THE LAST NOMADS
April, year 1990.
The train drops us off at a bridge a few hours utside of the town of Santa Inez. We continue on foot to a small river that runs into the Indian reservation and stow our luggage in a canoe. As we glide ahead in the dug-out into the Reservation Carú, the mirrorlike stillness of the river waters are broken only by the fait sound of our wooden paddles.
But at last there is an opening in the foliage on the riverside, indicating we have reached the local FUNAI outpost and we tie the canoe to the river edge. The outpost is a a small building run by three local employees.
One of them is bent over the wireless radio, sweating in the tropical heat and shouting in the crackling microphone as though he wants to be heard right across the forest.
”Calling Santa Inez, Calling Santa Inez. Invaders in northwest part of the district. We need reinforcements to drive them out.”
The appeal remains without any positive response. The FUNAI department has no extra resources to send in to protect the lands.
”We have permanent conflicts, and permanent invasions,” explains, my guide, Sydney Possuelo who is head of the FUNAI Department of Isolated Indians. ”The Indian lands are not respected by local ranchers who try to occupy it. ”
A few hundred meters away lies a small Awá village were the forest indians make stops a few days from their noamdic hunting collecting trips. It is composed of about ten straw huts, simple shelters proceting them and their simple belongings of handwoven hammocks , bows and arrows from the rain.
For the Awá this artificially made village has become a tribal meeting point. Their livespace, the lands and the resources they depend on stretch far beyond the horizon.
Carú Indian Reservation is only a small part of the Awá people’s traditional lands. But diminishing fauna, invasions by ”fazendeiros” (ranchers), infectious diseases, and repeated massacres where Indians have been hunted like wild animals, now force the Awá to seek a meagre assistance from the local FUNAI employees.
The Awá Indians live in nomadic groups of five to six people. They are said to be Brazil’s last truly nomadic people although it is probable their original lifestyle, a few hundred years ago, was centred saround villages with permanent dwellings. Today they erect temporary shelters of palm leaves which they abandon moving on in their search for fish, fruits, nuts and wild game. But the children lack protein and the hunters return too often empty-handed.
At this outpost the Awá learn to plant and grow manioc and maize, to ensure an increased food supply.
As I listen to the radio transmission a small Indian girl comes and sits down on Sydney knees. Like all children around the world she has no fear.
"In this village almost all families have tragic memories of contact with the white man", says Sydney. "They have all lost someone close to them from the contact with the white men."
The only Indian interpreter at the outpost, himself an Awá, speaks very little Portuguese. But during my days in the village I manage to piece together fragments of their story. The isolated Awá Indians were first encountered by FUNAI in 1973. Since then several other Awá groups, ignorant of the first known community, have been contacted.
A young adolescent, between 15 and 18 years old, dressed in a white T-shirt, is one of them. I ask for his name, apparently he is called Kimene.Kimene recognizes Sydney but sits silent most of the time. He finds it hard to speak, even to the other Awás gathered around him. When he opens his mouth he almost whispers. He has spent most of his life alone in the forest, hiding in silence.
”They shot my parents when I was small: Then they killed my brother,”
I turn to Sydney and wonder how many white people have been condemned for kiling Indians.
His short answer resumes in a few words the colonization of the Amazon over the last centuries: ”As far as I know, no white man has been condemned or punished for killing an Indian”.
Kimene was forced to survive alone with the ancient techniques his mother and father had taught him, but forever hiding from would-be assassins.
As time passed he lost the habit of talking. Once, he had the chance to avenge his family.
Hiding in the trees he shot an arrow through the chest of one of the invaders.
”Then I cut up his stomach” the boy comments dryily.
Kimene’s parents and grand-parents fled the white man’s expansion and moved further south to the state of Mato Grosso several decades ago.
Since then the forest has been cut down and turned into farming lands.
Towns have sprouted over the Awá Indians’ lands.
There was no way to return.
At last, a white settler saw Kimene in the jungle and reported the sighting to FUNAI in Brasilia.
