Albion Monitor /News

Governments Sanction Amazon Genocide

by Roy S. Carson

Government forces said to be working systematically to remove "troublesome native elements"

(AR) CARACAS -- South American peasants, farmers and native Indian tribes -- trapped in poverty and desperation by wealthy multinational corporations that bribe their governments to exploit their lands and labor -- have been victims of a series of violent incidents recently in the borderlands of the Amazon rainforest.

In July, a number of native Indians were thrown off their traditional lands at gunpoint and their homes torched at Roraima in Venezuela; peasant squatters were massacred at Rondonia in Bolivia in August; and just weeks ago there was an outbreak of hired-gun shootings at the gold mines in Suriname.

The New York Times has reported that a 6-year-old girl was shot dead as she tried to get to safety under a tree. A prisoner was forced to eat dirt mixed with his own blood, and another had to eat the brains from a battered corpse while savage soldiers held a gun to his head.

Government security forces in a rich swath of rain forest stretching from Bolivia through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela to the Atlantic coast of Brazil are alleged to be working systematically to remove "troublesome native elements" from lands needed by international miners and loggers who've invaded even the most remote parts of the Amazon Basin to get coal, timber and gold.

Indigenous people and landless farmers are also being decimated by drug traffickers

The invaders range from wildcat prospectors out on their own to find the "gold nugget" that will guarantee them their most fabulous dreams, to well-financed Malaysian and Indonesian timber companies who've already depleted their own natural resources in Southeast Asia and see the Amazon rainforest as theirs for the taking.

From the remote borderlands between Bolivia and Brazil, there have been bloody battles in which indigenous people and landless farmers are being decimated by land-owning drug traffickers who exploit the remoteness of the Amazon jungle, knowing the national governments which share an Amazon border don't have the resources or the manpower -- nor often the will -- to fight the cartels.

Yanomani native Indian tribes on the Brazil/Venezuelan border have been worst hit -- and it's easy to understand why, since most of them have never encountered western so-called "civilization," typified for them by drug cartel gun-slingers and multinational land-grabbers.

Just two years ago, Brazilian wildcat miners, searching for gold in the Upper Orinoco jungle, slaughtered 20 Yanomami Indians and provoked an international outcry, which lost focus as international eco-activists moved on to more immediate and "sexier" issues closer to their own home base.

The native Indians cynically are used to the on-off switch of ecological and environment groups' interest in them.

"Killings of Indians by military and police forces have been reported from the Wayuu and Yupka areas in northwest Venezuela," says Marcus Colchester of the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) and Fiona Watson of Survival International, two Britons who have completed a report on the Venezuelan Indians' plight.

The Colchester/Watson report entitled "Venezuela : Violation of Indigenous Rights" claims that Wayuu and Yupka tribes have lost their lands in the Sierra de la Perija [border region of western Venezuela with Colombia] to state-controlled open-cast coal mines and oil-drilling.

"The Yupka and the Bari tribes in neighboring Colombia have also had their land stolen by farmers and ranchers who've invaded Venezuela from across the Colombian border."

Development schemes have also brought death, displacement and disease to native Indians in other parts of Venezuela -- the lands of the Pemon, Kapon, Karina and Lokono tribes in Bolivar state close to the South American country's border with Guyana have been conceded as multinational timber concessions with massive payoffs to corrupt government officials.

Traditionally, local governments side with private industry

Land grabs by government officials are not new to the Pemon, who have been displaced more than once in the last 15 years. Aluminium, iron and steel industries have been set up on their lands with financial support from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, but without any shape or form of reference to their traditional rights to the land.

Colchester and Watson have noted that the violations of native Indian property rights took place even though Venezuela created a national law based on International Labor Organisation (ILO) conventions set up to preclude them from happening -- and the two authors have appealed to the ILO for an investigation into Venezuela's failure to implement it's own law.

There has been increased violence elsewhere in the Amazon rainforest basin this year. Take the case of the Maroons -- rainforest tribes formed by former African slaves who escaped their colonial masters 350 years ago to set up their own societies in remote areas.

Just last month, according to reports from the local human rights organisation Moiwani '86, the Saramaca tribe of Maroons at Nieuw Koffiekamp in northern Suriname, were shot at by security officials working for the Canadian-owned Golden Star mining company.

"I have seen security guards riding around in the white jeeps with M16 assault rifles. I don't think they got people in their sights but the situation has become very serious for the people of the interior," says Gary Branashute, an anthropologist from George Washington University, who returned to the U.S. only days ago.

Golden Star officials do not deny they carry weapons.

"Our personnel are under strict orders and will only use force in response to an immediate threat to their own lives," Peter Donald, the general manager of Golden Star's operations in Suriname has replied to letters of protest.

Golden Star -- which is also a shareholder in the Omai gold mine in Guyana -- has come under a lot of pressure since a cyanide spill at Omai in August threatened to kill local rivers.

Traditionally, local governments side with private industry, observers say. George Washington's Branashute says the Surinamese government even sent a contingent of police to back up Golden Star security forces.

"Three years ago, the government signed an agreement, brokered by the Organisation of American States (OAS), to protect the Maroons and recognise their land rights -- but it was obviously just words and empty prose," Branashute added.

Loggers searching for hardwoods with the help of local government officials allegedly on receipt of huge bribes

The agreement, for what it was worth, ended six years of bloody conflict over land rights between the Saramacas, led by "Jungle Commando" Ronnie Brunswijk, and the government. But the truce was broken briefly last year when the Saramacas took over the Afobakka power station, alleging abuse and neglect of local villages.

Government troops have been accused of attacking the Macuxi -- an indigenous group numbering 12,000 who live in Brazil near the border with Venezuela.

Although the Brazilian army was sent to help protect the Macuxi last March, it is said now [according to a report from the Indian Council of Roraima] to be driving indigenous people from their homes, destroyinghouses, and intimidating communities at gun point.

"The army has assumed 'exclusive powers' over the area, consistently siding with thousands of gold miners and illegal immigrants who have invaded the Macuxi homeland," the Roraima report adds.

Loggers searching for hardwoods are invading the Arara Indians' land near Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon in northern Brazil, and it's with the help of local government officials allegedly on receipt of huge bribes.

Both the Arara and Macuxi land is officially protected by the Brazilian government under the 1988 Brazilian constitution, which requires the government to set aside 557 protected areas covering 11 percent of Brazil's land area for the 320,000 indigenous population of that country.

But local politicians and businessmen say it's unfair to give native Indian tribes -- who comprise less than one percent Brazil's total 160 million population -- so much land. Social activists say the real problem is that 10 percent of the population controls 80 percent of the land, leaving an estimated 2,000,000 families looking for somewhere to go.

They're landless peasants who have also suffered at the hands of the army. Just two months ago the Brazilian army was alleged to have massacred dozens of poor squatters in Rondonia, on Brazil's borders with Bolivia.

Riot police wearing bullet-proof jackets and using tear gas made a dawn raid on the Santa Helena farm, set up by the squatters less than a month before.

"Many people were lost in the bush and some were wounded, dazed by the tear gas, and jumped in the river. It's really impossible to know exactly how many people died," an eyewitness said. "The police just battered and killed the squatters; they used the women as human shields and tortured their prisoners without mercy."

Roy S. Carson is a South American correspondent for The American Reporter.

Albion Monitor October 30, 1995 (

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