Corporate interests are killing the Indigenous Kawahiva people – and Lula isn’t doing enough to stop them

An Indigenous tribe, the Kawahiva people, in the Brazilian Amazon was discovered 25 years ago. Now, Indigenous rights campaigners are criticising Brazil’s authorities for leaving surviving members of the uncontacted tribe open to attack, in one of the most violent areas of the country. Notably, they have accused Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of failing to step up land rights to protect the Indigenous community. As a result, they said the tribe now “teeter on the brink of extinction”.

The Kawahiva people: an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon

The existence of the Kawahiva people (who have no interaction with outsiders) was officially confirmed 25 years ago. Then, thirteen years ago they were caught on camera in a chance encounter. As Indigenous rights non-profit Survival International wrote:

The Kawahiva are nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Past this, very little is known about them, because they have no peaceful contact with outsiders. They may be closely related to a nearby tribe called the Piripkura as they share a similar language, cut their hair in the same way, and use the same kind of arrowheads to hunt fish.

Neighboring tribes refer to them as the “red head people” and the “short people”.

The Kawahiva of the Rio Pardo are part of a larger group which has gradually split up as outsiders have invaded their land. It is likely that many were murdered by outsiders who steal their land and resources, and perished from diseases like flu and measles to which they have no resistance.

Eight years ago this week, Brazil’s justice minister signed a decree into law declaring the area in which the Kawahiva live an Indigenous territory.

However, corporate interests – namely, cattle ranching and logging companies – have hamstrung the completion of the legal protection for this.

Corporate interests killing the Kawahiva people

The Kawahiva people’s territory lies within the municipality of Colniza. It is one of the most violent areas in Brazil. Partly, this is due to illegal logging in the municipality. Notably, 90% of Colniza’s income comes from this illegal practice.

In recent decades, loggers and ranchers have killed many members of the Kawahiva people. Moreover, they have brought in diseases epidemics that have decimated the Indigenous group.

In short, logging, ranching, and mining companies are killing the Kawahiva people and destroying their way of life.

Of course, these powerful corporate interests have also been routinely attacking the Kawahiva’s rights. Survival International has documented a number of these attempts. It wrote:

In 2005, loggers and local politicians managed to persuade a judge to overturn one order protecting the territory. Survival campaigned successfully to have it reinstated.

Some loggers even filed an injunction questioning the existence of the Kawahiva, and an anti-Indigenous local official claimed FUNAI “implanted” the tribe.

FUNAI field workers were threatened and prevented from protecting the area by a logging company, whose workers tried to terrorize the Kawahiva by flying planes low over their forest and opening trails, roads and clearings.

Now, rights groups have said that Lula’s government is failing to protect the Kawahiva people from these genocidal capitalist forces.

Teetering “on the brink of extinction”

In August 2022, Brazil’s Supreme Court gave FUNAI (the Indigenous Affairs Agency) 60 days to finalize a plan for the definitive demarcation of the territory.

FUNAI official Jair Candor in charge of protecting the territory from invasions has said:

The only way to ensure their survival is to map out the land and have in place a permanent land protection team. Otherwise, the Kawahiva will be relegated to the history books, like so many other Indigenous peoples of this region.

However, after a year in power, Lula’s government hasn’t made progress on the Kawahiva territory. On election, he had promised to expand Indigenous reserves. And, as the Canary previously reported, he has made progress on this, designating a number of reserves.

Nonetheless, the Kawahiva people’s case demonstrates that big corporate interests still reign supreme. Moreover, as we also reported in January, Lula has also been failing Yanomani Indigenous communities. Similarly, in instance, illegal gold-mining has created an acute health crisis – which is literally killing them.

President of the local Indigenous organization FEPOIMT Eliane Xunakalo said of the Kawahiva’s situation:

It’s vital that the demarcation of this territory is resumed. Our uncontacted relatives’ security can only be guaranteed if the territory is demarcated.

Survival International’s director Caroline Pearce said that:

It’s now more than a year since President Lula took office, and the Kawahiva land protection process appears to be frozen – despite the fact that they live in one of the most violent areas of the country. Lula’s team are fully aware that the Kawahiva won’t survive unless their land is completely protected. We know that countless Kawahiva have been killed in previous massacres, and that the forest around them is being cleared at an astonishing rate.

President Lula’s commitment to Indigenous rights will mean little if peoples like the Kawahiva, who teeter on the brink of extinction, are left to the mercies of heavily-armed logging and ranching gangs who make no secret of their desire to take over the Kawahiva’s territory.

Feature image via Survival International

By Hannah Sharland

This post was originally published on Canary.