Op-Ed: Brazil’s Awá Tribe Is Small in Number, But Large in Might

Survival International’s Stephen Corry argues that extinction is not mandatory for indigenous peoples, in part due to people like you.

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Big Father is an Awá man respected among the tribe for his arrow-making ability. (Photo: Copyright Survival International)

Earthʼs most threatened tribe may only number a few hundred people, but in the last year, a determined effort by Survival International to prevent their extinction by defending their basic land rights has projected them onto the world stage.

No longer an unknown people in the heart of Brazilʼs Amazon, the Awá now have a global identity, and one that is proving critical in their battle for survival.

In the 100 days since Survival launched its campaign to “save Earthʼs most threatened tribe,” Brazilʼs Justice Minister was flooded with emails from 30,000 people, who urged him to evict hundreds of illegal loggers and invaders from the Awá tribeʼs territory.

MORE: Colin Firth Asks: Will You Save These People? (Video)

The number is an encouraging illustration of the public appetite to support such a cause, but more than this, the campaignʼs effectiveness is clear when one looks at the results on the ground. Awá interests are being heard.

If we canʼt stop the Awá being destroyed, we will lose an entire people, part of our planetʼs rich and vibrant human diversity—a unique language, vision and understanding of the rainforest.

A recent ruling by a Brazilian judge called for a halt to a project, backed by one of Brazilʼs most powerful mining companies, Vale, to double an existing railway line that services the worldʼs biggest iron ore mine. It runs along the very edge of Awá territory. The judge slammed the project; his verdict stated it could lead to “serious damage to protected areas and to the traditional way of life of the Awá.”

His explicit recognition of Awá rights is good news. Although the mining company may appeal against his verdict, and although they may still be ignored by workers on the ground, Awá rights have indisputably reached the attention of leading Brazilian authorities. This is a big success.

However, Valeʼs planned railway expansion is far from being the only threat to Awá survival. Loggers, ranchers and settlers still brazenly flout Brazilian law, entering and felling Awá forests; Awá survival still hangs in the balance. Public pressure, both from within Brazil and internationally, must be kept up, and the Brazilian government must be made to do much more to evict trespassers and to ensure the legal boundaries of Awá territories are properly respected.

There is nothing inevitable about the Awáʼs extinction. They can and will survive if the Brazilian government upholds and enforces their rights, and if the public act to ensure the government does so. The Awá have the right to decide how they wish to live and, more basically, to survive into the future.

If we canʼt stop the Awá being destroyed, we will lose an entire people, part of our planetʼs rich and vibrant human diversity—a unique language, vision and understanding of the rainforest.

They will lose everything, but donʼt we also stand to lose a part of ourselves and what it means to be human?

What about diversity is most valuable to you? Leave the facts in COMMENTS.

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