UNHRC Topic 2: issue briefing pack

UNHRC: Topic 2 – The Question of Cultural Genocide in the Amazon

Cultural genocide has been taking place amongst the indigenous tribes of the Amazon for more than five centuries; essentially since their first contact with the first European Settlers in South America. Now due to the increased greed of corporations and the recent forest fires, their lives and culture are under an even more significant threat.


 At the turn of the 16th century, there were roughly 2000 indigenous tribes living within the Amazon Rainforest. As the rainforest spreads across almost the whole of northern South America, it is not a surprise that many surrounding nations see it as an excellent source of capital gain and support, as well as the tribes within it viewing it as a perfect place to exist. Plentiful food, lush forests, and constant supplies of water are the upholsteries of the existence of the indigenous people of the Amazon. The 2000 tribes that existed have now been reduced to 305, with the largest being the Yanomami tribe at 20,000 members. For context, the smaller tribes such as the Kanoe and Akuntsu tribes have around 30 members. This equates to an indigenous population of just under a million. In the context of the indigenous population back in 1500, which modern estimates place at around 11 million people, this is small, implying a 92% decrease in population. 

The genocide of these cultures, however, has not just come about deforestation. Within the first century of contact with European and Western Settlers, over 90% of the original population was wiped out from diseases such as smallpox and the flu. The immune systems of the indigenous populations were not suited to the diseases most Europeans’ immune systems were used to, and mass death resulted. Genocide through disease is no longer common today amongst the indigenous people of the Amazon, as through both adaptation and access to ‘modern’ healthcare and resources, they have been able to protect themselves. Disease was not the end of the indigenous peoples’ struggles, as through the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, slavery followed. Westerners, seeing a bountiful resource of people to impose themselves upon, turned on the Amazonians. Thousands were exterminated because of the brutal work conditions they were unrightfully placed under. Most of the plantations they worked in were rubber and sugar, notoriously known for their harsh conditions. This practice continued through the 18th and 19th century, and into the early 20th century, more than a 100 years after Britain banished the slave trade in 1807, and the use of slaves in 1833. By the 1950s the population had dropped so low that it was estimated that there would be no more indigenous people by the 1980s.

In 1967, a federal prosecutor named Jader Figueiredo published a 7,000 page report cataloguing thousands of atrocities and crimes committed against the Indians, ranging from murder to land theft to enslavement. This report made headlines worldwide, and led to the disbanding of the Indian Protection Service, created by Brazil in 1910, and deemed gravely ineffective, to be replaced by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). As a result the size of the indigenous population began to grow again, as FUNAI sanctioned land for them which was not to be encroached upon. However, when the Amazon was opened up for development in the 1970s and 1980s, the building of hydro-electric dams, mines, ranches, and roads costs thousands of lives.Yet in 1985, a new Brazilian constitution was drawn up, which allowed all indigenous people to advocate for their cause.The government recognized 690 territories for its indigenous population, covering about 13% of Brazil’s land mass. Nearly all of this reserved land (98.5%) lies in the Amazon.

Today the future looks much brighter for the indigenous people of the Amazon than it did 50 years ago. A 2006 report from  the Woods Hole Research Center and the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, found that parks and indigenous reserves in the Amazon help to slow deforestation. Yet that was over 10 years ago. Today the Amazon is plagued by forest fires and severe deforestation, some of it coming from businesses operating under legal ambiguity, or plainly illegal methods. The destruction of the homes of the Amazonians is contributing to the genocide of their culture. Furthermore virtually all tribes, except those who choose to remain uncontacted, have lost some of their traditional ways due to Western influence. Most indigenous people no longer wear traditional loincloths, but rather western clothes either donated or bought in the city. They no longer use traditional utensils either, opting for metal pots and pans.. Furthermore, due to Western encroachment, they are unable to continue to use their traditional nomadic hunting and gathering methods. 

Questions to ask when writing your resolution

What can be done to alleviate the cultural genocide? Are any of these actions immediately something my country must rule out?

Has cultural genocide taken place in my country? Is it occurring right now? Has it been threatened with cultural genocide previously? Why might this affect my country’s stance?

Which party/political ideology is most prevalent in my country? How might their current policies or standpoint impact my country’s stance at the UN?

Have there been any developments in this case recently?

What are my country’s diplomatic relations to countries surrounding the Amazon?

What are my country’s diplomatic relations with the sitting countries on the committee?

What conditions must be avoided when coming to an effective resolution on this issue?

Useful websites for research: