Massacre, Plunder and Bigotry: The War On the Awa Tribe

Captured from 4,000 kms above the Earth in a satellite image, the rainforest in the eastern reaches of the Amazon has the appearance of deep-green brushed suede.

In another picture, the forest is overlaid with a curious patchwork of white rectangles and squares. This is the geometry that signifies decades of deforestation. Both images are found on Survival International’s website; their captions shockingly reveal that the images were taken only fifteen years apart.

Any aerial photographs taken in January 2014 might show a surprising army of military personnel storming this remote region. The ground squad was part of a government led operation to expel the illegal invaders of the Awá tribe’s lands.

The Awá are the Earth’s most threatened tribe. They have known decades of massacre and disease at the hands of greedy landowners and corrupt politicians. Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, has brought the tribe’s suffering to the world’s attention.

Their tale is a stark account of breathtakingly inhumane massacres, environmental destruction, organized crime, state-level expedience and archaic bigotry. And yet it is also a tale of solidarity and hope.


The western edge of Maranhão state is a region known as Pre-Amazonia, which lies some 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is a beautiful place of savannah, babaçu palm groves and broad-boughed copaiba trees, where howler monkeys and red-necked tamarinds cry from the canopy, the sleek jaguar prowls through the undergrowth and rivers swim with caiman. It has been home to the Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil, for generations.

The Awá probably originated from the lower Tocantins River of Pará state, where it is likely they were once horticulturalists. They may have been forced to abandon horticulture for a nomadic way of life when white colonists and Portuguese slavers arrived at the turn of the 19th century, bringing with them epidemics of European diseases such as smallpox and measles. A nomadic life offered the Awá the best chance of survival, so they fragmented into smaller groups of 20-30 people, which made it easier to stay on the run. Today, there are approximately 360 contacted Awá, and 100 remain uncontacted.

For years their way of life was one of symbiosis with the rainforest; the tribe survived - and still survives - largely by hunting for wild pigs, tapirs and monkeys with 6-foot bows, and by gathering nutritious forest produce such as babaçu fruits, açai berries and honey. Houses are built from lianas, leaves and tree saplings - in just a few hours. Experts believe they use approximately 90% of their forest’s plant species for food, medicine, construction materials and utensils: they are the knowledge-keepers of their environment.

The Awá keep orphaned animals such as monkeys as pets, share their hammocks with racoon-like coatis and split mangoes with green parakeets. Awá women breastfeed capuchin and howler monkeys, and have also been known to suckle baby peccaries. They are so intimately entwined with the rainforest that they view plants as having the same type of social structure as they do – neighbouring babaçu palms may be described as husband and wife. And they cannot conceive of a life beyond it. ‘We love the forest because we were born here. We couldn’t survive without the forest,’ To’o, an Awá man told Survival. ‘We don’t know how to live like white people.’

The Awá call their homeland Harakwá, meaning, ‘the place that we know’.


The Awá’s life was irrevocably disturbed by the karai (the Awá word for non-Indians) during the 1950s with the construction of the BR222 road, which led to the invasion of ranchers and loggers. They were first contacted by FUNAI (Brazil’s National Indian Foundation) during the early 1970s, after which, as is often the case on first contact, many died: up to 80% of one the first contacted groups died from diseases such as ‘flu and malaria, to which they had little or no immunity.

But it was the chance discovery of huge reserves of iron ore that spelled disaster for the Awá. In 1967, American geologists, working for a subsidiary company of U.S. Steel, were carrying out an aerial survey of the region's mineral resources. When the helicopter needed to refuel, the pilot decided to land on a treeless summit high in the remote Serra dos Carajás. One geologist reputedly noticed a scattering of black-grey rocks on the ground. He bent down to study them further.

The prospectors had just touched down on at least 18 billion tons of iron ore - the planet's richest deposit. The discovery gave rise to the development of companies including Vale, formerly known as Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), of the Great Carajás Project, that would exploit the region’s precious mineral reserves: bauxite, copper ore, manganese, cassiterite, nickel and gold.

