At the time of writing fires are burning across the Amazon Rainforest right for the Awá tribe. According to reports from Survival International, forest fires are destroying their territory in the Brazilian Amazon and could stand to wipe out the world’s most threatened tribe of indigenous people.
The Awá are one of only two nomadic tribes left in Brazil. The uncontacted tribe have fallen victim to the rush to extract wealth out of the rainforest as the vast mineral wealth which lay beneath the forest floor was discovered in the 1960’s. The US, Japan, World Bank and the EEC (European Economic Community) all loaned Brazil money to extract the minerals in exchange for for exports. What followed was mass destruction of the environment and a genocide of the indigenous people who called it home as their territory ran straight through where they wanted to start extraction.
Despite this and several disease outbreaks the Awá have survived, however a new rush on the rainforest may wipe them out. The fires currently burning are not the first and probably will not be the last; at the end of 2015 loggers destroyed 50% of the forest cover in the territory and there are warnings that this year it could be even worse.
Small groups of Guajajara Indians were the only thing standing between the fires and total destruction until the Environment-Ministry led fire-fighting operation was finally launched two weeks ago. Olimpio Guajajara of the “Guajajara Guardians” who live in and frequently patrol the area is amongst those fighting the fires. He told Survival International, “We are defending our territory, so that the uncontacted Awá can survive. We have managed to reduce the number of loggers on our land and we hope to force all of them out. Otherwise, the Awá could be wiped out. We just want them to be able to live in peace.” Support has been slow to arrive however despite promises of assistance from the Brazilian Government.
This is the plight of just one tribe of indigenous people who face a host of threats including deforestation, however climate change looks like it may be the final killer blow for many tribes. Living closer to the land than the rest of the world they are the harbingers of climate change, not only can they tell a difference in the land before us but they also suffer the consequences first.
Changing weather patterns can wreck havoc upon a population who has already been pushed to the brink of their territory by colonisation. Warming weather means droughts are more likely which not only makes famine a greater risk but also the outbreak of wildfires will be more destructive, a huge risk for the Awá tribe.
It is not just the impact of climate change which is a substantial threat to the long term existence of these tribes. Efforts to mitigate global warming such as investment in renewable energies can ironically cause problems. According to Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project, there are now 45,000 large dams in the world, with an average of two more being added every day, good news for fans of hydroelectric power. Bad news if you’re one of the indigenous tribes who find dams being built across their territory; cutting off rivers, destroying villages and flooding hunting grounds.
Climate change has been an issue in the past for indigenous people, and they have learnt to adapt to it. However the most logical adaptation is simply to relocate. This is simply not an issue for many tribes in the current world. It also raises question of citizenship and how their culture will survive when thrust into modern day society.
For tribes like the Awá it remains to be seen how they will survive this new wave of destruction which meets them. For now it is up to NGO’s like Survival International to raise awareness of their profile and help them survive. Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said; “Brazil needs to take its eyes off the Olympics and focus proper attention on stopping the annihilation of its tribal peoples.”
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