Thursday, September 4, 2014

It's on in the Amazon.

These. Guys. Are. Metal.

Chop down MY tree, will you?!
Photo by Lunae Parracho for The Atlantic

The Atlantic today released a photo essay of a group of Ka'apor, a Brazilian indigenous community, just bringing a world of pain to some loggers operating illegally in their territory.

It went down like this: the Ka'apor are the legal custodians and inhabitants of a swath of Amazon rainforest in Maranhao state, and they've gotten tired of the government's inability or unwillingness to keep unauthorized logging operations from harvesting lumber on their land. So last month, a bunch of men from several tribes mounted up with rifles, bows, and sticks, and went out and found an illegal logging camp. They captured the loggers, beat them with sticks, took their pants and shoes, cut up their logs with chainsaws, and sent them running off down the road while their trucks burned.

And you know what? Good for them. Kind of.

In the recent (post-colonization) history of the region, Amazon indigenous communities have had an incredibly hard time getting governments to even acknowledge them as human beings, much less offer them equal protection under the law. States have tended to be, at best, neglectful or patronizing toward indigenous populations, at worst, actively hostile. The Amazon, by the way, is huge, and even a relatively powerful government like Brazil's will be hard-pressed to control the more remote areas like Maranhao state, even if they want to. So, the community members took matters into their own hands.

Ain't nobody got time for that truck.
Credit: Lunae Parracho for The Atlantic

Whether government inaction is more a problem of ability or of willingness in this case, I don't know. It's probably a bit of both. Two things I can tell you, though: it looks like this has been going on for a while, and the Ka'apor are now striking back at logging and farming outfits that have destroyed their land, displaced their communities, and killed their neighbors. Also, based on my experience, unauthorized logging and mining camps in South America often have the tacit (and sometimes not so tacit) support of government officials who don't see the Amazon as an ecosystem or cared-for land, but a bunch of dollar signs covered by forest canopy.

Which brings to mind a couple troubling things about this latest turn of events. What's really sad, to me, is that  the newly pants-less loggers are the symptom, not the disease. They're not the ones reaping disgusting profits. Their street clothes, dilapidated vehicles, and apparent lack of safety equipment tell me that they likely aren't well-paid employees of a legitimate enterprise, but low-wage labor for a wildcat outfit. The problem isn't with those guys, who are trying to live and support their families just like the Ka'apor, but with the high percentage of logging companies who operate illegally in the Amazon. A late-90s study by the Brazilian government found that 80% of all logging in the Amazon was being done illegally, and 12 out of the 13 companies investigated were cutting down trees they weren't supposed to. That's the big picture, and while I don't think the Ka'apor were wrong in the strictest sense, I do wish they had a more direct (and less violent) way to address the real problem, like the capacity to deal with the government directly, establish some rule of law, and secure a commitment to clamping down on illegal logging.

The state likely has little interest in doing that, though, because dollars. Foreign companies tend to invest a lot of money in countries where they want to secure mining, oil extraction, or logging privileges. So in the past, when indigenous communities in South America have attempted to occupy or dismantle those operations, the state has sent in its own security forces to protect that investment. Occupiers and demonstrators can be arrested, injured, and killed by their own country's military acting on behalf of a private corporation. When pictures like this hit the internet...    

Lunae Parracho/The Atlantic
...people tend to take notice, and words like "savages" and "terrorism" start to get thrown around, which is productive for nobody. 

Fortunately, there are organizations, both indigenous and otherwise, that are working to build the capacity of vulnerable groups to advocate for their needs and exercise their rights. Check out the work of CARE International or the Latin American Future Foundation , which I was fortunate enough to intern with a couple years back. They're doing some important things and forming crucial partnerships with the aim of making lawlessness the exception, not the rule, in the region.


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