Curtain Raiser

High Noon at the Amazon, Colltalers

In theory, natural disasters affect everyone equally. In reality, those with means escape unscathed, at least for now, and may even benefit from nature’s fury, while the majority is left to fend for themselves. Once again, have-nots foot the expensive bill for the whims of those at the top.
Man-made climate change, and its hurricanes, flooding, and wild fires, is a result of lifestyles dictated by so-called masters of the universe. But it’s the poor and indigenous people who’ll pay the price with their lives. In the Amazon, however, there’s a rush to speed up this process.
In fact, life expectation in the jungle hasn’t improved much since colonial times. And while painfully aware that survival in the inner cities of the world is often a matter of luck, in the largest Rainforest, the season for hunting and exterminating natives has never really been out.
Still, the recent, and deeply disturbing, report about an uncontacted tribe that may have been massacred by men working for illegal miners in the Amazon is a big, bloody-red flag. The still unconfirmed attack may signal a new level of brutality in the ongoing war between indigenous peoples and those determined to raze the forest for profit, regardless of consequence. Worse: the Brazilian government is part of the problem.
Apparently, the killing was casually boasted by the perpetrators themselves, during a binge at a local watery hole. It was reported that they had objects that could be tribal, but impunity and accessibility issues may prevent, or at least delay, having any clarity about what happened.
The alleged victims, as many as ten indians, may’ve belonged to a tribe first sighted from above just a few years ago. Photos of them waving threateningly bows, arrows and spears at

the small plane made the news rounds. Unfortunately, that’s the initial telltale sign of a well known, and sad, narrative for many a native group like them: unfamiliarity, contact, and then often death from diseases common and non lethal to us.
Of the estimated 11 million natives from over two thousand nations, that greeted the Portuguese in the 16th century Brazil, there are some 300 thousand left, from 200 tribes, according to 1997 figures. That doesn’t include 100 or so isolated groups believed to be living in the jungle.
Many were extinct before the Crown attempted to explore and enslave them. Just like in the U.S. and other Western countries, their natural rebelliousness spared them from the global scourge of slavery, which visited Africa instead. But they were penalized just the same.
And still are. The tragedy of present day Amazon is that it may be extinguished in the next few decades. With it, an entire genetic code, or codes, potentially traceable back thousands of years – to the Stone Age, for instance – risks being lost forever. That’s the age when most were still living just a few decades ago, by the way. It’s been already happening all over the world and climate change will only accelerate it.
Brazilians are ambivalent about the Amazon and its indigenous population. Ethnically, they represent a negligible percentage of Brazil’s great cultural pot. And despite misplaced xenophobic pride against outside interference, only a minority is proactively engaged on its fate.
A 13-year Workers’ Party rule in the country did advance some land demarcation and increased budget for not just the Rainforest, but all native forests. It was, however, a mostly lukewarm political support to its complex condition, which is often at odds with development.
But if before the situation was dire, with the 2016 coup, it went into a death spiral. The Amazon, land of wild dreams of ecology and preservation, is one of Earth’s most dangerous places for green activists, for example, who are being killed with impunity in record numbers.
So far this year, close to 200 wildlife rangers and indigenous leaders have been murdered, at a rate of four a week. But their deaths, ordered by landowners and powerful interests in the region, and executed by contract killers on their payroll, are rarely reported by Brazil’s media.
Last month, Michel Temer, who ascended to the top office after president-elect Dilma Rousseff’s ouster, even attempted to sign a decree, abolishing a national reserve bigger than Denmark to open it to commercial mining. Fortunately, public outrage forced him to cancel the rule.
But that was just a symbolic retreat. ‘Ruralistas,’ the caucus representing the interests of big landowners, farmers, and loggers, is one of the two most powerful groups in the Brazil’s politics, next to the ‘evangelicals.’ Both ideologically rightwing, they usually get what they want.
Temer has also slashed in half the budget for Funai, the country’s government agency in charge of indian affairs. Plagued by historical mishaps and incompetence, it has also just $800 thousand to provide protection to uncontacted tribes. As it seems, it’s not nearly enough.
Even before the next climate-induced catastrophe strikes anywhere in the world, victims of what already happened in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Asia, will be thrown at the mercy, or lack thereof, of fate and government to survive. And so will likely refugees of drowned islands, or flooded coastal areas in those and other world regions. They’ll engorge the miserable, and ever expanding, political refugee lines and camps.
Apart the political disruption and humanitarian and public health crisis, these no-longer-so-natural disasters will cause, it’s fair to expect that even nations fully engaged in funding mechanisms and allocating resources to address them, will be in trouble. Now, picture the U.S.
But all this relatively new context and reality facing mankind, circa 2017, have much less to do with what’s going on in the Amazon, than historical omission from the nation and citizens that were supposed to be first in line to preserve it, and specially, protect its peoples.
‘Fora Temer,’ – Get out Temer – is a chorus heard loudly in pretty much every public function taking place currently in Brazil, from soccer games, to concerts, to protest rallies. Few, if any, shouts are about the Amazon, its martyred heroes, and unknown and forgotten natives. It’s always easier to scream slogans, and attempt to drown out corrupt politicians. But it’s also vital to know by heart the issues that matter.
It’s been long that the sounds, sights, colors, and rhythms from the Amazon region and its indigenous peoples, are all but dissociated from the mainstream of Brazilian culture. Now their very lives, or deaths, are being ignored too. That’s not just cruel and unjust. It’s also inexcusable.
‘Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet’ is the clunky but earnest title for the U.N. General Assembly that kicks off tomorrow, in New York. It’s likely that North Korea and climate change will dominate the agenda to be discussed by the 193 country members – almost all of the Paris Agreement signers. And predictably, the Amazon Rainforest may hardly be mentioned.
But it should, and not only by the likes of Leonardo di Caprio or some other celebrity, however sincere they are in their commitment to it. Every conceivable equation about the climate must take into account the ‘green continent,’ and the fate of its still unknown, and staggering, species diversity. Perhaps you or someone you know will step up to the plate. But a Brazilian will also be nice. Happy Rosh Hashana. WC


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