Keeping 'Em Down on the Amazon

Brazil's Makuxi Indians are winning the fight to preserve their culture and land

In the northern Brazilian savanna hard up against Guyana, the Makuxi Indians are standing their ground and making a slow but definite comeback.

Only a few years ago the Makuxi, like many of Brazil's 230 Indian tribes, were in disarray and decline. In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges ranging from encroachment by the majority white society and government indifference to their plight to environmental despoliation, the Makuxi were one of dozens of tribes that appeared to be headed for a kind of cultural, if not actual, extinction.

Today Brazil's Makuxi, who number about 30,000, still face the same adversities as in the past. But leadership, resurgent interest in indigenous culture, a tarnishing of the lure of urban life, and to a certain degree, a more serious government treatment of Indian issues, have worked together to turn the Makuxi around.

Today, more young Makuxi are staying on the reserves, helping in the traditional crop plantings and grazing. The women have formed a cooperative where they make jewelry and pottery, boosting the village income while keeping old crafts alive. And in this carless settlement, where wood chopping or perhaps the wind are often the only sounds to be heard, the melody of children singing traditional songs wafts from the village school like newfound hope across the scrubby land.

"The children aren't leaving for the city so much any more. They are more interested in their fathers' culture and they want to be part of the effort to defend our lands," says Jos Jacir de Souza, chief of the 46 Makuxi settlements spread out around the Maturuka reserve in northern Roraima state.

But it is the land issue that, more than any other, sits at the center of a fierce debate over the future of the 330,000 Brazilian Indians who live on reserves. The government continues the "demarcation" process of more than 550 Indian territories that when completed is expected to set aside for Indian use more than 10 percent of Brazil's territory - a total land area about equal to Texas and Oklahoma combined.

But as the demarcation proceeds, controversy swirls around the Indians' claims. On the one hand, the reserves run up against local and state governments, colonists, and economists, who maintain that too much territory is being set aside for ethnic groups that make up less than 1 percent of Brazil's population of 160 million people. "Lots of land, few Indians," is an oft-heard refrain.

On the other hand, Indian leaders and activists say the government doesn't adequately protect existing reserves from invasions by squatters, gold prospectors, drug traffickers, and clandestine lumberjacks.

They cite the case of the Yanomami Indians, whose land in Roraima and Amazonas states was demarcated in the early 1990s under intense international pressure, but whose population continues to decline. Invasions, disease, and intra-Indian violence are the culprits, Indian activists say.

Indian activists also deplore the case earlier this year of one of the country's foremost Indian scholars, a former president of Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), who was recalled from his work with Indians in the Amazon's far-western Javari Valley. The official's efforts to convince the Indians not to sell their precious woods to illegal woodcutters rubbed local government leaders and wood merchants the wrong way, activists claim.

The Makuxi also saw their lands overrun until the leadership's reinforced backbone and some government action pushed back invading grazers and miners. "All of this had pretty much turned to dust," says Mr. Jacir, indicating a wide arc of land around his whitewashed village with a sweep of his hand. "The new ranchers brought their cattle through with no respect for boundaries."

The Makuxi finally got the intruding cattle and their herders out and in the process learned the importance of land preservation. Now the Makuxi rotate their herds around the different settlements under Jacir's leadership, and the one-time dust fields are blooming again.

Variations of the same land, environmental, and cultural problems affect most of Brazil's Indians, whom some activists say are as threatened as thousands of Brazilian flora and fauna species.

Apparecido Jos Das, Roman Catholic bishop in Roraima's capital, Boa Vista, and president of the national Indigenist Missionary Council, raised eyebrows recently when his organization issued an annual report concluding that rising hunger, disease, suicide, and violence are putting Brazil's Indians at risk of extinction.

"When I say the risk of extinction exists, it is based on the trends we see occurring today and the knowledge that a population that was once 2 million to 5 million strong is now at 330,000," says Bishop Apparecido in his Boa Vista office. The massacres and slavery that decimated the Indian population in the past may no longer exist, but he says a failure to protect Indian lands, a "favelization" (relegation to dead-end urban slums) of Indian populations, and the effects of extreme poverty could end up having the same effect.

