An imperilled people

BOB LEVIN June 29 1987

An imperilled people

BOB LEVIN June 29 1987

An imperilled people


They live in smoky communal huts in forests and hills straddling the Brazil-Venezuela border, deep in the heart of untamed Amazonia. They shun clothes and, instead, decorate their bodies with red urucum dye, feathers and flowers. They hunt—and fight—with bows and arrows, and some still use stone tools. First identified by explorers in the 19th century, they are known as the Yanomami (or humanity) Indians, and at 20,000 strong they are the largest remaining primitive group in the Americas. But the centre of their region—the scrubcovered Surucucu ridge overlooking the dense rain forest on the Brazilian side of the border—is also believed by some to be a veritable eldorado of gold, diamonds, uranium, titanium and tin. And a new government plan to develop the Amazon, including Surucucu, has set off a heated debate over the very survival of the Yanomami.

For the two-year-old civilian government of President José Sarney, the treatment of the Yanomami is a test case of its handling of the vital Amazon issue. Sarney has promised to develop Amazonia without destroying it. As part of his plan, he has approved a

military-run program called Calha Norte, or Northern Headwaters, whose existence was unofficially disclosed to the media last year only after construction had already begun. The program is designed to establish a string of army outposts along 6,500 km of northern frontier, both as a security measure and as a vanguard to settlement. But many critics argue that Calha Norte would damage the wilder-

ness ecology and be tantamount to genocide of the Yanomami. In fact, some critics say that the Sarney government, pressured by the mineralhungry private sector, has been more indifferent to the fate of Brazil’s Indians than past military regimes.

In one sense Calha Norte—financed entirely with Brazilian funds—has provided a new sense of purpose for the military, which gave up power in 1985 after ruling Brazil for 21 years. Army officers cite a number of security threats. To the west, they say, they want to guard against incursions by the left-wing guerrillas of Peru’s “Shining Path” and Colombia’s M-19 movements, as well as against drug traffickers. To the north, territorial disputes between Venezuela and Guyana could spill over into Brazil, while Surinam’s military regime is considered a destabilizing influence. Above all, military planners say that they want to isolate Brazil from the conflicts that lie even farther north in Central America.

Under the Calha Norte program, each of the four military outposts planned so far is to be occupied by 70 soldiers and their families. In turn, the outposts are to lead to such projects as new high-

ways and electrification, and to help to populate the area with tax-paying Brazilians. At the same time, the military has promised to aid the Yanomami who live in Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost federal territory. Some anthropologists say that if the army makes good on its promises, Calha Norte would provide improved health care for the Indians and curb the independent prospectors whose invasions have often proved disastrous to Amazonia’s tribes.

Romero Juca Filho, director of the state Indian affairs bureau, FUNAI, maintains that his agency now has increased power to help the Indians. FUNAI officials also want to accompany soldiers on patrols—where they will encounter naked Indian women—and advise them to keep their distance. “The army doesn’t know the aggressive capacity of the Yanomami,” said Francisco Bezerra de Lima, head of the FUNAI post at Surucucu. “They are a warrior nation, and if the soldiers misbehave, the Indians will kill them one by one.”

Juca Filho said that the Calha Norte plan also guarantees Indian territory in Amazonia. Although an area almost twice the size of Nova Scotia has been provisionally set aside for the Yanomami and closed to outsiders since 1982, the Indians are not yet protected by a legal reserve.

Since 1979 the Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park, an independent group financed by the Norwegian government and a British charity, has been pushing for legal recognition of a combined ecological and Indian sanctuary, and a bill proposing the park has been tabled in the Brazilian senate. Recently, then-interior minister Ronaldo Costa Coutos said that Sarney would issue a presidential decree creating a Yanomami reserve later this year.

But Indian support groups—chief among them Roman Catholics of the Indigenist Council of Missionaries (CIMI)remain skeptical. “The government and FUNAI always make promises,” said Julio Gaiger, a CIMI official in Brasilia, “but when have they ever delivered?” Gaiger cited the case of the WaimiriAtroari Indians, whose reserve was created by presidential decree in 1971, only to be broken up in the late 1970s—also by presidential decree—to allow private development of a tin mine. CIMI officials say that Calha Norte is merely the thin wedge of a master plan to develop Ama-

zonia at the expense of the environment and the Indians. And Gaiger noted that other projects are proceeding, including a string of massive dams that, according to preliminary studies, will adversely affect many Indian areas.

Yanomami leaders also seem worried. “I don’t think we can live with the army posts,” said Davi Xiriana, a well-known leader who works for FUNAI. “If we allow them, they will fill up the area, fencing it off to stop us hunting or fish-

ing. No one wants these soldiers bringing cooks and road workers who pass on diseases.” In fact, centuries of isolation have made the Yanomami extremely vulnerable to diseases brought by whites. While running a FUNAI outpost in 1974, Xiriana saw a whole community of his people die of measles, malaria and flu during a government attempt to build a northern perimeter road—one that is now closed and reverting to forest.

The calamitous effects of some Amazon development have become increasingly clear to international lending agencies. In 1985 the World Bank held up loans for a $565-million development project, including reconstruction of a highway through the states of Mato

Grosso and Rondônia, because the government had let in a flood of settlers, lumbermen and prospectors before establishing reserves for the area’s Indians. The bank, which had earmarked $34 million for the demarcation project, resumed payments only after the government hurriedly completed the paperwork for the reserves. Still, Betty Mindlin, an anthropologist who conducted a Säo Paulo University evaluation for the bank, said that more than half the Indian areas were not protected by the project, which she dubbed a “disaster.”

Now the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which lends funds for development in Latin America, has also begun to question aspects of its involvement in the Amazon. After the World Bank refused to finance a 500-km extension of a highway from Rondônia northwestward to Acre state, the IDB stepped in with a $76-million loan. The bank also helped finance the process of setting aside Indian lands in the area. But last year the government simply halted that effort. And contractors have been trying to complete the extension by next year— before any new reserves can be legally protected. As a result, the U.S. treasury department has suggested that the IDB suspend funding, and Brazilians fear that the bank may do just that.

Even without the involvement of international banks, the Calha Norte battle seems likely to intensify. Although early geological surveys have been disappointing, Brazilian Air Force Minister Octávio Moreira Lima insisted recently that there is enough mineral wealth buried in the Calha Norte area to “repay almost all our $134-billion foreign debt.” With so much apparently at stake—and the Yanomami sitting inconveniently on much of it—even many support groups say that the Yanomami cannot resist change entirely. They view the proposed reserve as the Indians’ best hope for survival. “We want the Yanomami to adapt without being exterminated,” said Carlo Zacquini, an Italian missionary. “It will take them some generations to progress from the Stone Age to the satellite age.” Whether they get that chance may depend on the power—and the priorities—of the Brazilian government.

-BOB LEVIN with RICHARD HOUSE in Boa Vista, Brazil