Brazil tribes fear for their environment
Source: Associated Press
By Michael Astor
XINGU NATIONAL PARK, Brazil — Xingu is Brazil's oldest and probably its most successful Indian reservation, a 10,800-square-mile sprawl of pristine rainforest where 14 Indian tribes live much as their people have for thousands of years.
The reserve was established in 1961, just a few years after many of the tribes in the region had had their first contact with white civilization. It sat in the middle of a vast undeveloped stretch in the state of Mato Grosso, or "thick forest," in English.
Today, the park is surrounded by fields and pasture in the center of Brazil's fastest developing agricultural region. The Indians, whose numbers have nearly doubled to about 5,000 since 1961, say they are feeling the pressure.
"In 20 years there won't be enough land for all of us. If you look at the park, it's just a triangle with a little rectangle on top," says Awata, the school teacher at Capivara, one of several Kayabi villages that line the river.
In the villages, life goes on much as it always has, but there are signs of the encroachment of white civilization all around. Shiny metal water faucets are now a fixture in most villages, thanks to a well-digging project that aims to protect the Indians from polluted headwaters outside the park. Once-crystalline rivers are muddied from erosion caused by farming and logging up river.
"We can no longer fish with bows and arrows so we need to buy fish hooks from the white man," says Mairawe Kayabi, the president of the Xingu Indian Land Association, who like many Indians uses his tribe's name as a last name.
The sound of Indians stomping and chanting is still heard in the villages, only now it is as likely to emerge from a cheap tape recorder as it is from a live ceremony.
In the Ngojhwere village, the cooking grill is a bicycle wheel with its spokes hammered down. Three metal car wheels turned on their side raise the grill over the wood fire burning on the dirt floor. Breakfast is piraucu, a big, freshly caught river fish. The Indians stew it in water and when it's ready, wrap it in pieces of a big gummy manioc pancake called "beiju," with hot pepper and store-bought salt for seasoning. The women now use steel pots instead of clay to fetch water and cook.
Satellite dishes sit outside many of the long houses feeding a handful of Brazilian TV channels to generator-powered televisions.
"All the stuff on the television puts stuff in the young people's heads," Mairawe acknowledges. "They are attracted to whatever comes from outside. This is a cause for a lot of disagreement among the leadership."
For ceremonies, the Indians still strip naked and paint their bodies with red powder from ground urucum seeds and the black ink of the jenipapo fruit. But most days they wear Western clothing _ the woman preferring long, cotton dresses, the men shorts and T-shirts. Kuiussi, the Suya Indians' chief, wearing a skimpy swimsuit during a journalist's visit, warns visitors not to take pictures of Indians wearing Western clothes.
"If people see the pictures, they'll say we're not Indians _ that we're mixed (race) _ and that's not true," he says. "We are all Indians here."
While Kuiussi worries about outside influences, his son, Wetanti, 25, sees no problem keeping a foot in both worlds. He proudly displays a small album that begins with photos of him naked, painted and feathered and ends with him looking disco-ready in white slacks, a black T-shirt and wraparound sunglasses.
The Suya had their first contact with white men just over 40 years ago, in 1959. Today the village sits on the edge of the Xingu reservation _ face to face with white civilization.
"Right now, we have to fight to maintain our traditions. The world won't be the same for our children and grandchildren so we have to hold on to what we have as long as we can," Kuiussi says. "Maybe in the future, they'll want to farm or do something with the land to make money, but not in my lifetime."
The park owes its existence to the Villas Boas brothers. During a government expedition to Brazil's hinterlands in the 1940s, the pioneering Indian defenders saw first hand the devastating effect that contact with white civilization was having on Indians and their culture. The Villas Boas quartet — Orlando, Claudio, Alvaro and Leonardo — lobbied the government to set aside land for the reservation and then convinced 14 tribes from around the region to move into it.
At the time, wildcat miners, loggers and farmers were just starting to make their way into the region. "We taught them (the Indians) if they wanted to survive, if they wanted their children to survive, not to let anyone in. We told them if anyone came, to fight them," Orlando Villas Boas, who died last year, told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview.
On at least one occasion, Indians took the advise to heart. They killed 11 loggers who refused to leave, Villas Boas said. "No one even thought of coming here after that." Today, the Indians perform joint patrols with the Federal Indian Bureau and Brazil's environmental protection agency.
But when there are no officials around, the Indians aren't afraid to put on war paint and pick up bows, arrows and even hunting rifles to expel invaders. There can be problems among the Indians themselves. Many tribes moved to the park from hundreds of miles away, from places where the terrain was different, and they have had trouble adapting to life in the Xingu. Kayabi elders complain that the materials needed to make traditional objects are not available in the park.
"The old people didn't like it when they got here," says Jywapan Kayabi, one of the chiefs at Capivara. "They couldn't find the kind of wood they needed to make their bows and arrows, or the kind of grass they used to weave their baskets."
Communication is another problem. Because each of the 14 tribes has a distinct language, they can communicate with each other only in Portuguese, a language few Indians speak even today.
The Indians in the northern part of the park still don't have much contact with tribes in the southern part, even though they share a more compatible culture and visit each others' villages occasionally for festivals.
"If we see their dances we might understand some of what they're singing, but we can't join in the singing," says Ionaluka, who is the rare offspring of a mixed-marriage between Suya and Kayabi parents.