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Brazzil - People - April 2004

In Brazil, It's Always Open Season on Indians

Wilson Jesus de Souza, a Pataxó from the municipality of Pau
Brasil, in Bahia, Brazil, is a victim of discrimination in his state
and protests the absence of justice. "In Bahia no one is arrested
for murdering an Indian," he says. He recalls that, since 1982,
in his community alone, 16 people have died in land disputes.

Paula Menna Barreto

Brazzil Picture Wapichana, Pataxá, Macuxi, Guarani, Xucuru, and many more. There used to be five million Indians; now there are 405 thousand. The present-day indigenous population of Brazil is composed of 210 nations, who speak over 170 languages. With the passage of time, these nations were decimated. Colonization, Christianization, contagious disease epidemics, slavery, forced labor, ill treatment, and confinement were and still are part of the reality faced by Indians in Brazil.

In the state of Roraima, the Indians in the Raposa Serra do Sol territory; in Rondônia, the Cinta Larga; and, in Maranhão, the Guajas. These, according to the Coordination of the Indian Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab), are the communities currently most beset by problems, but they are not isolated examples.

"One of the biggest problems encountered by Brazilian Indians is the lack of a government policy directed towards the indigenous community," says Genival de Oliveira Santos, a member of the Mayoruna nation from the middle portion of the Solimões River and coordinating treasurer of the Coiab.

The treasurer also warns that, so far, 2004 has been one of the most difficult years for the native population. "We have practically no alternative. Which jeopardizes the situation in this first half of the year," he affirms.

Santos is worried about the living conditions in indigenous communities. He accuses entrepreneurs who extract wood in Maranhão of invading the Indians' lands, and he says that the Guajas lack the political organization to demand their rights.

"They are practically out of contact with the rest of the world," he states. Consequently, one of Coiab's goals is to develop activities with this community to guarantee the people of the region a minimum of dignity.

Coiab also contends that, when it comes to land demarcation, the situation has been dragging on for years. "Things aren't put into practice," the Mayoruna says. "Indians no longer have places to fish and hunt," he concludes.

In this, the week in which Indian Day is commemorated, on April 19, the president of the National Indian Foundation (Funai), Mércio Pereira Gomes, recognizes that much, indeed, remains to be done. He recommends, for example, that specific legislation be passed to allow the legal exploitation of mineral wealth by Indians in reserves.

One of the big problems is conflicts with prospectors, such as the one that occurred recently, involving the Cinta Larga in Rondônia. Prospectors enter Indian lands illegally and work the ore. This leads to conflicts, since Indians are not allowed to exercise this activity.

Currently, 30 percent of Indian lands have yet to be demarcated, and 5-6 percent of these lands are awaiting final sanction. Gomes points out that this is a positive development. He also commemorates the insertion of 150 thousand young Indians in fundamental education and affirms that the Indian population is increasing.

"The communities are growing. Every year they increase by 3.5 percent. We expect to have double the number of Indians in the next twenty years," the anthropologist says.

The president of the Funai also cites discrimination as another serious problem that Indians face in Brazil. "Discrimination occurs in all Brazilian states," he observes. But he guarantees that the Foundation is working to put an end to this prejudice.

Wilson Jesus de Souza, a Pataxó from the municipality of Pau Brasil, in Bahia, is a victim of discrimination in his state and protests the absence of justice. "In Bahia no one is arrested for murdering an Indian," he says. He recalls that, since 1982 indigenous leaders have been killed all over Brazil; in Souza's community alone, 16 people have died in land disputes.

Another difficulty, according to the Funai, lies in agricultural production. Even when native communities are able to plant for their own consumption, they are unable to transform the crop into income. "It is impossible for them to have excess production to sell," Gomes says.

The anthropologist also cites communities such as the one in Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul, where the community is confined and lacks physical conditions to produce, because the Indian lands are surrounded by soybean plantations.

Bivouacked Indians

Camped out in an area close to the National Congress, Indians from all over Brazil are pressuring the government to sanction the Indian lands in Raposa Serra do Sol. Marcos Xucuru came from Pesqueira, in Pernambuco, to support the cause. The chief believes that the situation should be reversed. "For a long time Indian lands in this country have only been demarcated and sanctioned in line with political and economic interests," he affirms.

Ivaldo André, a Tuchuaua from the Maturuca community in the Raposa Serra do Sol territory, says that the discussion in Congress about demarcation is absurd. "It is a move backwards in relation to the 1988 Constitution. The matter should not be discussed any more," he affirms. The Indians say that the government is playing, and all they want is for the President to follow the law.

Souza, the Pataxó, says that, if he were to relate the history of Brazilian Indians, he would tell of suffering, most of all. An elected representative of the Organization of Native Peoples of the Northeast, Minas Gerais, and Espírito Santo (Apoinme), he says that the average per capita monthly income of Brazilian Indians doesn't surpass US$ 27.5 (R$ 80). "We have undergone massacres, house burnings, and much humiliation, and now we are fighting to recover our territory," he recounts.

Mortality Rate

Besides land demarcation, the native peoples want health care. Doctors, nurses, and medications are scarce in Indian communities. For the most part, Indians suffer from the same illnesses as the Brazilian population as a whole. Diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis, Aids, alcoholism, malaria, hypertension, depression, diabetes, and malnutrition also affect the Brazilian Indian population.

