into a reported massacre of up to ten members of an isolated Amazonian tribe. It is believed that the indigenous people were killed by illegal gold miners who, according to Al Jazeera, bragged about the attack afterwards. The latest report of the massacre asserts that it occurred when men, women and children from a non-contacted tribe were looking for turtle eggs by the river. The accused are said to have claimed that they threw the bodies into the river to make it virtually impossible for prosecutors to find any evidence of the massacre. The attack took place within a reserve in the state of Amazonas. This protected area is being increasingly invaded by outsiders such as cattle farmers, hunters, fishermen and miners. The latest incident highlights a growing trend in tensions between “protected indigenous communities” and outside operations, threatening peace in the Amazon where land ownership rights are hotly contested.
The Brazilian state has repeatedly claimed over the past week that the allegations are false. However, the state is yet to send anyone to the incident site. A local tribesman reported that the only sign of any investigation he has seen was when a helicopter overflew the area weeks after the alleged incident. The prosecutor for Amazonas concedes that the government is leaving indigenous tribes, particularly those who are un-contacted, almost completely defenceless. He further states that “if you do not place a barrier and effective policing of the area which is not happening now, the danger of these tribes becoming extinct is huge.” Gilderlan Rodrigues, a missionary working with Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council, adds that “the government doesn’t see protecting indigenous people as a priority as they want to open up indigenous lands for exploration.” In June this year, a month after members of the Gamela tribe in Maranhao were attacked and killed with machetes and rifles in a land dispute, the United Nations warned that indigenous and environmental rights were under attack in Brazil.
It is commendable that the Amazonas people are drawing global attention to their plight, pursuing the prosecution of perpetrators and calling for a more robust protection from the state. If the indigenous people are not protected from the outside world, there is a very real risk ‘smaller one-off instances’ such as that described here, may spill over into larger scale conflict. This is particularly worrisome as the Amazonas people’s weaponry is limited compared to the modern technologies the outside world possesses.
The current incident is situated within a complex historical, social, and political context. The Amazon is home to the largest number of uncontacted tribes in the world, with the only evidence of their existence coming from drone footage taken from above. Within the reserve in the state of Amazonas, there are also 55,000 people who belong to the region’s six contacted tribes. The state was established to protect these threatened populations and preserve their way of life, although, one tribe’s leader explains that while living on the reserve “is better, it is not good, we have people dying from diseases we didn’t have before and I wish we could move back inside the forest where our ancestors lived.” The leader explained to an Al Jazeera reporter that he is training his tribesmen in how to fight the outsiders he believes are again trying to take their land and resources, encouraged by poachers and land grabbers. Attacks which threaten to destabilize peace in the area are said to have soared since the new President, Michel Temer, greatly reduced the budget for the authority in charge of protecting and policing the reserve. The budget cut was mirrored by a decree signed by Temer to open up a vast Amazon reserve, including two indigenous territories, for agriculture and mining interests. The decree was quashed by a federal judge, but sparked a mass demonstration by indigenous people in Brasilia in April.
While an investigation into the recent alleged massacre is now underway, this does not guarantee an end to violence as the pressure increases from outsiders who believe they should have access to the land and resources that are, as of now, reserved for Amazonian tribes.