Only two months ago, Sydney set out on an expedition with his team, cutting their way through the jungle to search for the shadow nomad spotted in the forest.
They Awá Indian interpreters called out over the forest, until they found the frightened boy who was armed, hiding and ready to strike back at any intruder.
”The Indians try to defend their universe, says Sydney. ”Their world has been destroyed. Now they discover how many we are. They see our powerful guns and our force. They flee. But they cannot flee further. There is nowhere to go.”
The Carú Reservation is a sanctuary where Sydney’s men try to reunite the dispersed communities of Awá people.
Here they are offered a real but fragile protection. Threatened by continuous attacks, massacres and extermination, they should have greater chances to recreate their comminities here. But even inside the reservation their survival is uncertain.
Less than 300 Awá have survived the occupation of their lands. That is half the estimated population of 1960.
Around 60 Awá still live uncontacted in small nomadic groups.
We sit in the main hut, built for meetings. The night is dark, the fires throw a flickering light over the Indians gathered around us. An elderly man watches our conversation with a keen interest.
Sydney points his finger at him.
”This one! He ran up to me with an axe to chop my head”.
Sydney makes a spontaneous dance on the floor, imitating the old man’s gesture with the axe on their first contact.
The Awá man, Timin, laughs loudly at Sydney’s performance. And in the middle of the jungle I view a replay of a meeting where both sides were sure they were on the brink of being slaughtered.
Sydney had been on an expedition tracking the Awá people together with a young Awá interpreter.
When Sydney caught up with the fleeing family, Timin had taken an axe to defend his close. He ran up to the white man and held the axe in the air, ready to chop Sydney’s head. But suddenly he stopped, uncertain. The strange bearded, half-bald man facing him was not trying to flee or defend himself.
”My heart was pumping,” says Sydney. ” I squeezed hard on the interpreter’s hand and wheezed, speak, for God’s sake SPEAK! Talk to him!”.
At the last decisive moment the young interpreter began to talk in Awá language and explained they were friends who had come to help and not to harm.
Timin slowly lowered his axe.
Outside our rustic FUNAI two-room administration office, a boy lies shivering in the hammock, a tube from the ceiling pumping blood plasma into his veins.
He has been separated from the rest of the tribe to avoid a contagion of the disease.
He knows he may die.
Whooping cough is a killer disease.
Awá Indians have no immunity against the white man’s sickness such as influenza, whooping cough or measles.
Over the wireless radio I learn that far away, in the remote Northern district of Roraima, at least one of seven Yanomami Indians has died of malaria during the last five years.
Malaria was brought into their world by 40 000 ”garimpeiros”, gold seekers who invaded their lands to search for fortunes that were later sold on the international gold market.
The ground in the deep soil beneath the sacred trees and rivers of the Awá people is a spotlight for free flying fortune seekers from the entire nation.
Here, in the state of Maranhao, goods trains from Carajas, the world’s biggest iron mine and cut every hour through Awá Indian land in an endless string of roaring trains heading for the port of Sao Luiz.
The immense iron ore deposits were discovered in 1967. Since then the ancient Awá land has been reduced by mining and fazendeiros, ranchers who have been encouraged with fiscal incentives to occupy the Amazon region.
They have cut down the forest lands and left infertile pastures. The open fields were later in many cases abandoned once the ”owners” had reaped their tax benefits.
The Awá Indians lived totally unprotected until the limits of Carú Reservation were drawn up in 1982, then covering almost 300 000 hectares.
But when pressure groups of white land owners leant on the government and FUNAI the area was reduced.to only a fraction of its original extension.
The Awá land was outlined as a corridor linking the indigenous areas Carú to the south with Alto Turiacu to the north, where other Awá groups live isolated in the forest.
”We have 32 employees to cover and protect an area the size of several hundred thousand hectares,” says Sydney. ”It is an impossible task. In Brasilia you have about 600 FUNAI civil servants when 70 would be enough. But on the field, where the Indians live there are no people."
