UN Official Visits Indigenous Communities in the Amazon

Sarah Bardeen
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights.
Todd Southgate

When Victoria Tauli-Corpuz – the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights – visited the big bend of the Xingu River in Brazil last month, the first thing she saw was how dry it looked.

Miles upstream from the big bend, developers have begun filling the reservoir behind Belo Monte Dam. Experts have long predicted the dam will starve the Xingu River of water; some studies say the flow could be reduced by as much as 80%. 

Everywhere you looked, the evidence suggested this was already happening. 

Floodplain vegetation was drying up, and the spots in the river where fish would normally be reproducing were dry. Fruit trees were not fruiting, and the water quality and temperature of the river have been changing. 

It was just one example of the threats indigenous people in the Amazon are facing.

Discussing the issues.
Discussing the issues.
Todd Southgate

A Whirlwind Trip

Tauli-Corpuz was in Brazil for a jam-packed 10-day trip to “identify and assess the main issues currently facing indigenous peoples in the country.” 

What did she find? Despite some exemplary constitutional provisions, there have been “extremely worrying regressions in the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights,” she says. 

Those are the measured words of a diplomat. But when Tauli-Corpuz goes on to describe these “regressions,” there is no way to sanitize them. Attacks and killings – often reprisals against indigenous groups for reoccupying ancestral lands – have been steadily rising since the last UN visit in 2007. Her visit was even followed by a series of attacks on people she’d met with. 

As worrying, says Tauli-Corpuz in her initial report after the trip, is the seeming growth in prejudice against indigenous peoples. In December, 2015, an indigenous Kaingang baby was beheaded – and the media did not report on it. This growing indifference to the violence in these remote regions is worrying, as it seems to signal tacit acceptance of violence as a tactic against indigenous people.

Meanwhile, mega-projects like Belo Monte Dam, says Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, pose at least as great a threat to indigenous groups’ way of life as outright violence. These projects are imposed upon communities without their consent, and they are left to pick up the pieces as the land they’ve depended on for generations is flooded, logged, poisoned and seized.

Tauli-Corpuz heard heart-rending testimony from groups from all over the Amazon, including the Munduruku, whom we’d brought from the Tapajos to meet her.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz visits the Xingu River.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz visits the Xingu River.
Todd Southgate

Brazil Must Take Action

While Brazil is currently experiencing significant political and economic turmoil, Tauli-Corpuz suggests that the situation for indigenous people will only worsen unless the government takes decisive action to reverse it.

In September, she will present a report on her findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. But in her initial trip reportTauli-Corpuz offered some early recommendations:

  • Immediate measures should be taken to protect the safety of indigenous leaders and to conclude investigations into all killings of indigenous peoples;
  • Efforts should be redoubled to move beyond the current impasse in relation to land demarcation, as the urgently needed solutions are possible if the necessary political will exists;
  • There is an immediate and pressing need to revisit the proposed cuts to FUNAI’s budget and to ensure that local FUNAI offices are not the target of such measures and are instead strengthened to provide the core services which indigenous peoples and other organs of the State rely upon;
  • The jurisprudence of the ILO supervisory bodies and the guidance of the Special Rapporteur in relation to the implementation of the right to prior consultations in relation to policies, legislation and projects potentially impacting on indigenous peoples’ rights should be reviewed and followed. 
  • Such consultations should be conducted in a manner that caters to the specificities of each indigenous people, as affirmed under ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • The State should acknowledge and support the proactive measures that are being taken by indigenous peoples to realize their rights in practice in accordance with their right to self-determination;
  • Dialogue should be initiated with indigenous peoples in relation to the possible conduct of a National Inquiry to probe allegation of violations of their rights, raise awareness and provide some redress for human rights violations;
  • The effective participation of indigenous peoples in the determination of how my recommendations and those of my predecessor can be implemented and overseen should be facilitated.

These are important first steps, but questions remain. How much notice will the Brazilian government take of the UN’s report, when it’s shown itself immune to criticism in the past? How can this report translate into change on the ground? And if FUNAI, Brazil’s own indigenous rights body, is hamstrung by a government intent on building large, corruption-filled projects, how can it overcome that? Recent events point to a government that may be changing its tune, but it's too soon to tell.

There’s no more time to waste. We can only hope that if Brazil knows the world is watching, it will treat its indigenous peoples – and their ancestral lands and waters – with the respect and honor they deserve.

A gathering on the Xingu River.
A gathering on the Xingu River.
Todd Southgate
Tuesday, April 26, 2016