Massacre Feared in Venezuela

August 30th, 2012

Posted to National Geographic

As many as 80 Yanomami Indians are feared dead in a village deep in the jungles of Venezuela, victims of an alleged massacre carried out last month by Brazilian gold prospectors.

According to a criminal complaint filed this week with prosecutors and military authorities in Puerto Ayacucho, capital of the state of Amazonas, the incident occurred on July 5th at the native settlement of Irotatheri at the headwaters of the Ocamo River in Venezuela’s remote Upper Orinoco region.

 

Yanomami Father and Son, Upper Orinoco, Venezuela, 2001. Photo by (c) Scott Wallace

The charges indicate that the gold prospectors may have arrived by helicopter, illegally entering Venezuela from Brazil to carry out the raid. Details were provided by three survivors who had gone out hunting early that morning and were away from the shabano – a circular communal structure typical of a Yanomami village – when the attack occurred.

“Survivors of the community who were in the jungle heard gunfire, explosions and even a helicopter in which the miners landed,” Luis Shatiwe, executive secretary of Horonami, the Yanomami rights organization that filed the complaint, told reporters. Witnesses from a neighboring village are said to have seen charred bodies and the burned remains of the shabano.

The presence of Brazilian garimpeiros – or wildcat prospectors – in the headwaters of the Ocamo River has been extensively documented since 2009, when several community members were sickened, apparently by mercury poisoning. Mercury is commonly used by miners to separate gold from ore in the field, creating a serious health hazard in wide stretches of the Amazon rainforest.

Brazilian prospectors have been invading Yanomami lands on both sides of the thinly-patrolled border for the past several decades. Roundups and crackdowns by police and military temporarily interrupt the operations, but enforcement efforts are stymied by the vast distances and a lack of resources committed to safeguard the rugged upland forest region.

The ongoing presence of miners in Yanomami lands has sown strife among natives suffering from disease, despoiled forests and rapidly changing social mores. There are an estimated 20,000 Yanomami living in small communities scattered throughout southern Venezuela and northern Brazil.

“This is a slaughter against the Yanomami people,” said Shatiwe.

 

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As the Clock Ticks, Trees Fall in the Brazilian Amazon

May 15th, 2012

Posted to National Geographic

As Brazil braces for president Dilma Rousseff’s forthcoming decision on whether to sign or veto recent legislation that would alter the country’s Forest Code, rights groups are decrying a surge in illegal land grabs that is wrecking environmental havoc and threatening vulnerable tribal populations.

According to the rights organization Survival International, a gold rush mentality seems to have taken hold of loggers, ranchers and settlers in the eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão, as intruders bore their way deeper into reserve areas set up to protect the forests of the Awá tribe. In addition to 355 contacted members of the tribe, about 100 Awá remain uncontacted, making them one of the very last groups of nomads still roaming the forests of the eastern Amazon. The majority of the 60 or more uncontacted tribes that still survive in the Amazon inhabit the more secluded and remote western regions on the vast Amazon Basin.

 

This aerial photograph shows the boundaries of the Awá Indigenous Land, one of four protected areas where members of the tribe live. More than 30 percent of the reserve has been invaded by loggers, ranchers and settlers. Credit: Survival

Survival has launched a public campaign in recent days that includes a video featuring British film star Colin Firth, best known for his portrayal of a stammering King George in the blockbuster hit “The King’s Speech.” Looking into the camera, an earnest Firth urges supporters to call on Brazil’s Justice Minister to send agents into Maranhåo to halt the destruction. “One man can stop this,” says Firth, “Brazil’s Minister of Justice. He can send in the Federal Police to catch the loggers and keep them out for good.”

According to Survival, logging trucks continue to rumble out of Awá land carrying centuries-old trees with astonishing impunity, “continuing the destruction of the rainforest and its most endangered tribe, the Awá.”

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles to the west, a climate of fear has gripped a series of communal settlements outside the boom town of Lábrea in the state of Amazonas. According to Amnesty International, activists are facing a wave of intimation, including assaults and death threats. Several communal leaders have gone into hiding amid a campaign aimed at ousting residents of legally-recognized extractive reserves from their land. “Many have fled the region in fear for their lives,” says an AI report.

President Rousseff has until May 25th to act on the changes to the Forest Code passed last month by the Brazilian Congress. One of the most troublesome provisions calls for an amnesty for violators who have been illegally clearing the rain forest to make way for cattle pasture and soy plantations. Environmental groups fear the amnesty will send a message of impunity to those who operate outside the law, triggering a fresh and evermore determined assault on the Amazon. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 55% of the Amazon could disappear in the next two decades at current rates of destruction.

In the view of environmentalists, loosening controls on rain forest clearing would further compound the destruction of huge swathes of the Amazon occasioned by a surge in hydroelectric dams under construction or planned for construction in the coming decade. Brazilian officials say that hydropower represents a cleaner way to produce energy that burning fossil fuels. But the only place left to build dams in Brazil is in the Amazon, and opponents say the Rousseff government is underplaying the environmental and social costs of those projects.

“The Amazon region, which seemed infinite only a few decades ago, is now facing the prospect of extinction,” wrote Brazilian journalist Leão Serva in the New York Times late last year. “Projections that seemed apocalyptic at the end of the 1980s — that the forest would disappear by 2030 — are now coming true.”

According to WWF, the Amazon rain forest contains 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon, playing a critical role in stabilizing the global climate.

 

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Illegal Logging Takes Its Toll in the Amazon

April 18th, 2012

Posted to National Geographic

New study says U.S. firms importing millions of dollars worth of ill-gotten timber

The timber industry in Peru is rife with corruption and illegality, and international buyers are complicit in a “well-oiled machine” that is plundering the Peruvian rain forest, endangering its rich biodiversity and undermining the welfare of indigenous communities, according to a major new study by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

(more…)

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Why Would Isolated Tribe Kill Its Point of Contact with the Outside World?

February 1st, 2012

Posted to National Geographic

Authorities are scrambling to establish security in a remote Amazonian frontier region following recent attacks by isolated tribesmen that have left one man dead and another wounded in the wilds of southeastern Peru. The attacks — in October and November of last year  — come amid an upturn in the number of sightings of nomadic Mashco-Piro Indians along major waterways in the dense forests bordering the Manu National Park, posing an increasingly volatile situation for communities, travelers, and the isolated tribespeople.


Isolated Mashco-Piro Indians on Madre de Dios River, Peruvian Amazon, photo by Diego Cortijo/Survival/uncontactedtribes.org

The rights group Survival International released dramatic photographs earlier today of the same group of Mashco-Piro that is believed to have launched the November attack. Witnesses say the victim, a Matsigenka Indian named Nicolas “Shaco” Flores, was killed when struck in the heart with a bamboo-tipped arrow as he tended a garden on an island in the middle of the Madre de Dios River, just outside the community of Diamante on the edge of the Manu Park. Survival described the photos as the most detailed, up-close images ever taken of uncontacted Indians.

(more…)

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