The Carajás Project would also comprise the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam, cattle-ranching, aluminium smelters, metal works, pig iron and cement smelters and a deep-water sea-port near the eastern coastal city of São Louis. [The project's industrial showpiece was the Iron Ore Project (Carajás Ferro). The mine created an ugly chasm gouged from the forest floor: one so vast that it could be seen from space; one that occupied an area the size of Britain and France combined. In time, it would become the world's largest opencast mine, which the CVRD planned to operate for 300 years.

The Carajás Project was financed by the U.S., Japan, Germany, the World Bank and the then European Economic Community (now the European Union). The EC made its first loan outside Europe (US$600 million) to the project, on the understanding that a third of the iron ore would go to supply steel works in European countries. An advert placed by CVRD in the Financial Times in November 1984 proclaimed that the project would be ‘worth its weight in gold to the Brazilian economy.’

But there was disquiet among human rights’ activists and environmentalists, who feared for the safety of the region’s indigenous tribes, its rainforest and the endemic species already endangered by extinction. ‘If the Awá’s rights are not protected, they’ll soon only exist in the pages of history books,’ said Survival in a statement released to the press. What actually unfolded for the Awá in the years following the inauguration of the Carajás Project was far from civil: it was a barbaric continuation of the horrors that had been meted out to Brazilian Indians for five hundred years.


The Carajás project’s ore mining and export activities began in the spring of 1985. The mine lay miles from any city, so in the same year, the 900 km Carajás-São Luís railway was cut through the rainforest in order to transport workers in and minerals out. Its high-as-houses trucks stretched for 2 kms along the boiling tracks; towns grew along the line, as did an influx of poachers and squatters. Pig-iron smelters were established; some, it was suggested, were being operated by children younger than 12 years old.

Logging and ranching companies moved in, threatening the Awá to leave their homes. If the Awá refused to leave their homes, gangs of ‘pistoleiros’ were sent in to attack them. Several died after eating flour laced with ant poison, which had been given to them as a ‘gift’ from a local farmer. For some Awá, their first and only contact with westerners was the very moment they were murdered in cold blood. In one ambush, gunmen attacked the family of Awá man Karapiru, killing his wife, son, daughter, mother, brothers and sisters. Karapiru escaped into the rainforest, lead shot embedded in his lower back. He remained on the run in the forest for 10 years until he was discovered, 600 miles from his home, in the town of Bahia. Karapiru is now a gentle older man with jet-black hair, high cheekbones and a goatee flecked with grey. He recounted the grim story to Survival. ‘The non-Indians killed my wife and son. They shot them in the forest with a gun made of iron,’ he said. ‘So they even kill Awá children.’ There is no anger in his voice, just incredulity and a terrible sadness.

Landowners, loggers and settlers viewed indigenous tribes with contempt. A common refrain was ‘muita terra para pouco índio’ (a lot of land for just a few Indians). According to one statement made by Professor William Balée (an ethnobotanist who had worked with the Awá), to Washington’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, no federal politicians in the states of Pará or Maranhão denounced the illegal invasions. Politicians who could lay claim to having ‘handed out’ indigenous territory to landless Brazilians would increase their chances of victory in an election year.

Ecological damage was certainly widespread. Trees were felled, chopped and burned; the ancient rainforest was replaced by cattle ranches and agricultural fields. Animal and bird life disappeared; huge bulldozers gouged the land. The UK’s Guardian newspaper referred to it as, ‘one of the greatest man-made ecological disasters this century.’

In 1988, the World Bank accepted that the ‘Awa are endangered … as regards their survival … assault and murder by non-Indians.’ This lack of protection existed despite the fact that a condition of the World Bank’s loan had been that the CVRD would set aside £13.6 million to demarcate the lands of the Awá and other indigenous tribes. Eighteen years after it was given to Brazil as part of the World Bank loan, this money had been spent elsewhere.

The Carajás Project was fast becoming a hellish, lawless human and ecological disaster.


After some years, it emerged that the Awá tribe was, quite literally, at risk of being wiped out. ‘We are dealing with a real genocide,’ said judge José Carlos do Vale Madeira, who followed the Awá case for many years, after he visited their territory. Many other tribal peoples before them had been annihilated as a result of genocidal policies; in the 20th century alone, an average of one tribe disappeared every year in Brazil. ‘The world is so often focussed on large-scale genocides. But the terms of genocide are equally relevant to peoples with smaller populations.’ said Fiona Watson.

