Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

MEXICO: Isolated Indigenous Groups Face Extinction

Diego Cevallos*

Mexico City, Jul 1 2003 (IPS) - Native South Americans shunning contact with – civilization" are facing cultural genocide, warns a United Nations official. While government rhetoric and laws guarantee the existence of isolated indigenous groups still living in the Brazilian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon jungle and in Paraguay’s Chaco region, their path to extinction appears to be already laid out.

The Korubos of Brazil, the Tagaeri of Ecuador, the Ayoreo of Paraguay and the Mashco-piros, Ashaninkas and Yaminahuas of Peru, which together amount to a total of only 5,000 individuals, are feeling the pressure of – civilization" advancing on their territories.

These isolated native communities are facing ôtrue cultural genocide", Roberto Stavenhagen, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, told Tierramerica.

ôI’m afraid that under the current circumstances it will be difficult for them to survive more than a few more years, since what we call development denies them the right to continue living as they are," he said.

These groups have decided to live apart from modern society hoping to avoid the cultural and physical extinction that other native communities have suffered in their interaction with Western society. But their culture and existence are being threatened by companies and individuals wishing to exploit the rubber, wood, oil, gold and genetic resources that could be found in their territories.

They also face threats from missionaries, anthropologists and tourism, and are being killed in large numbers, as happened last May in the Ecuadorian Amazon when a dozen Tagaeris, of the less than 300 still alive, were massacred by Huaoranis who now live a Western lifestyle. The murders were done in the interest of logging companies keen on exploiting virgin territories.

Many of these groups came to Western attention less than 60 years ago because of violent incidents committed in their territories and business interests wishing to exploit their riches.

They were long considered violent and cannibalistic ôsavages" by some religious groups, businesses and even members of other indigenous groups.. But violence is a common theme in stories about these isolated communities, groups which themselves have been hunted down like animals and then put on exhibition for the viewing pleasure of the ôcivilized world".

In 1956, for example, a group of Paraguay’s Ayoreos was pursued by one company’s workers. The workers captured a boy, Iquebi, not yet 12 years old, who became the first Ayoreo put on display in the country.

ôThe economic system does not respect cultural diversity, and indigenous groups who have voluntarily isolated themselves are considered obstacles," says Sebastiao Manchineri, himself a member of Brazil’s indigenous community and the spokesperson for the Association of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin.

ôThe future of these sister communities is not guaranteed, and they are heading for extinction," he lamented.

According to the UN-financed study, The Amazon Without Myths, when the Europeans arrived in the Americas, the Amazon basin was home to some 2,000 indigenous groups, about 7 million people.

More than five centuries later, after persecution, epidemics caused by contact with foreigners and exploitative labor arrangements, less than 400 groups and only about 2 million individuals remain. Of these, around 5,000 shun contact with ôcivilization".

National and international laws and government rhetoric promise to defend the existence of these last holdouts to ômodern civilization", but there is also the recognition that this will be difficult to accomplish.

For Sydney Possuelo, the head of the Isolated Indigenous Groups department in the National Foundation of Native Peoples of Brazil, the future of the country’s indigenous groups looks bleak.

The survival of these groups depends ôon a reduction in consumerism. Without this change à they will continue to be destroyed in the name of progress", he told Tierramerica.

ôWith each disappearance of a community, a whole people dies and that is lamentable," he said.

Brazil’s Korubo, estimated at around 300, is perhaps one of the largest ethnic groups still living in isolation in that country. There are other groups with as few as four members.

There are also groups with just one member ôwho does not want any contact with the outside world, lives alone in his hut, and uses arrows to attack anyone who comes close", Possuelo said.

The constitutions of Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, but not Peru, recognize the rights of indigenous groups over their territories. All four are signatories to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which guarantees the rights of native populations over their physical and cultural surroundings.

But these countries often fail to live up to their constitutions and their international agreements. Studies in the Peruvian jungle, for example, show that companies that operate in the Amazon do nothing to preserve the rights accorded to the isolated communities, says Cristina Valdivia of the state’s Program for the Defense of Peru’s Native Communities.

That country’s Mashco-piros, numbering some 1,100, are harassed by several companies, and their territory has been invaded by firms engaged in natural gas exploration activity.

The Mashco-piros are in danger, as are the Ashaninkas and Yaminahuas, whose combined population hovers around 2,200 individuals.

Pressured on all sides, the Peruvian native communities have been involved in bloody attacks, as have those in Ecuador, Paraguay and Brazil. In the late 1990s in Paraguay, the Ayoreo Totobiegosode attacked with spears a group of employees of a company that had opened up a route to the jungles in the Chaco region.

The territory of the Ayoreo encompasses some 3 million hectares along the border with Bolivia, but it is under constant pressure from the advance of the agricultural frontier.

Paraguay’s natives, like those in other countries with Amazon territory, also face harassment from religious groups – in their case, the evangelical New Tribes Mission from the United States.

The government’s responsibility to the Ayoreo Totobiegosode is ôto protect them from outside interference, which takes many shapes à they have to fight many people with designs on their territory", says Oscar Centurión, president of the Paraguayan Institute of Indigenous Peoples.

Sociologist Tarcila Rivera, with the government’s Center for Indigenous Cultures of Peru, maintains that there is no lack of laws to protect the rights of native peoples, since as Peruvians they fall under Peruvian law.

The problem, she said, is that ôthere is a tendency to think of them as ‘savages’, lying outside the reach of the protection offered to the rest of the citizens."

ôWithout the help of their governments, those communities wishing to live apart from ‘civilization’ will become extinct, and there is nothing we can do about it," said Manchineri.

* Abraham Lama (Peru), Mario Osava (Brazil) and Alejandro Sciscioli (Paraguay) provided additional reporting for this story. (END)

* Originally published Jun. 28 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme: www.tierramerica.net

 
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