Brazil Indians Grapple with White Man's Advance

When Indian leader Pirakuman of the Yawalapiti tribe thinks of the agricultural boom that has so delighted Brazilian exporters and politicians, he sees only a threat to his people.

JAQUEIRA INDIAN RESERVE, Brazil - When Indian leader Pirakuman of the Yawalapiti tribe thinks of the agricultural boom that has so delighted Brazilian exporters and politicians, he sees only a threat to his people.

"Our biggest problem is the environment. In Mato Grosso, close to our land, they are clearing a lot of jungle," he said.

"We are scared. They don't care about preservation."

Pirakuman had traveled to the Jaqueira Indian Reserve, on the coast of Bahia state, to take part in the 7th Indigenous Peoples Games, a celebration of Brazilian Indian culture.

The event was also a chance to forge links with other tribes and air common grievances in a struggle that has gone on since Portuguese explorers first landed in Brazil on a beach just a few miles away from here in 1500.


Over the centuries, the Indians have suffered enslavement, extermination campaigns, disease and neglect.

Today, despite the exotic touch they bring to tourist brochures, they remain on the bottom rung in this country of 180 million people that prides itself on being a melting pot but is still divided by race, class and the enormous gap between rich and poor.

The Indians' main concerns now are the demarcation and securing of mineral rights to their lands, and better health care and education. Their traditional areas face constant encroachment by loggers, farmers, ranchers and miners seeking to exploit Brazil's natural wealth.

Even as the games got under way, a gang of armed farmers torched three Indian villages and wounded a Macuxi man in a clash over a reserve in the Amazon state of Roraima.

Indians there have accused leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of delaying a land handover under pressure from local farmers and politicians.

Pirakuman, 50, who led the Yawalapiti team from the Xingu Reserve in Mato Grosso, said the waters on his reserve had been polluted by a wave of illegal diamond miners.

"It's bad for the children. They are getting diarrhea and other illnesses," he said, speaking in Portuguese.

He was also watching with concern the advance of big agricultural corporations on the interior. Under a 1996 law, corporations can challenge demarcations of Indian land.

A boom in exports of soy, beef and other farm products is driving Brazil's economic recovery and environmentalists say the government is more keen to build roads than slow forest destruction.

Deforestation of the Amazon hit its second-highest level yet in 2003, after a record in 2002, with an area larger than New Jersey cleared.

Hunting, Fishing...and Fighting

Another Indian leader, Edson Terena, said farming companies came to their villages to recruit young men as cane cutters in far away plantations. But the pay was very little.

"The days of slavery are over but we are still treated like slaves by the big corporations," he said.

The games are an assertion of pride for a people long derided by many Brazilians as ignorant and lazy primitives. It was important to keep the skills and traditions alive among the children, leaders said.

At the opening ceremony, around 1200 Indians from 31 nations danced around the sand arena of the Jaqueira Reserve, chanting, whooping and waving clubs, rattles and weapons. Their headdresses, painted bodies and loin cloths provided a rainbow of colors.

Torrential rains held up the first few days of competition and washed out the Indians temporary camp of thatched cabins. But when the Bahian sun returned, they got down to a program of foot races, canoeing and swimming contests, archery and such idiosyncratic sports as log-carrying relays.

Many of skills are in daily use among a people whom for the most live by hunting and subsistence planting.

"We people have always hunted. It's very important we remember how do to this. I kill fish, animals, anything with this bow and arrow," said Toki, a Kayapo from Para state.

He might have added it is still a handy weapons of war. In recent clashes with land-grabbers, painted Indians have sometimes fought with bows and arrows. In April, Indians killed 29 illegal miners on their reserve in Rondonia state.

The Indians' situation is not all bad news. In nationwide municipal elections in October, Indian candidates fared better than ever before, running for mainstream political parties.

A population slide has also halted. Numbering an estimated 5 million when the Europeans arrived in 1500, by the late 1980s they were down to less than 400,000. They now number about 734,000 in around 230 tribes, according to government figures.

Leaders agree the Indians' lot has improved in some aspects in recent years.

But, said Edson: "There is still racism. The Indian is always below. We don't have anything to exist by. We need a lot of help."

Source: Reuters