Mystery Trails Deaths in Brazil
Initial reports said 73 Yanomami were killed by Brazilian miners angry over their expulsion from Indian land. But pro-mining lobbyists and politicians counter that no massacre occurred.
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — THE Yanomami Indians believe that when the last Yanomami shaman dies, the world will come to an end.
It must have seemed like the end of the world to 17-year-old Antonio Yanomami when he came upon the mutilated bodies of his people in the dense jungle of northwestern Brazil earlier this month.
Antonio was one of five survivors who was able to get word out about the killings, through a missionary nun on Aug. 13, to the government's national Indian agency, FUNAI. Since then, the case has been surrounded by confusion.
The first reports indicated at least 19 Yanomami had been killed. After FUNAI transported Yanomami interpreters to the area and interviewed other survivors, the list of dead grew to 73. FUNAI investigates
FUNAI president Claudio Romero has told the press that miners killed the Indians in retaliation against the government's attempt to remove miners from the Yanomamis' demarcated land - 36,700 square miles located on the Venezuelan border.
Pro-mining lobbyists and politicians from the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas, where the territory is located, first speculated that the Yanomami had killed each other. Since no bodies have yet been located, they are now claiming that the killings never happened at all.
"Those Indians are probably in Venezuela. FUNAI is putting on this theater just so international nongovernmental organizations keep injecting money into the indigenous cause," said Roraima Federal Deputy Joao Fagundes in a Monitor interview. He also criticizes the size of the Yanomami land.
"This problem shows how difficult it is to keep an eye on the territory. The government should legalize mining in part of the area and get a portion of what the miners extract," he says. "The miners are victims in this story. The government expels them from indigenous lands, but doesn't give them other work options. They're desperate and they'll continue invading."
The incident has again focused attention on what some call FUNAI's blundering efforts to help Indians in Brazil. FUNAI employees continue to complain that they do not have enough resources.
"This tragedy could have been prevented if FUNAI had more supplies, people, helicopters, and infrastructure," says FUNAI spokesperson Roseli Garcia. "We were hoping to have more funds to post guards at the Boa Vista airport to control the entry of miners' planes in the territory. It's a shame that such a thing had to happen for us to get more support."
Brazilian Attorney General Aristides Junqueira, who was once convinced there had been a "slaughter," now restricts himself to saying something "grave" happened in the area. In his report to Mr. Junqueira on Aug. 25, the Roraima state attorney general concluded that a massacre was committed in three different areas, and the number of dead may actually be higher. The Federal Police and FUNAI have reported that about eight fires containing burned human bones and teeth were found near one of the Yanomami vil lages.
The Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park (CCPY), a Brazilian nongovernmental organization, said in a press release "Yanomami cremate their dead in funeral rites, a practice that has been used to explain the eight fires."
On Sunday, FUNAI released a CCPY report saying they interviewed 14 Yanomami who survived the attack. They provided nicknames of 23 miners who they say carried out the onslaught. Yanomami worry about attacks
Italian missionary and founding member of CCPY Carlo Zaquini says Yanomami have gathered near FUNAI posts "to feel protected," and they are "angry and crying a lot" about the killings.
"The federal government is just worried [about a massacre] because of the international repercussions. The Indians don't vote, don't speak Portuguese, and don't make noise," Mr. Zaquini says. "The government doesn't really care about them. My fear is that authorities will close the area and try to hide what's going on. There are too many powerful people who are against the Indians."
Last week, the government closed the territory to everyone except a few Federal Police and FUNAI employees.
"The Yanomamis don't have much notion about numbers, time, and space. They don't recognize borders. They understand one or two. More than that, they'll clap their hands to mean 'many.' This is making the investigation very difficult," says Lacerda Carlos Jr., Federal Police regional superintendent.
He adds that the Federal Police are probing all theories about the location of the bodies.
The Yanomami are the world's oldest and largest stone-age tribe, and the most recently contacted by whites. About 9,000 live in Brazil and 12,000 live in Venezuela. FUNAI says that of the 30,000 gold miners who had invaded the territory in 1987, about 600 remained after former President Fernando Collor de Mello decreed in 1991 that the 19 islands making up the territory officially belonged to the Yanomami and ordered all gold miners off the Yanomami land.
More than 1,500 Yanomami have died since 1987 from diseases and violence brought by the illegal miners. The miners have also polluted the rivers in the area with mercury, killing fish and making the Yanomani dependent on them for food.