Brazil Amazon Indians Take on Soy Barons Blocking Dam Site

Group of Brazil's Enawenê Nawê Indians The remote Enawenê Nawê Indians have blockaded the construction site of a hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon, which they say will destroy their vital fishing grounds. Around 100 members of the 420-strong tribe occupied the building site and a nearby highway on Thursday, December 6. They want to stop the construction of a vast complex of hydroelectric dams being built on the Juruena river, upstream from their land.

Companies led by the world's largest soya producers, the Maggi family, are pushing for the construction of the dams. But the Enawenê Nawê, who eat no red meat, say that if the dams are built, the fish they rely on will no longer be able to reach their spawning grounds.

The Enawenê Nawê say they have not been consulted about the dams. They are demanding and independent study into the impact they will have.

A previous blockade of a major highway in June led the government to negotiate with the Indians, but plans for construction of the dams continued.

After the first opposition action, the Brazilian government agreed to several key demands of the Enawenê Nawê. The government's Indian agency, FUNAI, promised that it would survey lands claimed by the Enawenê Nawê and other tribes, with the aim of officially recognizing the areas as indigenous.

For three days in May, the Indians erected barricades in Mato Grosso state to protest against plans to build a series of hydroelectric dams along the Juruena river. They were also demanding the official recognition of their vital fishing waters in the Rio Preto area, which are being rapidly destroyed by cattle ranchers.

Neighboring tribes joined the protest in support of the Enawenê Nawê's demands, swelling the number of protestors to 200. The government responded quickly by dispatching officials to negotiate with the Indians on the barricade. It even agreed to pay for representatives of various tribes in Mato Grosso to travel to Brazilian capital Brasí­lia to meet with FUNAI's president.

Who They Are

The Enawenê Nawê are a small Amazonian tribe who live by fishing and gathering in the Brazilian midwestern state of Mato Grosso.

They are a relatively isolated people who were first contacted in 1974. Today they number over 450, living in large communal houses or malocas which radiate out from a central square where ritual and communal activities are performed.

The Enawenê Nawê are famed for their fishing techniques. During the fishing season, the men build large dams across rivers and spend several months camped in the forest, catching and smoking the fish which is then transported by canoe to their village.

Unusually for an Amazonian tribe, they do not hunt or eat red meat. Fish is an essential part of their diet and plays a vital part in rituals such as Yãkwa, a four-month exchange of food between humans and spirits.

The Enawenê Nawê grow manioc and corn in gardens and gather forest products. Honey gathering is celebrated in keteoko, or the honey feast, when men collect large amounts of wild honey in the forest and hide it on their return to the village, only revealing it when the women start to dance.

For decades the Enawenê Nawê have faced invasion of their lands by rubber tappers, diamond prospectors, cattle ranchers and more recently soy planters. Maggi, the largest soya company in Brazil, illegally built a road on their land in 1997. This was subsequently closed by a federal prosecutor.

Although their territory was officially recognized and ratified by the government in 1996, a key area known as the Rio Preto was left out.

This area is tremendously important to the Enawenê Nawê both economically and spiritually – this is where they build their fishing camps and dams, and where many important spirits live. The Enawenê Nawê are urgently pressing for this area to be protected as it is being increasingly invaded by loggers and soy planters, who are fast destroying the forest and polluting the land and rivers.

Survival International

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