Endangered humans – Human Rights Watch

Endangered humans – Human Rights Watch – indigenous peoples

Bob Jones

When most people refer to threatened or endangered species, they likely think of plants and animals. Certainly, in looking around or taking a drive through a * major city filled with millions of people, it is indeed hard to believe that them are human cultures in danger of extinction. However, as with endangered plants and animals, there are areas of the world that harbor aboriginal peoples who are in risk of losing centuries of evolved customs and even their ability to exist as a culture. After thousands of years of total isolation, these native bastions have managed to avoid the vagaries of the industrialized world. Nevertheless, this is rapidly changing as the plague of economic growth creeps into indigenous homelands and threatens their ability to support their human inhabitants.

Deep within the Brazilian frontier, cattle ranchers, gold miners, and timber merchants wreak havoc on the forest and have pushed several native tribes to the brink of extinction. These tribes constitute some of the last intact aboriginal cultures left in the world. The primary reason for this phenomenon is the rapacious construction of roads built to accommodate economic exploitation of the rain forest. Once these roads are built, the trees cleared, and the soil excavated and paved over, what begins as a slow trickle soon turns into a steady stream of human traffic ready to begin its deadly conquest.

In a 1999 Rolling Stone article, photojournalist Sebastio Salgado wrote about his visit to the Amazon rain forest to document the displacement of the native peoples of Brazil. He spent forty days traveling through remote areas of the Amazonian forest to photograph and observe several of the most endangered tribes. These are the Macuxi, Marubo, and Yanomami who partly inhabit the northern state of Roraima. His account is alarming and serves as a grim reminder that not only are the rain forests in serious jeopardy, but also the native human cultures which inhabit them. He explained that they have suffered to such an extent that one of the Macuxi chiefs declared, “The white man has built roads, houses, farms and opened the way to disease, poverty and death.”

Salgado had visited these same areas thirteen years prior and worked with a group of Brazilian scientists studying a rare African disease called river blindness. He explains how on his return trip he witnessed “a devastation so complete, so sweeping that it seemed a century had elapsed” since his previous visit. Much of this devastation was caused by the Brazilian military that, before his first visit, had built a small landing strip to accommodate small planes near the Yanomami village of Surucucu. He writes, “Today, there’s a massive military airport staffed by perhaps thousands of soldiers who are patrolling the border with Venezuela.” He describes how a Yanomami chief greeted him wearing camouflage and a vest, whereas thirteen years before he would have been naked. As Salgado toured the area, he noticed that the Yanomami were now all living in huts fabricated from plastic and metal scraps gathered from junk piles scattered around the base. Even their traditions of war had been westernized to include rifles instead of the weapons, such as bows and arrows, once used for intertribal battles.

Once nomadic, the Yanomami would constantly move seeking fresh hunting grounds and new land with which to grow crops. Salgado says, “They know instinctively, with an accumulated knowledge that is centuries old, that the land can’t sustain itself without a hundred years rest.” Now, however, the military has forced them into a state of dependence such as receiving food and medicines from the soldiers. Disease and prostitution are rampant. Flu, rubella, and venereal disease have threatened their entire population. Other tribes such as the Macuxi aren’t nomadic and instead occupy the hills, savanna, and tropical forests to the north of the Yanomami territory. Still, their land is a prime source of diamonds and gold, and the slopes of the savanna are ideal for raising cattle. Hence, they aren’t immune to the effects of exploitation by industrialized people. Salgado writes, “The change is complete, and its speed is awesome.”

On the other side of the world, another indigenous group is fighting a losing battle to maintain its existence. The Penans, known as the “lost tribe of Borneo,” are being driven to the limits of their range. It is estimated that in the state of Sarawak, home of the Penans, 70 percent of one of the world’s oldest forests has been destroyed at a rate nearly twice that of the Amazon. Despite the fact that the Penans’ homeland is hundreds of miles from paved roads and electricity, the multitude of loggers is simply overpowering them, virtually stamping out their homeland. The Penans’ food supply, which consists of wild game, hearts of palm, and fruit, has almost completely died out. Logging waste pollutes the rivers and trees which provide them with medicines and valuable antidotes are being cut and used for timber products. Penan Chief Along Sega says, “But we are dying…. Of this we can be sure.”

Despite pleadings from environmentalists to change their timber harvesting policies, the government of Malaysia, which shares sovereignty over Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei, bristles when industrialized people try to tell it what to do. Barney Ghan, general manager of the Sarawak Timber Association, said, “I know that it’s not politically correct to say, but you have a bunch of white guys running around telling the brown man what to do.” Four-fifths of Sarawak is covered in rain forest, but only the most remote areas have escaped logging activity. The entire state has serious erosion damage and high levels of river silt. Unfortunately, there are no indications that the logging activity will stop, making the chances for the survival of the Penan culture even more unlikely.

The fate of the Yanomami and the Penans isn’t new to the modern world. For thousands of years humans have been destroying other humans. Somewhere in the evolution of human beings, most have adopted behavioral characteristics that make them greedy and truculent. Nowhere was this illustrated more than in the European expansionist period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Innovations in navigation technique made sea travel faster and more efficient and fueled an unprecedented trend in exploration and the settlement of new lands. The European juggernaut, eager to set up world centers for trade and commerce, exploited and slaughtered native peoples around the world. The invaders eliminated anything that got in their way, including entire cultures.

In contrast, one can compare this with the twentieth-century industrial revolution. The post-World War II reconstruction period brought prosperity and unbridled economic growth that, to this day, is still escalating. The rate at which this trend has occurred is staggering. Despite considerable advances in environmental awareness, resources are still being plundered before we can learn more about the wealth of environmental benefits that can be provided for the future. But, perhaps the most subtle and insidious byproduct of this plunder of resources is the global loss of biodiversity, which now includes populations of the human species.

The plight of the indigenous peoples of Borneo and the Amazon illustrates the effects of industrial carelessness and how it manipulates natural systems. These age-old cultures are succumbing to the same adversity affecting many plants, nonhuman animals, and insects: the loss of habitat. This is a sad commentary on human behavior worldwide. How can this be allowed to happen? Those who scoff at environmental regulations which protect natural resources say, “We are putting animals before people.” However. it seems that doesn’t apply anymore. They may complain, “We are putting people before other people.”

Bob Jones is a landscape and environmental consultant. He has a degree in environmental studies from Vermont College of Norwich University with a year of graduate school at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources. He lives in Glen Arbor, Michigan.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Humanist Association

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