Occupy Amazonia? Indigenous activists are taking direct action – and it’s working

Winning lots of battles – if not the war. Fernando Bizzera Jr / EPA

Occupy Amazonia? Indigenous activists are taking direct action – and it’s working

Winning lots of battles – if not the war. Fernando Bizzera Jr / EPA

The native peoples of Loreto, in Peru’s Amazon basin, have just ended a month long occupation of 14 oil wells belonging to the Argentine company Pluspetrol. Negotiations are still underway between the oil company and various other communities, represented by the indigenous association Feconaco.

This is not the first time Feconaco has occupied Pluspetrol’s operations. Such actions on the part of indigenous groups are relatively common.

Amazonian people don’t appear to have learned direct action from the occupy movement or from Euro-American protest traditions, despite the similar tactics. In the absence of functioning state protection, native people have always had to stand up for themselves.

Last September, for instance, Ka'apor people of northeastern Maranhão in Brazil published photographs of illegal loggers whom they had captured and tied up. They had taken matters into their own hands because the state was not protecting their territory.

The pioneers of indigenous direct action were the Kayapó of southern Pará in Brazil, who began monitoring goldmining and later logging in their territory, which senior leaders tolerated and indeed profited from. In the early 1990s, environmental destruction and mercury poisoning led many Kayapó people to support a younger generation of leaders who expelled the miners and loggers from their territory. Images of the Kayapó have since become synonymous with indigenous environmentalism.

A history of exploitation

The relative success of direct action in recent decades contrasts with the often bloody encounters that went before, from which poorly-armed Indians invariably emerged badly.

Indigenous people in the Amazon have been the victims of the mining and energy industries for hundreds of years. The earliest colonists were motivated by greed for gold, and successive waves of exploitation have followed. The violent and coercive labour relations of the rubber boom (which ended a century ago) continue to affect how local people view trade and outsiders.

Enslaved indigenous people in the early 1900s rubber boom. Walter Hardenberg (1912)

Fur hunters would shoot native people on sight throughout much of the 20th century. A good friend of mine, one of my principal informants in the field, fled Brazil as a child after his family were killed by fur hunters, and came to live with another tribe in the border area between French Guiana and Suriname. Here, and across the Guiana region (the vast area of northeastern Amazonia bordered by the rivers Negro, Orinoco and the lower Amazon), mining for gold, diamonds and other minerals has led to significant social conflicts.

The region’s small communities are held together by personal ties of kinship and are highly dependent upon local ecosystems for their livelihoods. This makes them particularly vulnerable to the side-effects of extractive industries such as environmental destruction and pollution of rivers and lakes. But there are also social and medical effects: prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction and the introduction of new diseases such as HIV.

Mining and oil companies generally earn a bad reputation for their Amazon activities, but projects devised in the name of “sustainability” can have a negative impact too. Think in particular of the programme of hydroelectric dams being rolled out across Brazil. Belo Monte, the world’s fourth largest hydroelectric dam, is being built across a southern tributary of the Amazon, for instance. It has already caused the influx of tens of thousands of workers, with severe strain on local social relations. Its impact on a vast ecosystem – a major hydrological basin – will be monumental.

Belo Monte protesters sometimes managed to stop construction work on the dam. EPA

Protests against the Belo Monte dam have failed, as a Brazilian government focused on development ploughed on with its project which is, after all, consistent with the political rhetoric of the “green economy”. Indigenous people are a small section of the electorate, and their voice cuts little sway in the national political scene.

Companies in the crosshairs

Protests against international private companies can arguably be more effective, in so far as the directors of these companies consider a poor public image to significantly affect their profits.

A legal battle raging for nearly two decades between indigenous peoples in Ecuador and the energy giant Chevron, contributed to the corporation earning the title of a Lifetime Award for Shameful Corporate Behaviour by grassroots satirists in Davos earlier this year. Yet the corporate social responsibility activities which result from such pressures all too often seem to be largely cosmetic.

Where direct action has succeeded it is largely thanks to the construction of new kinds of alliances between indigenous leaders, progressive and socially oriented NGOs, and independent activists, including some academics.

Indigenous people in the Amazon basin have gradually, over the centuries, become more adept at getting organised and speaking the language of power. They’re now a key part of a global indigenous peoples’ movement which can call on an increasing number of activists with training in international law, documentary film making, or indeed anthropology, to assist campaigning efforts. On a smaller scale, communities regularly engage with different projects brought by outsiders, including the “partnerships” proposed by extractive industries.

However, they just as often come to regret their entrance into the relationship. Indigenous people come to realise that their understandings of fair exchanges are not the same, and sometimes not even compatible with those of their interlocutors, whether they be loggers, miners, or people looking for more intangible wealth such as traditional designs, music or ecological knowledge.

These experiences show that the conflicts that sometimes arise between native people and outsiders seeking to extract natural resources are not merely conflicts of material interests, and are not structured merely by an imbalance of power. They are on a more fundamental level conflicts of worldviews, of cosmovisiones, as Afro-Colombians sometimes call them.

Indigenous people have made vast efforts to speak across the gap between themselves and others who live and move in the capitalist world. The onus is now on outsiders, including postcolonial states and transnational organisations, to make a corresponding effort.