July 3, 2022No Comments

Amazonia: A strategic territory for Human Trafficking and illegal mining

Authors: Beatrice Tommasi and Marta Pace.

The Event

On June 5, in the municipality of Atalaia do Norte located in the state of Amazonas, two people disappeared: namely, Bruno Pereira, the indigenous activist member of the non-governmental organization Coordenação da Organização Indígena União dos Povos Indígenas do Vale do Javari (UNIVAJA), and Dom Phillips, an English journalist and contributor to The Guardian. According to UNIVAJA and the Observatory of Human Rights of Isolated Indigenous Peoples and Recent Contact (OPI), the last registration of the two occurred on June 5 in the morning while they were travelling on a small boat between the community of São Rafael and the town of Atalaia do Norte. After ten days of search and the involvement of the army, navy, and police, on June 16, the bodies of Phillips and Pereira were found. 

Image Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/fire-forest-fire-children-fear-4429478/

The double world of the Amazon

These killings do not seem to be an accident and unveil serious security issues in the region. The concerned area is the far west of the Amazonas and condenses serious conflicts, both from a social and an environmental point of view. On one side, the area hosts the largest number of indigenous people in voluntary isolation in the world. On the other side, it is a strategic region for drug trafficking, and it is crossed by an international cocaine transit route which goes from Peru to distribute in Brazil, Europe and Africa. Moreover, the already tense situation in the region is worsened by the presence of illegal loggers and fishermen whose activities are profoundly altering the ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest.  

All these activities in the region, carried out mainly within the Indigenous Land Vale do Javari, witness the inability and omission of the bodies responsible for the inspection and protection of indigenous territories. As a result, this power vacuum is filled by the presence of the main criminal organizations, who diversify their activities and cause an increase in violent actions against and murders of those who oppose their main interests in the region. According to a study conducted by Mato Grosso do Sul prosecutor Ricardo Pael Ardengui on the impact of transnational organized crime on indigenous communities, environmental crimes - typical of the entire Amazon - have become another mean of profit for organized crime, which has consolidated the drug trafficking route through the Amazon. In this regard, it is worthy to mention that in the last few years, Amazonia has seen a sharp increase in crimes involving drug trafficking, deforestation, and broader violence against indigenous peoples. 

The growing action of criminal groups is the result of the fact that the Brazilian state lacks a compact and effective strategy aimed at fighting deforestation and drug trafficking activities. Indeed, institutions have failed in preventing the spread of criminal organizations, which are now active on various fronts: from the environmental one with massive deforestation, to the paramilitary one with kidnapping and political assassinations. Initially, the criminal activities of the various factions of the region were aimed at using the territory to create new routes for the drug trade, and environmental crimes were used to open new transit areas and alternative routes. Nowadays, the illegal exploitation of forest resources, such as gold and wood, takes place to expand the profits of organized crime. 

Criminal organizations

Criminal activities in the area see the participation of various factions and organizations. Initially, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) - a criminal organization founded in 1993 by inmates in the prison of Taubaté (São Paulo) - clashed with the Família do Norte in Amazonas - another organized crime faction present in the region, resulting in a bloody struggle for the control of the region. In recent years, the PCC has consolidated its control over the area by maintaining close alliances with other criminal organizations, such as the Guardioes do Estado and the Amigo dos Amigos, and expanding internationally through the creation of new partnerships with other Latin American criminal groups. Moreover, the fact that they act at the Triple Frontier - a tri-border area along the junction of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay - has given crime a more entrepreneurial and broader vision, favoring timber smuggling and mining. Within the Amazon, particularly the Atalaia region, there is also the presence of other criminal groups resulting from the break-up of the Família do Norte, the PCC and Bolivian and Peruvian drug trafficking organizations. Consequently, all these conflicts threaten the right and the choice of various groups and ethnicities of having non-contact with the non-indigenous and even indigenous populations of the Javari Valley. 


Furthermore, this threat has been exacerbated by the rise of evangelical churches and the interest of missionaries in evangelizing isolated indigenous people.  It was reinforced by the Bolsonaro government's appointment in 2020 of the pastor, anthropologist and former missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias in the position of coordinator of General Coordination of Isolated and Recently  Contacted Indigenous Peoples at FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), a Brazilian governmental protection agency for Amerindian interests and culture. It was this appointment that replaced the indigenous activist Bruno Pereira, defender of the right of indigenous people to remain isolated. At the time, a group of 14 indigenous people denounced the dismissal of Bruno, one of FUNAI’s most experienced members concerning isolated peoples. This fact was already a harbinger of the deep problems in protecting these peoples by the Brazilian government headed by President Bolsonaro.  

December 3, 2021No Comments

The legacy of Canadian Residential Schools: the Indigenous Rights Movement and its current Challenges

By: Esther Brito Ruiz, Ludovica Brambilla, Arslan Sheikh and Reka Szabo. 

Image Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/ashamed-my-faith-catholics-battling-religion-discovery-1.6081426

Recently, unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children were discovered in various locations in Western Canada, in the territory of residential schools. These schools operated between the end of the 19th century until 1996,  and were mostly run by the Catholic Church. The official number of Indigenous children who died in these schools because of mistreatment is 4120, but it is claimed that the actual number could be much larger

Evidence from various studies prove that approximately 150,000 indigenous children were subject to forceful assimilation in these institutions, after having been separated from their families. Physical, psychological, and sexual abuse were among the practicesused in these schools. The high death rate of Indigenous students can be connected to the extremely bad conditions of the schools— such as poor nutrition, the lack of nurses or the inadequate construction or use of the buildings — and to the lack of proper medical treatment provided to indigenous children, among other inhuman practices. The leading cause of death was tuberculosis, easily caught by malnourished children.

