We Can Save the Awá Tribe
As the successful survival of other Amazon Indian tribes shows, protecting their way of life rather than imposing that of the west is the best way to keep them intact
The Awá of Brazil are the world's most threatened tribe. Years of illegal logging and land grabs have brought them to the brink of extinction. But apart from the loggers and their guns, one of their biggest problems is the fallacy that Amazon Indians must inevitably conform to "modernity".
Although people have been saying it for generations, it isn't true: tribes are destroyed by labeling them backward, and pretending they stand to benefit from "civilization". It's fundamentally racist, and the evidence points, glaringly, and to our shame, in exactly the opposite direction.
When land is taken, tribes simply don't survive. On the other hand, when it's protected, most of their problems evaporate. That can happen if no one else wants the land, it's inaccessible to outsiders or, most importantly, there's the political will and strength to ensure it remains with the Indians.
On their own territory, they can adapt to change as they wish. Some individuals might leave to explore the outside, but most will return home to its invaluable advantages: free food and housing, as opposed to scraping a living in shantytowns and slums, where life is usually nasty, brutish and short.
The "integration" of these peoples is the theft of their self-sufficiency, and their condemnation to the lowest rung of a steep and greasy ladder – or worse, death. However, we believe, profoundly, that there will still be Amazon Indians at the end of the century. It merely entails respecting the laws and rights which governments claim to uphold. Cynics might argue that it won't happen, that the fast buck will always triumph, but that's really an admittance that we are the savages, unfettered by any rule of law, common decency or humanity.
We have seen tribal peoples' lands protected repeatedly over the last 40 years. The largest little-contacted tribe in Amazonia, the Yanomami, survived because a 20-year campaign secured the protection of their lands in 1992. They remain steadfastly Yanomami.
The Awá will doubtless survive as well, but only if the campaign in defense of their land is similarly vociferous. In the words of Colin Firth, who is supporting our campaign: "One man can stop this: Brazil's minister of justice. He can send in the federal police to catch the loggers, and keep them out for good. But right now it's just not his priority.
"We have to change that before it's too late. We need enough people to message him that he takes notice… You, me, our friends, our families. Everyone counts. But we don't have much time. When the rains stop, the loggers will be back. This is our chance, right now, to actually do something. And if enough people show they care, it will work."