Let's talk Latin America

Indigenous rights in Brazil and across the Americas

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Bristolatino Politics editor Kwame Lowe discusses the ongoing struggle of the indigenous communities of Latin America and particularly Brazil.

A fortnight ago today marked the 521st anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Columbus Day, as it is known, is celebrated across much of Latin America and the USA. For many indigenous communities within the Americas, however, the 11th October is not a day of celebration, but of commemoration. It is often forgotten or even ignored that these lands were not uninhabited when Columbus landed at Guanahani in the Bahamas in 1492, and that others had already been ‘discovering’ this portion of the earth for thousands of years beforehand. The era of European exploration and subsequent colonial conquest led to the death of between 80 – 90% of the indigenous peoples, largely through exposure to foreign diseases such as smallpox. The remaining populations were to diminish further and lose much of their land before being incorporated into the independent nation-states of the Americas we see today. Their positions within these societies have been, and continue to be, peripheral and precarious; the increasing globalisation of the world’s economy and cultures since the end of the 20th century has only exacerbated this marginality. However, this has not been accepted with passivity and there has been notable resistance from indigenous communities.

One very recent example of said resistance is the indigenous rights movement in Brazil, which sprung up across the country and other parts of the world with large Brazilian populations, on the 3 October 2013. This coincided with the 25th anniversary of the founding of Brazil’s constitution that was designed to protect indigenous peoples with Article 231. These rights, however, could conceivably be compromised by Dilma Rousseff’s government, at the request of big businesses seeking to profit from the land and resources historically belonging to Brazil’s indigenous peoples. This is an unfortunate set of socioeconomic circumstances plaguing many Latin American nations. As a result, similarly affected indigenous protest groups in Chile, Guatemala and Canada have been mobilised in the last two months. Affronted with these clear signs of popular dissatisfaction, it is impossible not to scrutinise the issue of indigenous representation within Latin America’s political system. The question is raised as to whether governments engaged in the highly competitive international economy can be trusted – or even expected – to protect traditional ways of life which are at odds with the logic of profit maximisation and continual economic growth.

Millions of Brazilians took to the streets of its cities earlier in the year to challenge the Rousseff administration on accusations of corruption and a lack of investment in public services in favour of hosting major sporting events, notably the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. This points to a general feeling, in Brazil at least, of alienation from supposedly democratic institutions. Unlike these anti-government protests, indigenous rights protests could be painted as representing a minority concern at odds with the national interest. This narrative has in fact been adopted by the farm lobby in its efforts to amend Article 231. However, regardless of whether indigenous communities make up a minority of the population or if they are perceived as economically valuable, the Brazilian constitution rightly recognised the need to accommodate them, as well as non-indigenous communities. External support for indigenous rights is also pivotal in the struggle to preserve their ways of life… now more than ever.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is on the 9 August 2014.

Header photo: members of the Asháninka tribe, who live in the rainforests of Peru and Brasil. Credit Agência BrasilCreative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License.