War or peace? A threatened Brazilian indigenous tribe weighs its options

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 March 2020 05:00 GMT

Ivaneide Bandeira holds a machete during a meeting held at Aldeia Nova, a Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau village deep in the Amazon, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira

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Endangered by land-grabbers and illegal loggers, an Amazon community debates how best to respond

By Fabio Teixeira

URU-EU-WAU-WAU TERRITORY, Brazil, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The old men want war, but the younger ones are holding them back. That generation divide was clear among the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe, who live deep in the Brazilian Amazon.

Endangered by land-grabbers and illegal loggers, the tribe called a meeting to discuss how to fight back and plan for the year ahead, Brazil's second under Jair Bolsonaro's presidency.

"You say we cannot kill, but the white man does not respect us," said Uaka, one of the village elders, standing up to speak in broken Portuguese.

"We do not steal their cattle to eat, so why do they steal our land for themselves? Our law works better than theirs," said Purui, another older tribe member.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation got rare permission to attend the meeting, held at Aldeia Nova, one of the tribe's nine villages in their 1.8 million-acre reservation in Rondonia state, as the indigenous group made plans for the future.

The state was among the hardest hit by last year's Amazon fires, according to INPE, Brazil's government agency tasked with monitoring deforestation in the region.

Living in small isolated villages made up of wood and straw huts, the indigenous community of about 300 people is surrounded by farmland that used to be part of their reservation.

A mother and her child look on during a meeting held at Aldeia Nova, a Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau village deep in the Amazon, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira

Bolsonaro came into office pushing for development of agriculture and mining on indigenous lands. Last month, he presented a bill to Congress that would open up indigenous reserves for mining and commercial farming.

Among the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, the consensus is that the government supports the farmers, and that this year the fires - often set to clear land for farming - will be as bad or worse than in 2019.

A mention of the president's name evoked ire among the elders during the meeting. Reverting back to their native language, Tupi Kawahib, they had a heated discussion.

"(Bolsonaro) called us children, so you can see how angry we get," Purui noted.

The Amazon rainforest, the largest in the world, plays a key role in slowing climate change, as its trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas.

Members of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau regularly venture into the forest to inspect their land. When they find invaders, they alert federal police and FUNAI - the country's indigenous affairs agency.

In some cases, they arrest loggers and hold them in a village until authorities come get them. They may also confiscate loggers' equipment or the trees they cut down.

But using violence - or "just an arrow to the leg", as one older tribal member suggested during the argument in Tupi Kawahib - would be a step beyond.

Increasingly, young community members rely on technology to document invasions and alert authorities, taking pictures from afar with drones.

They say violence is not the answer.

"Since before I was born there were invaders on our land," said Bitate, a 19-year-old tribal leader. "I fear that if (violence) happens, it would lead to even more conflict."

Bitate, a member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe, plans land inspections during a meeting held at Aldeia Nova, a village deep in the Amazon, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira


The meeting began in the morning, with most of the 32 attendees having arrived the night before, after hours traversing dirt roads by motorcycle, or cramped inside a car borrowed from the Association of Ethno-Environmental Protection Kaninde, a non-profit that assists them.

At a "maloca" - a large hut with a straw roof supported by wooden beams - in the middle of Aldeia Nova, hammocks had been hung and benches set up to accommodate the arrivals.

Duct tape held a map of the indigenous reservation on the maloca's supports. By the end of the meeting, it would be covered with pieces of paper indicating decisions made and votes undertaken.

Such formal meetings are a rarity, those attending said, as transporting people distances over rough terrain requires planning, time and cash.

When someone suggested a trip to Brazil's capital to talk with congressmen and government officials about the issues the community faces, Ivaneide Bandeira, of the Kaninde non-profit, seized on it as a peaceful idea to come from the meeting.

It was then quickly decided that six people, one from each village present, would go - four men and two women.

"I'll say this upfront: we can't send just men," she warned.

The group also decided to form groups to lobby local politicians that support Bolsonaro's proposed bill to open up indigenous lands.

Still, there was scepticism about what the talks with politicians can bring.

"We worry, because these people are not sleeping. They are working the law to end us," warned Cleber Tenharim, an indigenous man who married into the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe.

After a lunch of large plates of rice, served with fish or chunks of wild pig raised in the village, the tribe discussed logistics.

They depend on rivers for transportation, so they must match their inspections of their territory to the rainy season when travel is easiest - but in a way that does not interfere too much with planting their crops.

Juwi and her husband, Awapu, pose for a picture at Aldeia Nova, a village deep in the Amazon, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira


The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau villages are separated by kilometers of precarious dirt roads. Near one village, Alto Jamari, Brazilian farmers are building fresh settlements.

They are not in the indigenous reserves, but tensions have risen since the settlers moved in last August, tribal members said. The tribe estimates 54 families are building houses on the land surrounding the reservation.

The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have taken a "wait and see" approach, but are wary of recent offers by the newcomers to fix the road leading to the village, and to give cattle to the tribe if tribal members don't make a fuss about the settlements.

The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe first came into contact with outsiders around 1981, Bandeira said. Soon after, a violent conflict between the indigenous community and farmers started.

Many older tribal members lost relatives during it, she said.

"The pressure they are under is making the older ones remember the past, the massacres," Bandeira said. "Many are scarred by bullets" - literally in some cases, she said.

She has worked with the tribe for over 25 years, and supports the younger generation's push for a non-violent approach.

"You cannot kill the white man, because the white man has the government's support," she told Uaka during a discussion.

In other areas of Brazil, invasions of protected land have led to violent clashes. Last year alone, eight indigenous leaders were killed in circumstances that have not yet been clarified.

In the state of Maranhao, a group of indigenous people, calling themselves "guardians of the forest" have donned masks and arms to carry out operations where they intimidate and expel illegal loggers from their land.

Juwi, a 22-year-old Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau woman, worries that escalating violence could result in her husband's death. She is married to Awapu, who leads a group of a dozen people responsible for surveillance of the tribe's territory.

He has received death threats in the past and, last December, men in motorcycles showed up at the couple's village, asking questions about him. That day, both he and Juwi were far away in Porto Velho, Rondonia's capital.

"I worry every day," said Juwi, who took notes on the meeting, using the tribe's laptop. "But his surveillance is not to attack anyone. It's to protect (the forest)."

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)


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