Brazilian Indians Leave Forest to Prove They Exist

Awá Indians from Brazil Brazil’s Indians from the tiny Awá tribe starting this Sunday and for the next two days will stage a three day protest in the Brazilian Amazon to prove that they exist and to demand that their land be protected from invasion.

The event, named “We Exist: Land and Life for the Awá Hunter-Gatherers”, has been organized by Brazilian indigenous rights organization, CIMI, the local Catholic church and several indigenous groups.

Around 100 Awá Indians are expected to participate in the protest. For most, it will be the first time they have left their forest home.

The protest will take place in Zé Doca, a town near the Awá’s land in Maranhão state in the eastern Amazon. It is in response to remarks by the local mayor’s office denying that the Awá exist.

The Awá are one of only two nomadic hunter gatherers tribes remaining in Brazil. More than 60 Awá have no contact with outsiders and are in grave danger from illegal loggers.

Although Awá lands have been legally recognized, the Indians are being targeted by loggers, who are bulldozing roads into the forests, and by settlers, who hunt the game the Awá rely on, exposing the Indians to disease and violence.

A federal judge ruled in June 2009 that all invaders must leave the Awá territory within 180 days. However, the ruling has since been suspended, and deforestation and invasions are increasing.

Stephen Corry, Director of human rights organization Survival, said, “Denying the existence of indigenous peoples is self-fulfilling and belongs to the colonial past. It’s also a crime: deny they exist and they won’t exist, they’ll disappear like so many Brazilian tribes before them. If Brazil wants to be viewed as a leading nation, the authorities must no longer tolerate violations like this.”

The Awá are a small tribe living in the Amazon state of Maranhão. They are one of only two nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes remaining in Brazil.

Some are uncontacted, ranging from tiny family groups living in the last fragments of Maranhão’s rapidly dwindling rainforest outside legally recognized territories, to approximately 60 individuals living in the Araribóia reserve.

In the 1970s huge iron ore deposits were discovered in the region. This led to the Great Carajás Program, a development project funded by the EU and the World Bank, which included building a mine and a railway.

The Awá and other indigenous peoples saw their lands opened up to unprecedented invasions by outsiders.

Today Awá lands are being targeted by loggers, who are bulldozing roads into their forests, and by settlers, who hunt the game they rely on, exposing the Indians to disease and violence.

Several large cattle ranches occupy significant tracts of Awá land and have already destroyed much forest.

A federal judge, Judge Madeira, ruled in June 2009 that all invaders must leave the Awá territory within 180 days. However, some of the ranchers have appealed against the ruling which has been suspended, and illegal logging and invasions are increasing.

The Awá hunt, fish and gather forest produce such as nuts and fruits. Those who are nomadic live in highly mobile, self-sufficient groups of no more than 20-30 people.

As they travel, they keep the embers of their fires lit, relighting the fire as they arrive at their destination.

The Awá were probably settled, growing manioc and corn in gardens. However in the 19th and 20th centuries waves of settlers invaded their land, forcing them to flee to avoid being massacred or enslaved. The Indians became nomadic to survive.

To protect the Awá from the impacts of the Great Carajás Program, FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s Indian Affairs Department decided to contact and settle them in the 1970s and 80s.

This had disastrous consequences, and many died from diseases such as malaria and flu. One Awá community that numbered 91 people at the time of contact had just 25 individuals left four years later.

Most Awá who have been contacted – and many who have not – are the survivors of brutal massacres, which have left them mentally and physically scarred.

One such survivor is Karapiru, who survived an attack and spent 10 years living on his own, hiding in the forest and constantly on the move.

Although their land has been mapped, and is in theory protected for the Indians’ exclusive use, the Awá’s territory has in fact been invaded, and much of it destroyed. The government has failed to expel or penalize the loggers, ranchers and colonists who now occupy their land.

For example, a group of cattle ranchers is illegally occupying a large part of Awá land where some uncontacted groups are known to live. In the past gunmen employed by ranchers nearby have killed any Awá they came across, and there is a serious risk that similar atrocities could take place once more.

In another part of the Awá’s territory known as the Araribóia reserve, groups of heavily armed loggers have destroyed much of the forest. The uncontacted Awá known to live here have not been spotted for months.

Yet another part of the Awá’s territory has been invaded by colonists who have settled along the Carajás railway and penetrated into the depths of the forest.

All this means that those Awá who have been contacted find life in the forest increasingly difficult and are being hemmed into ever smaller parts of their land as the forest is destroyed. The uncontacted members of the tribe face even greater dangers, and some may already have been killed.

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