As far back as 1987, Survival was raising awareness of the brutalities to which the Awá were being subjected. Now the organisation called on the EC to improve conditions, lobbied the World Bank and published indicting reports such as ‘Bound in Misery and Iron’ that detailed the impact of the Carajás Project. It reminded the Brazilian government that it had constitutional responsibilities to uphold. If it failed in its legal duty, it was ‘condemning the nomadic tribe to extinction’. This was a pre-internet world, so communication with Brazil was via post, telex, and letters sent via the Brazilian Embassy’s diplomatic bag.

A pro-Awá movement ignited in Brazil, too. Judge Madeira received in the region of 10,000 letters, urging him to call the Brazilian government to account in order to safeguard the tribe. ‘I visited him in his Sao Luis office, where he showed me several lever-arch files. They were all over-flowing with letters from Survival supporters,’ said Fiona Watson. ‘That’s when I realised that letter-writing works.’


It wasn’t until 2005, however, that the Awá’s territory was mapped out and legally recognised by the Brazilian government, although much of the land originally slated as their territory was excluded in the process. The 118,000 hectaresbecame known as the Awá Indigenous Territory.

This constitutional demarcation meant that - in theory, at least - no one could enter the Awá Indigenous Territory without a FUNAI permit. But despite the legal demarcation, despite the fact that Brazil had ratified the genocide convention, despite the fact that the federal police had the authority to evict the invaders, despite the fact that the occupation and conversion of the lands by non-Indians was illegal, still the trees fell, the forest fires smouldered, the railway cranked its cargo to the coast and the Awá died.

Letters of concern started to arrive at Survival. One, from two Spanish archaeologists who had worked with the Awá, brought to life in sordid detail the devastation wreaked by illegal loggers in an area known as Agua Preta (Black Water River), and the detritus they left in their wake. Abandoned camps contained shacks covered with black plastic sheeting; spare chainsaw parts; gasoline drums; pornographic magazines; styrofoam boxes and a ‘a stray dog, wandering and scared’. The durable materials were not only in stark contrast with their organic surroundings but created the perfect metaphor for the vast difference in the way the karai and the Awá saw the rainforest: a place to be subjugated by man and exploited commercially, and a place where all life forms are imbued with a soul.

In 2009, an over-flight of the Awá Indigenous Territory proved the wide existence of cattle ranches, roads for exporting wood, illegal towns and areas where marijuana plants were being cultivated. Then came the devastating truth: nearly one-third of Awá territory had been destroyed, making it one of the fastest destroyed of any indigenous territory in South America in recent years.


The Awá had been subjected to racist comments for decades but when the Mayor of the logging town of Zé Doca took bigotry one step further, by denying the tribe’s very existence, they took action. The Awá responded by staging a protest branded ‘We exist’ outside the town hall in Zé Doca’s central square, organised by the Indian Missionary Council (CIMI). Around 100 Awá left the forest, the women dressed in palm fibre skirts, the men wearing toucan and parrot feather headdresses and carrying carried bows and arrows. By day they gave curious locals hunting lessons; at night, camping among the pews of the town Church, they danced and sang the Song of the Monkey during the Karawara ritual. ‘Some had never stepped foot outside the rainforest before,’ said Rosana Diniz, coordinator of CIMI’s Maranhão office.

By the time Bruno Fragoso, coordinator of FUNAI’s Awá Ethno-environmental team told Globo TV that, ‘If rapid emergency measures are not taken, the future of this people is extinction,’ sawmills were operating only 5 kms from an Awá community. Judge Jirair Aram Meguerian ruled that invaders would have to leave the Awá’s territory within twelve months.

When the order was not enforced, however, Survival International stepped in to amplify the Awá’s cries for help. With the use of a powerful multi-media campaign, it launched the Awá’s story on the world stage, and harnessed the most effective campaigning tools of our time: people power, to create what Stephen Corry referred to as a ‘groundswell’ of support. The new campaign’s focal point was a film produced by Survival and narrated by actor Colin Firth which gives viewers a unique insight into the Awá going about their daily routine. Throughout the film there is the intriguing, invisible presence of the 100 uncontacted Awá: they are somewhere deep within the lush foliage, forever on the run.

