Brazil: Gov gave indigenous people small pox clothes and arsenic sugar in the 1970’s!

Mathias greets me with a gruff smile. As we drive along the main road,
he tells me that his family came from the south in the 1970s as part
of a military-government scheme to colonise the Amazon. In common with
thousands of poor families, they received grants to move and were
given work on a fazenda — a large farm — cutting down trees until they
managed to get their own patch of Amazon and chop down its century-old
trees to grow capim — grass for feeding cattle.

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Over the last few years his contact with the Enawene Nawe has made him
regret such destruction. “Look at this,” he says, gesturing either
side of the road to the river. Where once there was forest, now there
is just grass dotted with black burnt-out stumps and broken logs
around which graze hundreds of white-humped cattle. It’s shocking but
this, along with those Maggi soya silos, is why I have come here. I
look at this and see the destruction of the world’s largest
rainforest, the precious carbon sink for our children’s future.

Not only do rainforests maintain our climate stability by absorbing
billions of tonnes of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and emitting clean
oxygen, but destroying them means wiping out species before we even
know what cures they may hold. As I climb down from Mathias’s truck, I
see the blue waters of the Juruena river. It looks so serene, yet it
was from here, 40 years ago, that Norman Lewis wrote a shocking report
in this magazine, entitled Genocide in Brazil, about the extermination
of the Amazon Indians. Along these banks, land-grabbers wiped out
whole tribes by handing out clothes impregnated with smallpox, or
sugar laced with arsenic.

All this was taking place with the connivance of the Brazilian government’s own Indian Protection Service. By 1969 there were estimated to be fewer than 100,000 Indians left from a population believed to have been between 4m and 6m at the start of the century. The leading Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro predicted there might be none left by 1980. Happily, his fears
were wrong and, far from being wiped out, the Indian population has
been growing.

Today there are an estimated 460,000 Indians from
between 225 and 227 tribes, of which about 26 have never been
contacted. “It’s actually been a tremendous success story,” says Fiona
Watson, a campaign co-ordinator for Survival International, the
organisation for the rights of tribal peoples founded as a result of
Lewis’s article. Much of this is down to Survival, which from cramped
offices in London’s East End has become the first port of call for
indigenous people under threat.

Yet Watson is now more worried than in all her 19 years at Survival. “A real war is going on again against the Indians,” she says. Instead of the gold miners, rubber barons and missionaries written about by Lewis, they face a new threat — from those who would turn the Amazon into a food factory for an ever-expanding world. In a quietly global shift, over the last few
years Brazil has become the world’s biggest beef and soya producer.
Within the next decade it hopes to overtake the United States as the
world’s largest agricultural producer, though many of its biggest
exporters are multinationals such as Cargill and Monsanto.

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