Xingu, Waimiri-Atroari and Yanomami: Three Amazonian Reservations, Three Stories
Manaus - Itís carnival time once more in Brazil even for our poor, forgotten Indians. And so two things dominate the news: pre-carnival celebrations in one Brazilian city or another, and Indians struggling (mostly amongst themselves) to gain control of land in one region or another of the country. In considering the Indian question it might help if we look back over the years and recall the facts behind the creation of three very different indigenous reservations in Brazil. And hopefully the conclusions I draw wonít do too much to spoil the party the rest of us are busy enjoying.
Xingu: a reserve for all the right reasons
The Xingu reserve was Brazilís first big experiment with a large Indian reservation. Founded in 1961, it was the brainchild of the Villas Boas brothers, researchers who in turn were strongly influenced strongly by the humanist teachings of Marechal C‚ndido Rondon. Rondon is famous for his declaration, ďdie if you must but never kill.Ē The Xingu River valley south of the Amazonas River is home to a collection of half a dozen or more Indian groups including the Kayapo. After years of work with the Indians of the area the Villas Boas brothers were able to piece together a huge reservation uniting all the various tribes of the area in apparent peace and harmony. The project was considered ahead of its time and the Villas Boas brothers became international celebrities.
Things reached their apogee in the 1980s when pop star Sting made friends with Kayapo chief Raoni and flew him around the world to bring attention to the plight of the Amazon rainforest and her peoples. But then things took a turn for the worse. Internationally known spokesman for the Kayapo Paulinho Paiakan was arrested on allegations of rape. Newspaper articles began to describe how well the chiefs were living in nearby cities with their own apartments, cars and small planes. In the last few years leaders of the Kayapo and other Indian groups in Xingu have repeatedly been accused of selling off their own forests to enrich themselves. An article in the Brazilian newsmagazine Veja about ecotours to Xingu turned out to be nothing. No one but professional people with the highest credentials, with explicit government permission, can visit Xingu. Most recently the Indians of Xingu have become involved in a series of land takings and confrontations with local farmers, cattle ranchers and government authorities. Xingu seems a messy place these days now that the Villas Boas brothers are gone.
Waimiri-Atroari: a reserve by tragic accident
The Waimiri-Atroari reserve was created several decades ago after the Brazilian government first built a highway through and then flooded Indian lands north of Manaus and the middle Rio Negro River. In a wave of euphoria, the Brazilian government celebrated the opening of the vast but never fully-completed Transamazon highway in the 1970s. Most of it has by now crumbled and been destroyed by yearly rains and mudslides. In one huge blunder the government plowed through rainforest north of Manaus and built BR-174, and then went on to flood the northern most part of the area to create the Balbina Reservoir, the second largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca. Indians encountered during construction were ruthlessly slaughtered. The Indians retaliated in their own wave of revenge killings against construction workers, government Indian agency workers, and even priests.
Eventually the Brazilian government together with the electricity company Eletronorte was forced to negotiate with the Indians of the area, two separate groups known as the Waimiri and Atroari. A huge reservation was granted to the Waimiri-Atroari and an exemplary program of social assistance was designed for them in compensation. Today the Waimiri-Atroari Program is hailed as a great success story in saving, preserving and resurrecting the culture of a persecuted Amazon Indian group. Their population is growing faster than the non-Indian population of Brazil. Each community has itís own boats, medical posts and schools. The project has its own website where supporters may order fine arts and crafts produced by their cooperative.
But again no one can visit but the very privileged. Access to their reservation is denied and the highway though their lands is closed each evening at 6 pm and opened again at 6 a.m. The Waimiri-Atroari are said to attack, plunder and mutilate curious visitors who enter their lands without permission.
Yanomami: the reserve that never was and never will be
The Yanomami reserve on the upper Rio Negro River was perhaps not meant to help the Indians at all but to guarantee the government unrestricted access to known mineral deposits in Brazilís northern mountains. In one of the more bizarre actions of his government, President Fernando Collor, now famous for having been impeached, signed into existence in 1992 the largest Indian reservation in Brazilís history, an area the size of Belgium north of the upper Rio Negro and running up against the mountains which divide Brazil and Venezuela. This area is home to the largest group of traditional Indians in the Americas, the famous Yamomami.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Yanomami had suffered terribly from a wave of disease and death brought upon them by the largest gold rush of the 20th century. Archaeologists suggested the Incas themselves had built roads across the northern Amazon to mine gold in the mountains of Parime. The legendary city of Manoa, or El Dorado, may once had lain below these mountains on the edge of a huge inland sea sought out by countless adventurers and conquistadors including Gonzalo Pizarro and Walter Ralegh.
Coming on the heels of the Rio environmental summit of 1992, and not long after the Brazilian government had finished an ambitious project called RADAM, which identified mineral reserves of all sorts across the Amazon, the creation of this reservation seemed to some to be more than just coincidental. It was hard to believe it was all done with the good of the Yanomami in mind. Today prospectors and miners, not to mention NGOs and missionaries and the Brazilian military seem more populous in the region than the Yanomami themselves. Youíd be hard put to find a Yanomami in the area even if you could get in.
And there we have it again. The reserve is closed to all but those with the highest official backing. Even the national park known as Pico da Neblina, which overlaps half the Yanomami reserve is closed these days while FUNAI, the government Indian agency, and IBAMA, the environmental agency, fight over how best to manage the land and the Indian people living there. In a startling escalation of absurdities the entire Northwest Amazon, everything west of the upper Rio Negro River has been declared an indigenous area and no one can enter without government permission.
Where are the Indians
What is happening in this country? What is happening to the Indians? Certainly there are many forces at work on these issues. But not a single viable solution has come from over 50 years of effort. Reservations are created, usually in the wake of one conflict or another, but just as soon as they are created they are filed away and forgotten it seems. The Indians of the Amazon have no voice in these matters. They also have no face because the only people who can see them are those selected by the government; and that is neither you nor I. The Indians are kept in like prisoners and we are kept out. NGOs would have you believe this is best for the Indians. Indian agencies say the Indians donít want outsiders visiting them. The military says the areas must be closed to the public for reasons of national security. Whatever the reasons, they are all stupid. And I for one have grown tired of it all. Sadly I am no longer very interested in the Amazon Indians. What Indians after all? We never see them. Our most responsible tour operators canít visit them. I almost think they no longer exist. And certainly if we lose interest in them and forget abut them they will no longer exist. And no one will notice or even bat an eye. What Amazon Indians? They only exist for National Geographic Magazine, or for the Instituto Socio-Ambiental, or for the Waimiri-Atroari Program. For you and me, friends, there are no Amazon Indians.