Sunday, January 17, 2010

Indigenous Peoples: Brazil - "We weren't poor until colonisation made us poor,"

By Mario Osava - IPS Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

RIO DE JANEIRO, (IPS) - "We weren't poor until colonisation made us poor," indigenous leader Marcos Terena said at the Rio de Janeiro launch of a United Nations report on the State of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

While indigenous peoples make up around 370 million of the world's population - roughly five percent - they constitute about one-third of its 900 million extremely poor rural people, the U.N. study says.

In Brazil, the 2000 census found that 38 percent of indigenous people lived in extreme poverty, more than twice the national figure of 15.5 percent, said Giancarlo Summa, head of the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in Rio de Janeiro. "There is no indication of any significant improvement in the last 10 years," he said.

There are 230 indigenous groups in Brazil, speaking 180 languages and occupying 14 percent of the national territory, where they make an important contribution to nature conservation but have an extremely limited political role, said Terena, the head of the Indigenous Peoples Memorial, a museum for indigenous culture and crafts in Brasilia.

"We do not have a voice in decisions about indigenous territories," which are selected and demarcated by the government based on anthropological studies. Autonomy is still a distant dream, he said, although in other countries the struggle for self-determination has made more progress.

"We have not managed to get an indigenous president for the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI, the government agency for the protection of native peoples)," unlike Afro-Brazilians who do preside the institutions in charge of their welfare, he said.

Terena, a pilot who works for FUNAI, belongs to the Terena ethnic group, who live in several villages in west-central Brazil. He has been an outspoken leader of the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI) since the 1970s, and later in other associations and forums actively struggling for indigenous peoples' rights.

Because of his track record of social activism on behalf of his people, Terena was invited to take part in the launch ceremony of the report commissioned by the U.N. on the "Situation of the World's Indigenous Peoples" at UNIC's headquarters in Rio de Janeiro Thursday.

The report was simultaneously released in countries with significant indigenous populations, including Australia, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa and the United States.

Among the startling statistics in the publication is that indigenous people have a lifespan up to 20 years shorter, on average, than non-native people in their countries. Poverty, malnutrition and infectious diseases conspire to shorten their lives, the report says.

There were 734,127 indigenous people in Brazil in 2000, according to the official census, which asked each person to identify their ethnic group or skin colour. But Terena estimates that today close to one million people identify themselves as indigenous persons, making up five percent of the national population.

The number of people identifying themselves as indigenous has grown rapidly since the 1980s, when an ethnic pride movement encouraged many people, including city dwellers, to reclaim their indigenous heritage.

Between the 1991 and 2000 censuses, the number of people declaring indigenous identity doubled, an annual increase of 10.8 percent that must be attributed both to the birth rate and to people accepting an ethnic identity they had formerly denied.

Most of the native population lives in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, where their ancestors were saved from genocide at the hands of colonisers, unlike the indigenous people of Brazil's southeastern coast. There are still isolated Amazon tribes that have never had contact with the outside world.

Brazilian indigenous people have the same health, education and human rights problems, and are as socially and economically marginalised, as native peoples elsewhere in the world.

The worst conditions are found in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which borders on Bolivia and Paraguay. The Guaraní Kaiwoá people, especially, are in permanent conflict with large landholders over land ownership; their leaders and young people have been murdered, the suicide rate is up among teenagers, and they are plagued by alcoholism and hunger.

Crammed together on insufficient land to support their way of life, outside cities that have grown prosperous on monoculture crops like soy and sugar cane, indigenous groups are demanding demarcation and enlargement of their territories, to cope with their growing population. But the prospects are not promising.

Landowners with legal title to their properties are putting up fierce resistance, and have taken legal action to suspend the handover of some indigenous lands already earmarked and approved by the national government. And the armed forces are opposed to creating indigenous reserves on the country's borders, claiming they are a threat to national sovereignty.

Recent years have seen a dramatic deterioration in health, with outbreaks of hepatitis, malaria and other diseases in some regions. Different government bodies have provided medical assistance to indigenous peoples, but they remain vulnerable.

Brazil has strong indigenous rights laws, but they are not enforced, Terena complained. "Paternalistic policies" that fail to respect the self-determination of indigenous people only hamper solutions to their problems, he said.

While multilateral bodies like the World Bank make approval of loans conditional on respect for indigenous rights, in Brazil native peoples continue to lack any influence over policies that directly affect them. They do not have a single representative in the 594-member Congress.

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