The practices of the residential schools have been described as a genocide by several scholars. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, after having examined testimonies from thousands of survivors, also announced that these acts are to be classified as cultural genocide against Indigenous people. 

After the discovery of the graves, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau guaranteed financial aid and support to the Indigenous communities in Canada. Furthermore, an initiative of the Survivors of the Mohawk Institute at Six Nations of the Grand River — a large reserve in Canada —  aimed at uncovering more details about the dark legacy of the schools’ past with a death and criminal investigation. Questions still remain about the responsibility, the accountability, and the compensation, regarding the Canadian state and the Catholic Church. 

However, the discrimination of indigenous communties in Canadais not solely a past phenomenon  - according to some studies ongendered violence and on the unequal treatment of indigenous people in Canada, Indigenous minorities still face a very different set of circumstances compared to the majority society. We must also consider that the controversy surrounding the Canadian case is not a localized issue, but the latest in a global movement of recognition and redress led by indigenous communities.

The Global Context for Indigenous Rights

Currently, there are 370 million Indigenous people around the world, spanning over 90 countries, 5,000 communities, and 4,000 languages. As such, the struggle of the indigenous movement is not an ancient issue, but a current and contemporary human security challenge. While there has been progress – most notably marked by the 2007 United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ratified by 143 countries) – indigenous abuses are still erased and forgotten, as we have mentioned in the  case of Canadian residential schools.

The legacy of indigenous communities has been marked by a rich history and vital contributions to our culture and environment (for example, in safeguarding 80% of global biodiversity) – however, it has also been defined by horrific atrocities. Well-known is the case of Native American communities, numbering over 10 million before European colonization, and decimated to under 300.000 by the 1900s. Indigenous peoples continue to face continuous and pervasive human rights abuses – ranging from assimilation policies, to land dispossession, the criminalization of protest, or abuses by armed forces. These abuses extend globally – having worsened in recent years and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – and most severely affect communities defending their rights and lands. This has led to intergenerational trauma in many indigenous communities. Today, the most prominent topic in discussions and advocacy within indigenous communities remains the issue of land rights and the resources they harbor. 

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mobili/32358569142

Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources

Indigenous Peoples have a special relationship with natural resources. But from the times of colonisation to the present day, theirrights over these resources have been continuously violated. Even though they make up five-percent of the world’s population, they account for about fifteen-percent of the extreme poor. The major cause of this discrepancy owes to the history of colonisation, subjugation, and oppression. They regularly lack formal recognition over their lands and other natural resources, and are often last to get public investments, access to justice, political participation, and face various obstacles to partake in the formal economy.

Around a quarter of all land outside Antarctica belongs to Indigenous Peoples. But much of this land occupied by them is undercustomary ownership, and most of the governments all over the world acknowledge only a small percentage of this land as lawfully belonging to Indigenous Peoples. The unstable land tenancy is a cause of conflict, environmental degradation, and inadequate economic and social development. This endangers Indigenous Peoples’ culture and knowledge systems both of which have an extremely valuable contribution in maintaining ecological integrity and conserving nature and biodiversity.

As per World Bank, ‘’Improving security of land tenure, strengthening governance, promoting public investments in quality and culturally appropriate service provision, and supporting indigenous systems for resilience livelihoods are critical to reducing the multidimensional aspects of poverty while contributing to the SDGs.’’

The crucial role of social movements

It appears that legal frameworks for the protection of Indigenous People’s rights have been established, but land rights are not yet addressed by state actors and international organizations. Often, aboriginal communities lament a pattern of broken promises and a series of failures within development projects that have been promoted by such actors. This is due in part to the difficulty in questioning the power relations within the structure in which they operate. What is also elided by the mainstream narrative, are the continuities between the colonial past and the present. A postcolonial perspective on the matter has been proposed by many indigenous scholars that investigate colonial legacies to explain the nowadays imbalances between indigenous people and the broader society. Inequities are evident in regard to the land and resources issues but encompass almost every aspect of society, most notably healthcare. A postcolonial approach has been put into practice by many social movements, activists, and advocates for Indigenous People’s rights. Protests and movements, like Idle No More in Canada, emerge from the aboriginal communities and amplify their voices in the many arenas in which decisions are made. They represent the opportunity to contrast the structural violence they face, through ‘grassroots’ discourses around their conditions and demands and cooperations with governments and international actors. In response to the recent discovery of yet another atrocity committed in the residential ‘schools’, Idle No More has asked to cancel Canada Day to ultimately acknowledge the legacy of settler colonialism and violence in Canada’s history; Fifty municipalities have accepted the proposal out of respect and justice.

The Canadian case serves to illustrate what remains an evolving redress and human rights struggle for indigenous communities around the world. Indigenous human security continues to be precarious in most states, and despite the increasing recognition of these transnational advocacy movements, much remains to be done. As states seek to fulfil their obligations to ensure the wellbeing of their communities, a renewed focus must be placed on the recognition of indigenous peoples and their voices as rightful custodians of their land, resources, and culture. If the promises of a post-colonial global order are to be realized, it is indigenous communities that will define and lead the way to achieving it.