Years ago Sydney was in charge of the FUNAI administration in the Maranhao state.
”It did not last long, I was quickly stamped as persona non grata by the governor in Maranhao.”
We open our sacks with presents for the Indians. Red cotton cloth and needles for the women. Cartridges, gunpowder and pellets for the men. Everyday utilities.
The presents provoke smiles and contentment from the Awá who surround us next to the fire.
I am told this is the first time the women receive any presents, previously the show has been reserved for the men.
For me everything is magic and powerful, a first impression and I have no idea of how the gifts from this other white man’s world are still used as a magnet to attract isolated Indian people.
As the sun rises, Sydney shakes me out of my dream world in the hammock. Five Awá men are waiting and ready. It is time to go hunting.
Juraru smiles, holding his shotgun and fresh cartridges but the rest of the hunting team have more confidence in their bows and arrows.
After a few hours walk through the thick vegetation the men tell me with a silent sign of their hands to stop.
Chimu attaches a ring of tied lianas around his two naked feet and like an acrobat on a greased pole, he climbs with bow and arrows over his back to the top of trees, maybe twenty meters higher.
I can hardly see him against the brightening sky but suddenly, in the silence over our stretched necks, I hear a faint twing from his bow.
He shoots two arrows into the obscure foliage.
A moment later a monkey falls with a hard thump to the ground, wheezing from an open wound in its chest.
Today is a good day. Before the sun sets we have bagged five monkeys, a ”jabuti” (tortoise) and a porcupine.
For me it is the first time I follow a successful hunt with bows and arrows.
For Sydney it is an everyday event.
”The weapons today are no longer the bow and arrow”, he says, reflecting on the larger perspective of Indians in the expanding world of Brazil.
.”In time they cannot live any longer as nomads. The new weapons are knowledge. They must have knowledge about our society to protect themselves against us. They have suffered so many humiliations in the past. They need time to adjust. But we do not give them any time. In our world, time is money.”
Ten years after our night conversation in the Awá village, Survival International launches a new Urgent Action campaign to press for the demarcation of the Awa Land, stating that "unless the Brazilian government, the World Bank and the mining company CVRD take urgent action, uncontacted Awá Indians in Brazil could soon be wiped out."
In 1982 the Brazilian government and CVRD were granted more than 900 million US dollars from the World Bank and European Union to exploit the iron ore deposits.
A condition for the loan was that part of the funding should be used to demarcate and protect the lands of indigenous people such as the Awà, affected by the mining industry.
Since then, the Carajas iron mine has become the world's biggest and most profitable source of iron ore. But the profits from these ancient Awà hunting grounds go to Sao Paolo and international stock brokers.
Attempts by Survival International and Brazilian supporters to demarcate their land have been met by armed ranchers who forced the demarcation teams away with threats of murder.
In December 1998 six Awá from a group of 10 uncontacted Indians died, most likely from infections introduced by invading white settlers or hunters.
In brief, the failure of Brazil’s government, the World Bank, the European Union and the mining corporation CVRD to respect their engagements and ensure the Indians’ rights has led to the deaths of an unknown number of Awá and a massive destruction of their lands.
My first peek into the native world of Brazil leaves me with the sad impression that little has changed since year 1500 when the Portuguese navigator Amilcar Cabral set foot on the Brazilian coast and used Indian slave labour to extract the resources of the land.
In April 2002, twelve years after my visit, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights highlights the dangers of extinction threatening the Awá Indian people in the state of Maranhao.
Later the same year BBC broadcasts a documentary on the Awá and concludes ”What’s at stake now is not just the Awá’s way of life as one of the last nomadic tribes of hunters in the Amazon – the threat is to their very existence.”
By the beginning of the following year 2003 the media impact and political pressure finally bear fruit. The official demarcation of Awá Indian lands is carried out by the Brazilian federal authorities.
20 year long struggle by Indian rights activists has finally brought fruit.