Colin Firth urged supporters to write letters. ‘One man can stop this – the Brazilian Minister of Justice,’ he said. Stickers depicting the emblematic ‘Awáicon’ stencil were fixed by activists to iconic locations: on the Grand Canal in Venice, on a ski pole at the foot of the Matterhorn, on the gates of the White House and on Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain. ‘Save the Awá’ was spelled out in moss in Berlin, in snow in Amsterdam and on the wall of a shopping mall in western Australia. The word was out, and the groundswell was growing. Facebook posts reflected the global outrage and solidarity. ‘We have got to stand with them,’ one woman wrote. ‘Have we not lost enough people to extinction?’

A mass letter-writing campaign began: supporters wrote to Congress, to their MPs and to their MEPs. Articles appeared in the media on both sides of the Atlantic; the influential American magazine Vanity Fair published a long feature by veteran reporter Alex Shoumatoff with series of images by renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado. Dozens of celebrities, including Hollywood actress Gillian Anderson, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and musician Julian Lennon, pledged their support. One of Brazil’s most respected journalists, Miriam Leitão, spent time with Awá and wrote a long feature for O Globo, part of the Brazilian Globo media empire.

On his first day in office, the new Brazilian Minister of Justice telephoned the President of FUNAI and asked her, ‘Who are the Awá? I’m getting thousands of email messages.’ In the space of months, he had received 57,000 messages from 38 countries.


In the end, after years of delays and corruption, the operation to rid the Awá Indigenous Territory of invaders was remarkably swift. Hundreds of soldiers, police and government agents flooded the Awá Indigenous Territory, destroying sawmills and logging camps and expelling invaders, who had been given 40 days’ notice to leave. Buildings, fences and roads were destroyed.

After another over-flight of the region, the Public Prosecutor and Judge working on the case handed the Awá an ‘Evictions Completion Document’ confirming that all non-Indians had been removed from their territory. The date was 15 April 2014, almost exactly 2 years to the day that Survival had launched its campaign.

But this is only the beginning. The next phase of Operation Awá is the land protection programme. If the tribe is to survive into the next century, it is crucial that the land continues to protected. ‘We must maintain global pressure to ensure that adequate measures are taken to keep invaders out,’ says Fiona Watson.

Survival is now pushing for frequent aerial monitoring to spot illegal logging, road blockades, an increase in agents patrolling on the ground and a buffer zone outside the Awá territories in which sawmills cannot be constructed. Above all, Survival believes that the Awá must be an integral part of decision-making concerning their lives and lands and that they should also be given technology that allows them to detect if and where their territory is invaded, so swift action can be taken to expel people.

With the expansion of the Carajás project by CVRD, due to begin in 2016, to which it plans to add another 600 kms of railroad and build the Canaã dos Carajás Municipal Highway, these measures are vital. The Brazilian government also recently proposed a constitutional amendment that would give Congress power in the process of demarcating indigenous lands. This could weaken indigenous hold on territories and could cause further delays for the thousands of indigenous peoples who are waiting for the government to fulfil its legal duty to map out their ancestral lands.

For the time being, the Awá are jubilant. ‘The evictions were really important for us, the Awá,’ Tatuxa’a, an Awá man, told a Survival researcher, in a stoic understatement. ‘It was really important to remove the non-Indians who were destroying our forest. But they could return.’ It also sets a new record in the history of Survival’s campaigning and is testament to the growing power of the internet and social media to give a voice to the voiceless, to shape politics and challenge the abuse of power. ‘It is concrete proof that a groundswell of support is the most effective way of guaranteeing the survival of tribal peoples,’ said Stephen Corry.

Operation Awá is an historically important David and Goliath achievement. It sends a clear message to those with one eye on the trees or sub-soil of indigenous territories that murder and land theft is illegal. The success of the operation upholds the legal right of the Awá to live on their lands, and, importantly, recognises their vital role in the ‘natural’ world. By protecting the Awá, the unparalleled diversity of species of this part of the Amazonia is also protected.

It also gives hope to other tribal peoples worldwide – those who are similarly tyrannized by bullies and let down by governments – that there are others who will stand with them, who will fight for their fundamental right to live as they choose, who will not allow massacre, racism and the desecration of an ancient rainforest to take place on their watch. ‘We want to raise our children in the forest,’ said an Awá man. That is their inalienable right.


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