'Panda prejudice'

Another challenge facing many tribes is what might be called the "panda prejudice." Just as China's cute panda bears are easier to raise interest in than Brazil's sloths, the naked, rain-forest-dwelling Yanomami command greater interest than Western-dressed tribes. The Makuxi, who dress like the majority population around them, might seem to some eyes like regular poor Brazilians.

The Brazilian government fails to acknowledge that land for the Indians is not just an economic value but a cultural necessity, Bishop Apparecido says. In some cases, too many Indians on too-small territories - or land settlements throwing various chiefs on the same reserve - have led to increased suicides and intratribal violence.

Land conflicts are also leading to a suspicious trade in arms to various Indian tribes that in turn is causing a spiral of violent deaths. Just as North American Indians in the last century traded for liquor and arms that abetted their decimation, Brazil's Indians increasingly trade for guns - and the traders stand back to watch the violence. Guns take a growing number of lives in the Yanomami region, where the military has been accused of being the supplier. Some quarters in Brazil's military oppose the Yanomami reserve, which straddles the Venezuelan border, as a national security threat.

The Makuxi lost a young father a year ago when another Makuxi Indian who had a quarrel with him got a gun from some willing suppliers in the local non-Indian population. "Such internal confrontations used to be settled with a fistfight," Jacir says, "but a bullet is usually permanent."

Brazilian government officials dismiss any talk of extinction, however, holding up as evidence a rise in Brazil's Indian population over recent years. Indian activists acknowledge the total population growth, but say part of the "increase" is due to Indians who only now are willing to acknowledge their race. Emphasizing numbers of the total population also obscures the dozens of small Indian cultures they say are doomed to die out.

Dividing up the land

"There is no truth to extinction, either in danger or in fact," says Rosangela Goncalves, chief of staff in Braslia for FUNAI, the government's principal Indian affairs agency. Concerns over "cultural extinction" might have been relevant under the old policy promoting integration with the majority, she adds, but since 1988, the Constitution has recognized the Indians' "difference."

But some critics and even some FUNAI officials see the agency's shrinking budget as evidence that the government is not backing up its rhetoric on fortifying Indian populations. The government is dedicated to addressing indigenous health and education needs, including establishing bilingual education programs. But completing the demarcation process remains the top priority, Ms. Goncalves says, because that is seen as the best way to end land conflicts and promote Indian security.

The demarcation process was supposed to be finished by 1993, but is now only about half complete.

The Makuxi Indians, who for the past several years have been demanding demarcation for their Raposa-Serra do Sol area in northern Roraima, say the continuing uncertainty about their lands is the biggest difficulty they face.

In December, the Justice Department handed down a controversial decision: The Makuxi and other smaller tribes in the northeast Roraima area would have their lands, but five small non-Indian settlements and about a dozen non-Indian ranchers would be allowed to remain inside the reserve.

The Justice ministry called the ruling a necessary compromise in a difficult situation, but Makuxi leaders see it as a potentially mortal wound in their side.

"In the past we were overrun by cattle ranchers and miners, but that situation has improved," says Makuxi leader Jacir. "Now with this decision to let these settlements remain, we see the biggest threat is from the government."

Holding up a 1992 state-government plan for the area's Indian territories, Jacir points to the many separated pockets of reserves the plan proposed and says, "The danger of the new plan is that these islands of majority population within our territory will grow, and we'll end up the islands the state government wanted us to be."

The Makuxi also oppose government plans for an ecotourism project in Roraima, as well as for a highway to take tourists to the new nature reserve. "Those projects would not benefit us," says Jacir, who sees the projects as an excuse for bringing more "white" settlers into Indian territories.

Jacir, who speaks proudly of the Maturuka reserve's accomplishments - its school and health center and revived culture - says his people worked too hard to rid the area of illegal miners and cattle grazers to now see towns sprouting up.

What he doesn't care to acknowledge is that such towns could prove most damaging by reviving the allure of the majority Brazilian lifestyle.

In the nearby settlement of Viramut - one of the five controversial towns - "white" Brazilians and Indian families live together peacefully. The problem for Jacir is that the Indians there seem to like their town amenities.

"The fact is that this little town" - population 350 - "has made life better for a lot of people," says Jos Novais, chief of staff for Viramuta's mayor and himself a Makuxi. "We have electricity and we recently got running water. The fact is, not everybody wants to live in a thatched hut."

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