Awa: ‘Earth’s Most Threatened Tribe’ [PHOTOS & VIDEO]
Colin Firth launched a major Survival International campaign on Wednesday to save "Earth's most threatened tribe" --the Awa of the Brazilian Amazon.
The Awa are a small, partially contacted tribe whose territory in the Brazilian state of Maranhão has been invaded by a destructive army of illegal loggers, ranchers, and settlers who are often armed. According to Survival International, the situation has reached crisis point with some 30 percent of a legally-protected reserved cut down. The tribal rights organization claims the Awa's forests are disappearing faster than any other indigenous area in Brazil.
"They're surrounded," Survival's research director, Fiona Watson, told the International Business Times. "They are now occupying an island in a sea of deforestation."
Survival knows of around 360 contacted Awa in the eastern Amazon, but it is estimated that about 20-25 percent more are hiding in the rapidly disappearing forest. They are one of the world's last remaining nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes and depend on the forest for their livelihood.
Though these "uncontacted" tribesmen are frequently romanticized as "primitive" and unaware of the outside world, they often purposefully avoid society after earlier conflicts with civilization, Watson said. The designation "uncontacted" simply means a people who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society.
The tribal rights organization estimates over 150 million tribal people currently live in 60 countries worldwide. Though it does its best to speak for each tribe, Survival tends to pick its battles and fight where it sees the greatest need. That's why they've teamed up with Firth to help persuade Brazil's justice minister to send in federal police to permanently clear out the loggers, ranchers, and settlers before it's too late.
Bruno Fragoso of Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) said in an interview on Globo TV that the Awa face increasing invasions.
"If rapid emergency measures are not taken, the future of this people is extinction," he said.
Brazilian judge José Carlos do Vale Madeira, who visited the territory in 2009, said they are facing a "real genocide." A survey carried out by anthropologist and Awa expert Dr. Eliane Cantarino O'Dwyer in 2007 arrived at the same conclusion.
With the stakes high, Survival called upon Firth, the 51-year-old "King's Speech" actor and longtime Survival supporter, to encourage the world to help save "earth's most threatened tribe." The centerpiece of the campaign is a short film, shot in November, featuring music by Grammy-winning composer Heitor Pereira and an appeal by the Oscar-winning actor.
"The Awa's forest is being illegally cut for timber," Firth says in his appeal. "When the loggers see them, they kill them. Their bows and arrows are no match for guns. And at any other time in history, that's where it would end. Another people wiped off the face of the earth, forever. But we're going to make sure the world doesn't let that happen..."
The film features rare footage of the remote tribe, including a spiritual ceremony and scenes showing the tribespeople's remarkably close relationship with their "pets." Of course, the film also highlights the devastation logging has had on the community.
"What will happen to my brothers who still live in the forest," one Awa man says. "Why are they doing this? If you destroy the forest, you destroy us too."
Firth hopes to spur the Brazilian government into action. He's encouraged the public to demand that Brazil's minister of justice sends in police to put an end to the illegal logging before the dry season begins and the problem grows.
For its part, Brazil has made progress in tackling the issue of illegal logging. The country's National Institute for Space Research estimates that 2,410 square miles was lost between 2010 and 2011, down from a peak of 10,695 square miles in 2004.
Yet, figures also show a sharp rise in deforestation in two states and the fact remains that loggers are destroying the Awa's land -- formally recognized in 2005 after heavy campaigning from Survival -- at a faster rate than any other tribal area in the Amazon.
The Root of the Problem
The problems began in earnest in 1982 with a European Economic Community (EEC) and World Bank-funded program to extract massive iron ore deposits found in the Carajás Mountains. Brazil received $600m to build a railway from the mines to the coast so long as Europe would receive a third of the output for 15 years. This railway bisected the Awa's land and helped usher in a wave of settlers. With that came road-building programs and the Awa's jungle became a prime target for loggers moving in from the east.
Before 1973, Watson said the Awa remained "uncontacted," living in highly nomadic groups. Then came what Watson called a "double whammy" with the railway and a rash of infrastructure developments including an aluminum smelter and dam.
The cattle ranchers, loggers, and settlers were ordered off the Awa land in 2009, but many of the individuals are well connected and appealed the decision. The issue remains tied up in the courts, but as of the latest ruling at the end of last year, the people must leave Awa land by the end of 2012.
Watson said that isn't enough.
"They'll play the game and appeal against it. This could go on for years. One of the fundamental problems is there isn't enough of a deterrent for people to leave. The government will close down a sawmill or give a small fine, but people come back."
Watson believes the justice system is too slow and doesn't deal severely enough with the problem.
Growing Interest in Tribal Issues
Survival's latest campaign reflects a growing global interest in the plight of the world's last remaining indigenous populations. In January, the story of "human safaris" in India's Andaman Islands made headlines around the world. A few weeks later, the struggles of Peru's Mashco-Piro also captivated the world as did photos of a newly discovered "uncontacted" tribe last June.
"I think people are just generally amazed that there are still those who shun all contact with the world," Watson said. "But they probably know a lot more about us than we think they do. They know full well what's going on."
As for the Awa, Watson points to Survival's success with the Yanomami as a sign that global activism can make a difference:
"During the 1980s, the Yanomami suffered immensely when up to 40,000 Brazilian gold-miners invaded their land. The miners shot them, destroyed many villages, and exposed them to diseases to which they had no immunity. Twenty percent of the Yanomami died in just seven years."
After a long international campaign led by Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, Survival, and theCCPY (Pro Yanomami Commission), Yanomami land in Brazil was finally demarcated as the "Yanomami Park" in 1992 and the miners expelled. It is now the largest indigenous territory in Brazil.
"Some people might think: Isn't it too late? Isn't it helpless for the Awa?" Watson said. "But it's not. The Awa's land is legally recognized, so the Brazilian government has the authority and legal obligation to remove the loggers. They can do it if they have enough political will and enough pressure."
To learn more about the plight of the Awá visit http://www.survivalinternational.org/awa
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