Local Solutions for Global Solutions Among the Waiapi
WAIAPI INDIGENOUS RESERVE, BRAZIL: Deep in the steaming Amazon rain forest, a tiny tribe of self-confident, illiterate Indians is struggling to live a truth for the world: the planet's most endangered environments are best entrusted to those who must live from them day to day.The Waiapi Indians now control over 2,400 square miles in northeast Amapa state. Their story is one of extraordinary but very fragile recovery.Measles and influenza almost destroyed the Waiapi after their first contact with whites in the l970's. Those who survived spent the l980s watching their jungle fall to gold-miners, timbermen and land-hungry peasants who clear land by burning the jungle.But after the l992 "Earth Summit" they solicited help from European governments and United Nations agencies, and succeeded in precisely "demarcating" their territory, and having it declared an untouchable reserve.Their bodies painted black and red with berry juice and seed powder, wearing only scarlet loincloths, the Waiapi live much as their ancestors did. No electricity, no cash. They kill only enough game for food, and that only on the homeland perimeter so animals can reproduce in safety at its core.Few older people survived contacts with diseases or streams poisoned by gold mining, and some Waiapi escaped into deeper forest, but those who remained -- about 450 -- defended their jungle. Armed with bows and arrows, they captured miners, stripped them and shaved their heads in punishment.They also put on clothes acceptable to meet officials in government offices, and learned to read maps."The first time I saw a map, I had no idea we took up so little space in the world," remembers Kumarei. Kumarei, 38, inherited the mantle of chief unexpectedly when his older brother, Kumai, was badly injured by a falling tree while clearing the buffer zone. "Our father told us the white man is different: we do not terminate the forest, and he does. We tell that to our children, and teach them to patrol the perimeter so they can continue when we are gone."Waiapi say if they hadn't pushed, there would be no demarcation, despite landmark Brazilian legislation permitting the creation of Indian reserves. With machetes, they cleared a 40-foot-wide buffer zone around the land, marked it with signs and planted it with fruits and vegetables -- so no one might "accidentally" intrude. It took 2 years. Now 21 satellite monitoring markers around the boundary allow the national environment agency in Brasilia, more than 1,000 miles south, to track any violations.Like Brazil's rubber tappers and nut gatherers, the Indians' very existence depends on new laws like those creating reserves. Such efforts, based on the experience of long-time forest residents, are now replacing blueprints drawn up in far-off cities. "Ten years ago, environment work in the Amazon meant biologists talking to each other about building parks," said Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Today, local-based development is where the action is."But the Waiapi have no time to celebrate their victory. In fact, funds for the demarcation effort have run out, and chiefs must worry about finding a little cash to buy machetes and gas for chain saws, both needed to keep the jungle from overwhelming the buffer. Elsewhere in Brazil, landowners, loggers, and some state governments are challenging demarcations in court. And, last year, four Waiapi were exposed to the HIV virus while staying in a residence for indigenous people in the state capital, Macapa.The Brazilian government has pledged itself, according to Environment Minister Gustavo Krause, to allow growth "only in a way our natural resources are not compromised."Yet Amazon deforestation increases -- mostly by vast burning for agriculture and cattle ranching. Fifteen thousand square kilometers went up in smoke in l994. The effects reach far and wide -- massive deforestation is an factor in global climate change. Some feel that the only way to attack this problem is with local solutions like extractive reserves and indigenous demarcation which imply wise use and make locals virtual deputies guarding territory.An area twice the size of California -- 11 percent of the Brazilian Amazon -- has been recognized legally as Indian land, and half of it so far demarcated and declared off-limits to outsiders, like Waiapi land.For both indigenous and green advocates, demarcation gives "those who have the most interest in preserving the environment control over it, rather than always entrusting it to ministers in national capitals," said Steven Tullbert of the Washington D.C. Indian Law Resource Center. It is becoming a priority for activists as developing countries attempt to compete on world markets by mining untapped genetic and mineral resources, which often lie on indigenous land.Whether outside support and the Waiapi's own conviction can overcome the threats to themselves and their jungle home remains a question. But they won't give up easily."Our life is nature which brings us health; we don't want to live in the city but to keep our forest, and we feel more liberty, more confidence to do that now, with the demarcation," said Tsaco (all Waiapi share the same last name), 60, chief in a jungle settlement well inside the homeland.Tsaco's son and heir, Akauptyr, 22, who wears a coronet of toucan feathers, has visited hospitalized relatives in Macapa, but says he doesn't care for the town."My family is here," he said firmly. "This is where I stay."