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February 14, 2022

New Brazilian Group Advocates for Isolated Peoples

John Reid

This month, under heavy pressure from the media and human rights organizations, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) of Brazil reversed its recent refusal to protect a group people who live in voluntary isolation near the Xingu river. The Ituna-Itatá first received protection over ten years ago to prevent their decimation by a wave of settlement that was predicted as a consequence of the new Belo Monte dam, the world’s fourth largest. A January 2022 report revealed that the reserve set aside for its uncontacted inhabitants was the most deforested Indigenous territory in Brazil—even with official protection. Absent protection, many feared the Ituna-Itatá would be quickly exterminated.

One of the authors of the report was a Nia Tero partner, the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, or COIAB, a well-known group with decades of high-profile work to defend rights of the original peoples of the basin. COAIB’s co-author was a much lesser-known group, the Observatory for Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples. In just over two years since its 2019 founding, OPI has become a leading advocate for the rights of peoples in the remotest corners of the Amazon who can’t speak for themselves. Begun as an all-volunteer effort, OPI has worked alongside Indigenous organizations to win major court victories and has drawn national media attention to the human rights of peoples who elect to live outside the bounds of the modern industrial economy.

OPI has been a Nia Tero partner since 2021. We talked to OPI’s Executive Secretary Fábio Ribeiro about the organization’s early successes and plans to assure that isolated peoples can continue to live in peace in their territories.

Fábio, How did OPI emerge?

OPI emerged in October of 2019 as a collective of indigenistas [Brazilian term for professionals with expertise working with Indigenous peoples] who had a great deal of experience and knowledge on isolated tribes and on Brazil’s public policies for their protection. Faced with the government’s constant encouragement of violations of Indigenous peoples’ territorial rights, and recognizing that neither civil society nor the national Indigenous Movement was specifically focused on this issue, the OPI collective was formed with the goal of producing high quality, technical information that could bolster the rights of these Indigenous Peoples.

Who are OPI’s members?

OPI is comprised of Indigenous and non-Indigenous members who bring a variety of expertise, including anthropology, journalism, law, medicine, public administration, history, etc. Some members used to work for FUNAI and SESAI [the federal special Indigenous health service], some in the central department overseeing isolated and recently contacted peoples, and others at FUNAI Protection Fronts guarding isolated peoples’ territories. Other members are from Indigenous organizations such as COIAB and UNIVAJA [the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley]. We also have some university faculty in the group.

What have been some of your successes to date?

OPI has succeeded in building alliances with the national Indigenous Movement, working with APIB [Brazil’s nationwide Indigenous umbrella group] on various legal actions against the current government, including a victory in the Supreme Court. At the same time, our country’s biggest media outlets have identified OPI as a reliable source of information on the issue of isolated peoples. We’ve also made progress by gaining seats on the Indigenous Issues Commission of the National Justice Council and on the Brazilian Association of Anthropology.

Tell us about your “Isolated or Decimated” campaign

This campaign was started in 2021 to pressure Bolsonaro’s government to guarantee territorial rights in four specific cases, all of which are currently in the tenure situation called “restricted use.” This is a temporary status given to unprotected public lands with human inhabitants living in voluntary isolation. These areas are: Ituna-Itatá, Piripikura, Jacareúba-Katawixi, and Pirititi. The campaign is led by COIAB and OPI, with participation from two other Brazilian indigenista groups, OPAN, ISA, and Survival International. We have produced materials about violations in these four territories and gathered 17,000 signatures supporting the campaign.

What’s OPI’s vision for the future of isolated and recently contacted peoples?

The future of isolated and recently contacted peoples should be framed by a serious discussion of self-determination and land rights in Brazil. Given the dismantling of the federal government’s protection capabilities, Indigenous organizations have stepped in and are playing an ever more central role in policies to protect isolated tribes. After the Bolsonaro government leaves, enormous effort needs to go into rebuilding the State’s capacity, both the central office in Brasília and the Protection Fronts in the field. A huge push will also be needed to resolve land conflicts and strengthening alliances with the contacted Indigenous peoples who share territory with isolated tribes. We think common cause between these peoples and revitalized Protection Fronts can secure the future for isolated peoples.

What led you personally to this work?

I started out working in the the Koatinemo Indigenous Territory in 2004. That was where I first heard about the Asuriní of the Xingu basin and some accounts of isolated peoples between the Xingu and Bacajá rivers. I got involved through research and work as an indigenista. I was hired by FUNAI in 2010, taking charge of the Middle Xingu Protection Front. From there I moved to the Cuminapanema Protection Front, working with the recently contacted Zo’é people in the North of Pará.

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Amazonia