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For Indigenous People in the Americas, Standing Rock Illustrates Centuries of Conflict

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The recent announcement by the United States military that it would not allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to jeopardize the lands and water sources of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was a remarkable landmark for indigenous struggles in the Americas. Though the victory might well not be permanent, it is still worth celebrating. However, it is vitally important that we do not lose sight of the many similar struggles indigenous and tribal peoples are facing around the world. From the scrublands of Patagonia to the icy reaches of the Arctic, the images of the Standing Rock protests that have been splashed across the American media may prove to be not only an inspiration, but a decisive turning point.

Of the hundreds of powerful photos currently that have circulated online of the extraordinary face-off between the Sioux protestors and North Dakota police, one is perhaps especially eye-catching. It shows a young Native American man wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and what appears to be an improvised gas mask, on a horse looking out at a police barricade. Behind a makeshift wall of abandoned tires and wood is a phalanx of police in uniform and helmets holding wooden clubs. They are flanked by armored vehicles that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Iraqi or Afghan wars.

The image evokes civil rights struggles of the recent past. The police with their tan shirts and macho postures even look like the men in 1960s Alabama who were photographed using water cannons and setting dogs on African American protestors. As far as indigenous peoples across the Americas are concerned however, it has an even older history. Those police, protecting the commercial interests of a major oil company, are merely the latest representatives of colonial powers that have appropriated indigenous land and resources and ruthlessly crushed resistance since 1492.

If the Dakota Access Pipeline was the only struggle of its kind going on in the American hemisphere in 2016 it would be easy to focus human rights and environmental campaigning efforts. Sadly however, it is simply the best known and most widely publicized example of a conflict over land and resources that cannot be ignored, and which is unwinding as we speak.

In the agricultural plantations of central Brazil, on fertile red land that used to be forest, the Guarani Kaiowa people are fighting every day for their land. The struggle has been going on for decades and very few victories have been won in that time. Despite determined resistance to the ranchers who steal their land and the hired gunmen who harass their communities almost daily, many Guarani have given up hope. The Kaiowa group of the tribe suffer the highest suicide rate in the world, and it is disproportionately high among young people and teenagers. Many are reduced to living on roadsides, drinking water contaminated by the pesticides used to grow cash crops on what is rightfully their land – under both Brazilian and international law.

In the Peruvian Amazon, in the heart of what Survival International defines as the Amazon Uncontacted Frontier, the mountains and rainforest shelter dozens of groups with little or no contact with mainstream society. They live sustainably, mostly as nomadic hunter gatherers, subsisting off the land as they have for generations. They know who “we” are but have chosen not to make contact, crossing spears in the forest or pointing arrows at passing planes to show that they wish to be left alone. Infectious diseases like flu and measles to which they have no resistance can be deadly for them, as can the violence too many people are willing to use to steal their land and resources.

Sadly, plans are in place to do just that on an industrial scale. The pro-“development” government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has just approved a “master plan” for oil exploration in the Sierra Divisor national park – a remote part of the frontier region home to distinct and precious biodiversity and many uncontacted people. The plan designated certain so-called “protected areas” as fair game, opening them up to a process that often involves massive explosive detonations below ground. It is obvious that this will disrupt uncontacted hunting grounds, cut off food sources. and massively increase the risk of deadly confrontations between tribespeople and oil company staff.

On the other side of the Amazon in northeastern Brazil, indigenous people cling to what little forest remains. In Arariboia indigenous territory, home to the Guajajara and Awá peoples, large-scale deforestation has left very little of the environment which the tribes have been dependent on and managed for millennia. Trucks full of illegally felled timber pass along the dirt roads that run through the territory with impunity. Tribal peoples, some of them uncontacted, flee the chainsaws and seek refuge in small patches of forest where they can hunt and forage for food in peace.

Remarkably, some of the contacted Indians in the region have taken to acting to defend their uncontacted tribal neighbors. A group from the Guajajara tribe, known as “The Guardians” have taken it upon themselves to protect the land. The leader of the group, Olimpio, put it simply: “We are defending our territory so that the uncontacted Awá can survive. We just want them to be left in peace.”

There is immense hostility in the area towards groups like the Guardians. Between September and November this year, six Guajajara men were murdered and then horribly dismembered by invaders to the territory. The local authorities who profit from the trade in illegal timber turn a blind eye to this brutality. The Guajajara and Awá have few allies, and Survival has been working for years to try and support their right to protect their lands, defend their lives and determine their own futures.

There are countless other examples. In the centre of the Amazon, a small group of uncontacted Indians known as the Kawahiva have been on the run for years, forced to move about constantly to escape invaders and the threats they bring. If their land was protected from the ranchers and loggers who are constantly looking to exploit it they could thrive. Instead, the department of the Brazilian government that is responsible for doing this is set to have its budget cut.

Likewise in Paraguay, small bands of Ayoreo Indians live a similarly threatened lives in the Chaco, a dry, scrubby forest which is being cut down faster than any other on Earth. Bulldozers, which the Ayoreo call “Beasts with metal skin,” tear down trees and dwellings and force the tribespeople to flee. Those Ayoreo who have been contacted have suffered from disease and ended up impoverished on the edges of Paraguayan society. The men scratch out a living wage laborers and many of the women turn to prostitution to survive. They are harassed by missionaries, and unscrupulous people looking to exploit them. Contact with mainstream society and moving out of the forest has not been “progress,” but rather, a death sentence.

Land theft is the biggest problem tribal peoples face. Around the world, industrialized society is stealing tribal lands in the pursuit of profit. This is a continuation of the invasion and genocide which characterized the European colonization of the Americas and Australia.

But for tribal peoples, land is life. It fulfills all their material and spiritual needs. Land provides food, housing and clothing. It’s also the foundation of tribal peoples’ identity and sense of belonging.

The theft of tribal land destroys self-sufficient peoples and their diverse ways of life. It causes disease, destitution and suicide. The evidence is indisputable. It’s time we recognized it, and fought for indigenous and tribal peoples’ fundamental right to self-determination on the land which is rightfully theirs. Standing Rock has shown the power of people standing up for their lives, lands  and human rights, and at Survival we’re fighting for similar victories elsewhere in the world.

More articles by:

Lewis Evans is a campaigner at Survival International.

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