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Indigenous Movements in South America stand up for their rights amid far-right politics


Author(s): Pamela Machado (Freelance Journalist, Brazil) and Scott Douglas Jacobsen (Secretary-General, Young Humanists International)

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/10/09

The global call for stronger environmental protection, sustainability and climate change mitigation has shown that there is much wisdom in indigenous communities that can be learned in order to build a society that respects the limits of the planet. For centuries, indigenous people have lived their lives in accordance with natural and ecological forces, and as resources become scarce in the world nowadays, indigenous communities play an increasingly important role in shaping the new global order.

The Indigenous movement has long been overshadowed amongst other more influential social movements and due to lack of resources and more powerful voices, indigenous groups gained little recognition in the global media scenario. Despite years of resistance, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the most comprehensive framework in this realm, was only adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September, 2007, leaving evidence of the long-standing struggle of indigenous groups to have their rights assured in an international organization.

This plea for the respect for the rights of the indigenous around the world continues to provide a context for countermovements to the negative populism emergent in addition to the development of international grassroots coalitions who develop from and work in solidarity with the indigenous subpopulations of the world.

As per some of our previous coverage on the indigenous of Brazilian Amazon forests or the tribes found in the Amazon forests, we continue to find the development of a strongman politics with an arising merger between religion and politics grounded in male authority with derivative impacts on the indigenous populations of the region or the country. The rise of far-right politics in the global political landscape urges social movements to keep fighting, and in South America, the government of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro represents a risk for the survival of the communities in the Amazon and their legacy. As the main rainforest and home to numerous communities, the indigenous groups are campaigning for stronger policies to protect their lands in the Amazon, but those movements clash directly with political interests and corporatism.

The state of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon is clearly under threat, as has been found by relevant experts and made public with a letter to Bolsonaro. The letter called for the non-interference and neutrality of ideological values professed by the current government towards the matters of indigenous rights and land protections in Brazil. “Brazil has one of the most ethnic diversity in the world, and the highest number of isolated and uncontacted peoples, giving the country great cultural wealth.” Indigenous people acre actively protesting against Brazil’s vile policies under Bolsonaro. In August, we witnessed the first march of indigenous women against the government, organised by Abip, Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation. The march counted with the participation of 120 different peoples from different states across Brazil and South America. “This government is denying our right to exist,” said Sonia Guajajara, leading figure in the indigenous movement and one of the organisers of the march.

The struggles outlined by the indigenous movements are further recognised by international actors, like the Advocacy Director for Survival International, Fiona Watson, as she calls out not only Bolsonaro’s administration for disregard of indigenous rights, a long standing modern history of exploitation of indigenous lands for corporate purposes: “For decades, Brazil has led the way in the protection of uncontacted tribes’ lands, recognizing that they’re the most vulnerable peoples on the planet… But President Bolsonaro is clearly intent on completely dismantling this work, and wants to open up indigenous territories across Brazil to loggers, miners, and ranchers… He doesn’t care how many Indigenous people die in the process, and has openly expressed his racist contempt for them on many occasions.” Some see this as a pivotal moment in human history apart from others in the contacting, if choosing to do it, of uncontacted human subpopulations, e.g., the Amazonian tribespeople.

This seems like a different time in the living historical record because of the quiet continuation, but noticeable attenuation, of the legacy and impact colonization. Contact, if done, or study with contact, also if done, can be done with honour and respect.

Brazil as the largest state in South America; and, Brazil’s live case of the Amazonian forest not simply burning but being actively burned and then attempts to stop or halt the burning being prevented by the governmental representatives or forces. Bolsonaro’s history shows statements unfavourable — to euphemize — to indigenous peoples living in the Amazon. His statements on record:

“There is no indigenous land where there are no minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I do not enter this bullshit to defend land for Indian”

“There is no indigenous territory where there are no minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians”

Campo Grande News, April 22, 2015

“Not a centimeter will be demarcated either the an indigenous reserve or as a quilombo [territory for descendents of African slave communities].”

Hebrew Club, Rio de Janeiro April 3, 2017

In short, Bolsonaro in these and other quotations represents a common racist with a supremacist attitude who stated precisely the intent as leader if in power and, once being elected into power, began to enact racist policies and the continuation of a 500-year history of colonization of the Amazon with no regard or care given to the health and wellbeing, and land claims and rights, of the original inhabitants of the land who live there now.

The threats to indigenous communities are not confined to Brazil, extending to other territories in South America where their rights have been neglected throughout history, as seen in Brazil, we can see an echo of an emergence of indigenous peoples’ movements from taking to the streets and using one’s body to requests or formal complaints on specific issues to the founding of united indigenous movements in Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, and others.

In Ecuador, “Thousands of indigenous people, some carrying long sticks, converged on Ecuador’s capital as anti-government protests and clashes led the president to move his besieged administration out of Quito,” Associated Press stated, “The South American country of 17 million people appeared to be at a dangerous impasse, paralysed by a lack of public transport and blockaded roads that were taking a toll on an already vulnerable economy.” The sharp increases in the fuel prices created the basis for the protests led by the indigenous activists. President Lenin Moreno ended the subsidies creating the basis for the rapid rise in the fuel prices. Protestors were reported to break through the police barricades and then enter into the congress building. Rioters clashed with police and video footage, as per the AP reportage, sowed police beating some protestors and activists.

In Argentina, efforts to revive lost indigenous languages are taking shape as the country was once home to 38 different groups, but for many reasons, those cultures were silenced. Cristina Messineo, a language specialist says: “Argentina is a country that historically has negated and hidden its multi-linguistic matrix, especially relating to native peoples. The myth that we are all white and European and that the Indians belong to the past falls apart when you consider the latest polls, where the number of those recognizing their indigenous roots (nearly 1 million), exceeds the number who see this as a homogeneous nation speaking a single language.” This year, researchers have engaged in creating Argentina’s first comprehensive language map. Pope Francis has made some noises as to the rights of the indigenous, where, as a matter of fact, is Argentinian.

In Colombia, the indigenous Jiw have lost self-sufficiency since, at least, the 70s and, recently, lodged a formal complaint to the Land Restitution Unit in Colombia. The Jiw and 33 other ethnic groups have been stated as at-risk of extinction. Other movements have taken place in Venezuela where the Founding Congress of the United Indigenous Movement of Venezuela hosted 800 delegates took part from all over Venezuela, as well as in Bolivia, sometimes, their gods come to their aid, so it seems — as the rains snuffed out the fires there. A country with indigenous peoples continuing to march over the troubles from them.

The development history of South America is filled with the combat between the native communities, on one side, and colonial actors, on the other. It is important to note that the regional context for the rights of the indigenous in Brazil and its neighbours reflects the same struggles internationally for the rights stipulated in some human rights documents including the aforementioned UNDRIP. Numerous communities in the Global South have faced ongoing struggles to keep their culture, language and lifestyle alive.

The 500-year history is really the centuries-ongoing story of the indigenous in relation to the colonial cultures.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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