Amazon Indians are seeking a greater voice in the planning of development projects that slice into their home areas. As roads, mines, farming, and timber operations chew up parts of their ancestral lands and threaten their culture and very survival, the Amazon Indians have taken their case to their own governments and, most recently, to Washington, where some of the international projects in South America's Amazon basin are planned and financed.
``We are beginning to avoid intermediaries - people who speak for us,'' says Evaristo Nugkuag, a Peruvian Amazon Indian. His message: ``We exist. We are people.''
But their existence remains threatened, as it has been for many centuries.
A just-released movie in the United States, ``The Mission,'' focuses on the threat to South American Indians in the mid-1700s from Portuguese slave dealers. Today, Amazon Indians, located in nine countries of the Amazon basin, are threatened by the massive and rapid development under way in the Amazon forest.
Battles between Indians and settlers moving into the forest regions from outside areas have left a number of people dead on both sides, according to a Brazilian official in Washington. In addition, many Indians have also died as a result of diseases that are brought in by outsiders.
Others have lost their lands to settlers. Environmentalists continue to warn of serious, possibly global results if the clearing of the Amazon tropical forest - the world's largest - continues at its current pace.
The campaign launched by the Amazon Indians against destructive development is an increasingly sophisticated one. As part of this campaign, Indian lobbyists recently traveled to Sweden, Britain, and the United States under the sponsorship of Survival International, a human rights group for indigenous peoples; Oxfam, a relief and development agency; and the Right Livelihood Foundation, a public charity based in London.
Amazon Indians have formed organizations in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru to press for better treatment of Indians on a variety of issues. Mr. Nugkuag is a founder and president of a coalition of Indian groups from those countries.
During their recent visit to Europe and Washington, Nugkuag and two other Indians met with US congressional aides, officials of the US Treasury, the Inter-American Development Bank, and with Barber Conable, president of the World Bank.
Jos'e Narciso Jamioy Muchavisoy, a Colombian Amazon Indian with a degree in Spanish literature, explained the group's aim in meeting with Mr. Conable. ``What we want is that the [World] Bank not finance projects in our area without first hearing us.''
The Indians, and other critics of World Bank-financed projects in the Amazon, contend that projects such as roads bring waves of settlers who take Indian lands, which they see as unused. In fact, the seemingly unused land is often land left fallow that will be used later. ``We rest the earth,'' says one of the Indians who came here.
Land is also claimed by settlers who argue that the Indians have no legal title to it. Often Indians do not have title, though they have used the land for generations. ``Indians say, `This is my land;' the settlers say, `Show me your land title,''' says one of the Indian envoys who traveled to Washington.
After claiming the land, settlers clear and farm large swaths. But this often ruins the land in a few years, because trees provide most of the nutrients that the soil requires for its crops.
When settlers burn trees to clear land, the ash provides nutrients for the soil - but the supply cannot be replenished because there are no more trees nearby.
The Indians, according to Robert Goodland, an economist at the World Bank, burn only a minute number of trees; the rest of the nutrients for their crops come from leaves.
The Indians also say that settlement and development subject them to new diseases. At least 80 percent of the Krenakore tribe in Brazil died of pneumonia within a few years of contact with outsiders, according to Stephan Schwartzman, an anthropologist who works for Cultural Survival, an international group for rights of indigenous people and ethnic minorities.
Conable made no concrete promises to the Indian envoys, but held out the possibility of direct communications with the Indians in the future, according to Jos'e Uranavi Yeroqui, the third Indian in the meeting. ``We intend to follow up on that,'' Mr. Uranavi says.
He says Conable also urged the Indians to work with their own governments to be heard. But in most cases, their governments ``have ignored us,'' Nugkuag says.
Conable was not available to comment on the meeting.
Mr. Goodland says that fully putting in place a policy that the World Bank devised a few years ago for safeguarding Indian rights and welfare in bank-financed development projects is ``embryonic'' but progressing.
Some bank project managers practice the policy more readily than others, says Goodland, who helped write the policy.
Safeguards sought on Amazon projects include diversions of roads around Indian areas, setting boundaries on Indian territories, securing legal land titles, and providing health and education services for Indians in newly opening areas.
But the bank's environmental office is small and ``operates on the periphery'' of bank project planning, says Chip Fay, of Survival International. Even when safeguards for Indians are written into projects, they are seldom carried out, Mr. Fay contends.
Indian rights are important, but their protection ``has to be balanced with other social imbalances,'' a Brazilian official here says.
Brazil is developing the Amazon, partly to help millions of poor Brazilians outside the area farm there to raise their standard of living. And the farming, according to this official, provides much-needed exports to earn foreign exchange to help pay back international loans.
Some ecologists point out, however, that many new settlers have to abandon their farms a few years after the land is cleared because of declining yields that result from a lack of fertile soil and an abundance of crop-devouring pests.
The Indians who came here explained their view of development. ``For us, development is not maximum exploitation of natural and human resources,'' said Mr. Jamioy Muchavisoy of Colombia. Development, he said, includes ``maintaining natural resources'' and ``recuperation of our lands.''