Amidst the brutal genocide of their people, 15 members of the world’s most endangered tribe head on a 2000km bus journey to the big city for the first time to get their voices heard. While one part of Brazil rides high on its economic boom, these quiet voices remind us that not everyone is being taken along for the ride…
Last Tuesday (6thNovember 2012) a small, bedraggled group of people emerged from a hot, sticky bus, after 3 days and 2000 km further from their home village in Maranhão state, in the North-East of Brazil. They had made their way across the country to Brasília, the capital city, and home to the National Court. For most, it was their first time outside of their village, let alone into a huge modernistic Orwellian city like Brasília, with engines churning out fumes on every street, and suited office workers marching along the
streets; their noses firmly glued to their smartphones. The 15 individuals were some of the last survivors of the Awá- thought by many to be the world’s most endangered tribe, and one of just 2 tribes left in Brazil which preserves its ancient nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life. This unprecedented journey (which, despite its unglamorous nature, will have cost them a fortune) is the Awá’s public stand against the genocide of their people, and to confront the Brazilian government for ignoring international campaigns by human rights activists. They had been due to meet with the Minister, but the meeting was cancelled, so these protestors positioned themselves in front of Brazil’s Ministry of Justice; an inconvenient reminder of an aspect of Brazilian culture and history which goes too-often forgotten on the concrete and neon-lit streets of Brazil’s most important city; their voices fighting against the clamour of humdrum urban life.
These 15 Awá were representing the voices of just 350 tribe members left; at least 100 of whom remain uncontacted by the wider world, yet their story is starting to be heard across to the globe thanks to campaigns by the likes of Survival International (backed publicly by actor Colin Firth). Despite orders from the World Bank and the European Union in 1982, the Brazilian government only demarcated their lands officially in 2003, but these lands remain open and unprotected from illegal ranchers, settlers and loggers, who are gradually encroaching upon indigenous territories across the rainforest areas of Brazil. The Greater Carajas Programme in Maranhão was devastating for the environment and its indigenous peoples in this area, with the construction of a mammoth industrial complex, including a dam, new tarmac roads, cattle ranches, a 560-mile long railway cutting through the Awá’s territory, and an open-air iron mine constructed in their lands- so huge it is visible from space. Illegal ranchers and loggers poured into this largely unprotected land to profit from the forest and resources to be plundered there.
Satellite images show that illegal loggers have already cleared at least 30% of the rainforest in the Awá’s lands since 1985, while recent images from August-September of this year show that these loggers have burned a huge area, thought to be home to at least 60 uncontacted Awá. Meanwhile, heavily armed loggers, ranchers and hired militia are shooting the Awá upon sight. Just last year, an 8 year old Awá girl was burned alive by illegal loggers for wandering out of her village- which was subsequently destroyed by the loggers. Others have died from ant poison which was put into their flour stores by local farmers, or have been shot running away from settlers moving into the area.
One man who narrowly survived such an attack was Karapiru, who escaped, severely traumatised, fleeing far into the forest, with lead shot embedded in his lower back. The new arrivals murdered his wife, daughter, mother, brothers and sisters; while his son was wounded and captured trying to run after his father. For 12 years, Karapiru was on the run, walking almost 400 miles across the forests and plains of Maranhao, crossing the sand dunes and rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean. He told Survival International that he only survived by eating honey and small birds such as parakeets, doves and red-bellied thrushes. At night he chose to sleep high in the tree canopy to avoid capture by illegal ranchers working in the area. Whenever the solitude became too much, he said he would hum to himself as he walked.
More than a decade later, on the outskirts of a town in the neighbouring state of Bahia, Karapiru was seen by a farmer walking through the black ash of a burnt patch of forest, carrying a machete, arrows, and a chunk of smoked wild pig. The farmer gave him shelter, and alerted the National Indian Foundation (Funai), which, in turn, sent a young Awá man called Tiramucum to talk to this unknown Indian, whose language no one could understand. By an incredible coincidence, Karapiru found himself reunited with his long lost son, who had been captured 12 years earlier.
Karapiru has since remarried, has a young daughter, lives in the Awá settlement of Tiracambu, and has gone back to living in the traditional way of the Awá tribe. They spend their days hunting for game such as peccary, tapir and monkey, with 6ft bows made from the irapá tree, and gathering forest produce such as babacu nuts and açaí berries, whilst also nurturing orphaned animals as pets. Awá women even breast-feed capuchin and howler monkeys and have also been known to suckle small pigs, such is their connection with the forest around them. But Pire’i Ma’a, an Awá man, said. “Monkeys, peccaries and tapir are running away. Everything is dying. We are all going to go hungry.” It is this traditional way of life which is being destroyed by the new arrivals in the area, as the Awá are being rounded up into reserves along with members of other ethnic groups and tribes throughout Brazil; a new way of life which prohibits the traditional values of hunting and gathering.
A brief interview with Karapiru, in which he tells his story in his own words, can be viewed here: http://www.survivalinternational.org/films/karapiru-01
The Awá’s protests are at last shedding some light upon this overlooked issue- the labelling of indigenous peoples as ‘backwards’ or the belief that they would ‘benefit’ from being ‘discovered’ and welcomed into our Western notion of ‘civilisation’ is entirely false, fundamentally racist, and all evidence points conspicuously in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, most people in the English-speaking world think that such cultural and ethnic genocide of indigenous peoples, whilst shocking and lamentable, belongs in the 19th century in the United States. A federal judge has recently explicitly described the situation as “real genocide”, and given that the Amazonian area is so vast, it is enormously difficult to monitor what is going on. Reports state that as of September 2012, illegal loggers are just 6km away from where many of the Awá are currently living. Time is of the essence, not just for the Awá, but for all of South America’s native peoples. Here’s hoping the suited office workers and members of Brazilian government strolling past the Awá protesters this week do more than just take photos of them on their smartphones.
For more information about the Awá, and how the outside world can help them, see the campaign at http://www.survivalinternational.org/awa
To hear about the experiences of one of the world’s most recently contacted indigenous people, watch the short interview here: