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 AwÃ¡ tribe’s lands.
The AwÃ¡ 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 LAST RAINFOREST NOMADS
The western edge of MaranhÃ£o state is a region known as Pre-Amazonia, which lies some 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is a beautiful place of savannah, babaÃ§u 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 AwÃ¡ tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil, for generations.
The AwÃ¡ probably originated from the lower Tocantins River of ParÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡, 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 babaÃ§u fruits, aÃ§ai 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 AwÃ¡ keep orphaned animals such as monkeys as pets, share their hammocks with racoon-like coatis and split mangoes with green parakeets. AwÃ¡ 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 babaÃ§u 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 AwÃ¡ man told Survival. ‘We don’t know how to live like white people.’
The AwÃ¡ call their homeland HarakwÃ¡, meaning, ‘the place that we know’.
ARRIVAL OF THE WHITES (KARAI)
The AwÃ¡’s life was irrevocably disturbed by the karai (the AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡. 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 CarajÃ¡s. 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 CarajÃ¡s Project, that would exploit the region’s precious mineral reserves: bauxite, copper ore, manganese, cassiterite, nickel and gold.
The CarajÃ¡s Project would also comprise the TucuruÃ 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 SÃ£o Louis. [The project's industrial showpiece was the Iron Ore Project (CarajÃ¡s 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 CarajÃ¡s 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 AwÃ¡’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 AwÃ¡ in the years following the inauguration of the CarajÃ¡s 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.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE MINE AND RAILWAY
The CarajÃ¡s 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 CarajÃ¡s-SÃ£o LuÃs 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 AwÃ¡ to leave their homes. If the AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡, 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 AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ 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 Ãndio’ (a lot of land for just a few Indians). According to one statement made by Professor William BalÃ©e (an ethnobotanist who had worked with the AwÃ¡), to Washington’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, no federal politicians in the states of ParÃ¡ or MaranhÃ£o 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 AwÃ¡ 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 CarajÃ¡s Project was fast becoming a hellish, lawless human and ecological disaster.
After some years, it emerged that the AwÃ¡ tribe was, quite literally, at risk of being wiped out. ‘We are dealing with a real genocide,’ said judge JosÃ© Carlos do Vale Madeira, who followed the AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ 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 CarajÃ¡s 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-AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡’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 AwÃ¡ Indigenous Territory.
This constitutional demarcation meant that - in theory, at least - no one could enter the AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ died.
Letters of concern started to arrive at Survival. One, from two Spanish archaeologists who had worked with the AwÃ¡, 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 AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ territory had been destroyed, making it one of the fastest destroyed of any indigenous territory in South America in recent years.
RACISM and DENIAL
The AwÃ¡ had been subjected to racist comments for decades but when the Mayor of the logging town of ZÃ© Doca took bigotry one step further, by denying the tribe’s very existence, they took action. The AwÃ¡ responded by staging a protest branded ‘We exist’ outside the town hall in ZÃ© Doca’s central square, organised by the Indian Missionary Council (CIMI). Around 100 AwÃ¡ 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 MaranhÃ£o office.
By the time Bruno Fragoso, coordinator of FUNAI’s AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ community. Judge Jirair Aram Meguerian ruled that invaders would have to leave the AwÃ¡’s territory within twelve months.
When the order was not enforced, however, Survival International stepped in to amplify the AwÃ¡’s cries for help. With the use of a powerful multi-media campaign, it launched the AwÃ¡’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 AwÃ¡ going about their daily routine. Throughout the film there is the intriguing, invisible presence of the 100 uncontacted AwÃ¡: 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 ‘AwÃ¡icon’ 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 AwÃ¡’ 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 SebastiÃ£o 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 LeitÃ£o, spent time with AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡? I’m getting thousands of email messages.’ In the space of months, he had received 57,000 messages from 38 countries.
The OPERATION and the ANNOUNCEMENT
In the end, after years of delays and corruption, the operation to rid the AwÃ¡ Indigenous Territory of invaders was remarkably swift. Hundreds of soldiers, police and government agents flooded the AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ territories in which sawmills cannot be constructed. Above all, Survival believes that the AwÃ¡ 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 CarajÃ¡s project by CVRD, due to begin in 2016, to which it plans to add another 600 kms of railroad and build the CanaÃ£ dos CarajÃ¡s 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 AwÃ¡ are jubilant. ‘The evictions were really important for us, the AwÃ¡,’ Tatuxa’a, an AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ 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 AwÃ¡ to live on their lands, and, importantly, recognises their vital role in the ‘natural’ world. By protecting the AwÃ¡, 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 AwÃ¡ man. That is their inalienable right.