Trans-Amazon rail project strikes fear in tribes

A controversial mega-project to build a transcontinental railway through the Amazon basin has caused outrage among indigenous people and advocacy groups. UK-based Survival International charges that the rail project, backed by the Chinese government, would cross through many indigenous territories and areas of high biodiversity across the rainforest in Peru and Brazil, opening them to industrial exploitation, illegal mining and logging, and peasant colonization. Survival warns that "uncontacted tribes" would face devastation from invasions into their lands, calling these peoples "the most vulnerable societies on the planet." Whole populations could be wiped out by violence from outsiders and by diseases like flu and measles to which they have no resistance.

Survival cites similar projects as setting a chilling precedent. In the 1980s, the 900-kilometer Carajás rail line through Brazil's northeastern Amazon opened up the lands of many tribes such as the isolated Awá, which Survival calls the "Earth's most threatened tribe." Countless families were massacred and others succumbed to diseases brought in by outsiders, as rampant logging resulted in over 30% deforestation in the Awá's central territory.

Survival is calling on the Brazilian and Peruvian governments to uphold national and international laws, which require that indigenous peoples must be properly consulted and give their consent before projects that will affect them can go ahead. Because consultation with uncontacted tribes is impossible, their land must be protected to avoid catastrophe. Said Survival director Stephen Corry: "Projects like this amount to nothing more than the theft of tribal lands... Make no mistake—for uncontacted tribes this railroad is genocidal." (Survival International, June 16)