Child mortality is the most disturbing. Almost 50 percent of registered deaths occur among children under five years of age. The most frequent causes are contagious diseases, especially respiratory infections, intestinal parasitosis, malaria, and malnutrition.

According to the National Health Foundation (Funasa), the disease and mortality rates among Indians are three to four times higher than for the Brazilian population in general. This situation has posed a threat to the Indians, and the Funasa cites the example of the Latundeses—members of the Latundâ community, based in Rondônia—currently down to 37 survivors.

The National Health Council (CNS) has just approved a new Indigenous Health Policy, prepared by the Funasa, which has been in charge of Indian health since 1999. The targets include reducing child mortality by 50 percent and eliminating malnutrition among the Indian population by 2006. Data from 2002 indicate that malnutrition amounts to 30 percent among children under five. Funasa intends to reduce child mortality by 15 percent this year.

For Dr. Zilda Arns, coordinator of the CNS indigenous health commission, a lot has changed already. "Nowadays the Indian community itself participates in the administration of Indian districts," she remarks. But she acknowledges that malnutrition is still a big problem.

"It is our absolute priority," she says. The coordinator believes in a joint effort with government agricultural agencies and organizations that act in indigenous communities. "We are developing a food security policy," she states.

The president of Funasa, Valdi Camarcio Bezerra, explains that one of the most important aspects of the new Indian health policy is the way funds are distributed. Resources were previously transferred to the communities and non-governmental organizations (ONG's).

Now, the money will be sent to the special Indian health district, where 50 percent of the participants are indigenous leaders, together with Indian specialists, anthropologists, and municipal secretaries of health. "We shall optimize resources," says Bezerra, who explains that much used to be spent on administrative activities and little on practical activities to improve Indian health.

To combat the evils of alcoholism and the large number of suicides, the Funasa will implant a mental health policy. "It is a big problem in certain regions. We must conduct prevention," says the president of the Foundation.

According to Bezerra, another difficulty is getting doctors and nurses to remain in regions in which native communities are located. For this purpose, the Funasa should hire people temporarily specifically to care for Indian health in remote places.

Clóvis Ambrosio, a member of the Wapichana nation and the Roraima Indian health council, says that even today there aren't professionals trained to take care of Indians. And he declares that there was never a specific government program for the Indian peoples. For Ambrosio, distance is a problem.

"The doctors and nurses don't want to go on foot to look after Indians," he states. "The situation becomes even more complicated, when the care has to be delivered to a community that doesn't speak Portuguese," Ambrosio says.

The Funasa also intends to implant programs to prevent cancer of the uterus and breast in every Indian district and to reduce by 30 percent the incidence of tuberculosis among the Indian population.

Souza, the Pataxó, becomes indignant when it comes to the limited way in which the Funasa cares for Indian health. He says that an Indian has to be almost dead in order to receive good care. "People don't do their utmost to save an Indian's life," he laments.

Meanwhile, in Brasília

The president of the National Indian Foundation (Funai), Mércio Pereira Gomes, lamented the death of 29 prospectors in the Roosevelt Indian reserve, in Rondônia. He said, however, that the conflict is part of the Indians' fight for land in Brazil.

Three bodies were discovered in the region a week ago. The Federal Police (PF) expects to remove another 26 severely decomposed cadavers from the area this week. The PF believes that they were all victims of confrontations between Indians and prospectors during Holy Week, in the beginning of April.

"We are sorry for those who died and their families. But we also need to tell the Brazilian people that the Indians are exercising an elementary defense of lands invaded by completely illegal prospectors," the Funai president pondered. Gomes defends the immediate discussion of proposals to alter Constitutional article 231, paragraph 4, which deals with the exploitation of mineral resources in the country.

In his view, the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM) needs to find mineral deposits outside the reservation to regularize the activities of prospectors and mining firms. "The Indians, for their part, need authorization to mine their lands," Gomes argues. "A decree would be sufficient to resolve this issue. We just need to develop the debate and do everything with a great deal of care so as not to cause a stampede to the area."

According to the Funai president, since diamond deposits were discovered in the Roosevelt reserve, in 1999, invasions by prospectors have become frequent. Both the Funai and the Indians asked the prospectors to leave the reserve.

A confrontation last year had already left some Indians wounded and around eight prospectors dead. The Cinta-Larga tribe currently has around 1.5 members, spread across a 1.6 million hectare region.

"The reserve received as many as 5 thousand trespassing prospectors," Gomes recalls. "After the first confrontations with the Indians, our intervention, and the PF's, this number dropped to 600. During Holy Week, when the most recent conflicts occurred, there were still 150 prospectors in the reserve."

Last Monday, the Funai received a denunciation that a group of 20 prospectors had invaded the reserve to reclaim the corpses of their other 26 missing mates. In response, the Foundation sent a team of 15 qualified staff members to the Cinta-Larga tribe. The team is led by Indian specialists Walter Blos and Apoena Meirelles. They were the ones who provided the PF the coordinates for the operation to retrieve the bodies.

For the Funai president, it is necessary to admit the possibility that some of the dead might be victims of disputes among the prospectors themselves.

Paula Menna Barreto works for Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government. Comments are welcome at lia@radiobras.gov.br.

Translator: David Silberstein

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