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Saving the Awá

Uncontacted tribe in Amazon: Photo by Gleison Miranda/FUNAI.


As we walked through the forest, searching for açaí berries, Amiri Awá named the trees we passed, “Tatajuba, inajá, copaíba.” He spoke quietly, so as not to scare away any animals which might be a suitable catch to feed his family. Every so often he paused to expertly mimic an animal sound, to communicate with his brother who had sped ahead of us and was by now out of sight amongst the thick rainforest foliage.

Amiri and his family make regular trips into the forest, their grass-woven bags on their backs, to collect açaí and other fruits, and to search for game to hunt. They are Indians of the Awá tribe, one of only two nomadic hunter gatherer tribes remaining in Brazil today.

“Our land gives us all we need,” Chiperenjia Awá said one evening as he helped his father decorate his body with feathers of the urubu rei or king vulture, for a prayer and dance ritual that would last until dawn.

The Awá’s forest home in Maranhão state in the eastern Brazilian Amazon provides the Indians with food, shelter, and spiritual well-being. But during the past four decades they have seen a huge wave of cattle ranchers, settlers and illegal loggers invading their land. Almost every Awá family group has suffered brutal massacres in which many Awá were killed, and now their very existence is at risk as their forest is being cut down at an alarmingly fast pace.

The Awá territory was the indigenous area in the Amazon which suffered most deforestation in 2009. More than 30% of the Awá’s forest has already been cut down, despite it having been mapped out and officially recognised as an indigenous territory which the Brazilian authorities are responsible for protecting.

I visited the Awá for tribal rights organisation Survival International, which is campaigning for the invaders to be evicted from the tribe’s land. We travelled with a group of Awá to a patch of their forest which had just been cut and burned down.

As we turned a corner on one of the illegal roads built through the forest by the loggers, the green vegetation gave way to a stark patch of burned land. Branches lay dead, criss-crossed on the ground under a layer of black ash, and smoke was still rising from the ground immediately before us, and far into the distance.

“The loggers come here with their trucks and they take the trees away,” Pire’i Ma’a Awá told us. “I do not know how we are going to eat. Everything is being destroyed, the whole area. This land is mine, it is ours. We Indians live in the forest. This is Indian land.”

Hunting is crucial for the Awá’s survival, but the more forest is lost, the less game there is to sustain them. “The loggers cut down the trees, and all the game run away,” Katu Awá told us. “The pigs, the deer, the monkeys, they all run away. There is nothing to eat. We Indians are angry, very angry, because the loggers are stealing our trees, they are building roads, they are destroying the whole area.”

For a few of the young men in the group, it was the first time they had seen such large scale devastation of their land. They were shocked into silence on the journey back to their village, where they spent the rest of the day and evening recounting what they had seen to their families.

The increase in illegal logging is the latest in a series of violations of the Awá’s right to live undisturbed on their land. Following the discovery of iron ore on their land in the 1970s and the massive Carajás industrial project, which included the construction of roads, railways, dams, and mines in the region, the tribe’s forest was opened up to unprecedented invasions by outsiders. Many of the Awá alive today are haunted by the memory of seeing their families killed in massacres and violence at the hands of the invading ranchers and settlers.

One Awá man, Karapiru, spent twelve years living alone in the forest, having been separated from his family in 1975 when they were attacked by ranchers. He recounted his experience, “At the time of the massacre, I was the only survivor of the family. I hid in the forest, and escaped from the white people. They killed my mother, my brothers and sisters, and my wife. I lived, always managing to escape from the ranchers. I walked a long, long way, always hiding in the forest. I was very hungry and it was very hard to survive.”

Karapiru made contact with white people in 1988, and he was later reunited with his son who he had assumed had been killed along with the rest of his family. He now lives with his new wife Manimi, and their daughter Makriankwa, in the Awá village of Tiracambu.

Around three-hundred Awá are now settled in four villages. Another sixty to hundred Awá remain uncontacted and live as nomads in the forest, apart from the four Awá communities, and constantly on the run from the illegal loggers.

For the uncontacted Awá, the danger is greatest. They rely completely on their forest for food – without it, they can not survive. They also risk death if they come into contact with the loggers. Besides the possibility of violent conflict erupting, the uncontacted Awá have very little immunity to outside diseases such as the common cold and flu, which could kill them, as has been seen numerous times in the past following first contact between tribes and outsiders.

The growing challenges of living uncontacted in the forest has pushed some uncontacted Awá to make contact with their relatives in their villages. Itachi Awá remembers a group of uncontacted Indians coming to live in his community. “A while ago we saw signs of some uncontacted Awá near the Presidio stream,” he said. “At first, they did not want to talk to us, but then they came to live in our village. The loggers are putting increasing pressure on our uncontacted relatives, and they are being forced to flee.”

The future of the Awá people, the uncontacted Awá in particular, is in the hands of the government’s Indian Affairs Department, FUNAI, the police, the Maranhão state government and the government’s environment agency IBAMA, whose joint responsibility it is to protect the Awá’s land.

The Awá are determined to fight for their survival, and have begun to lobby the authorities through written complaints and protests. Last year, a group of Awá left their forest home for the first time in order to protest in the town of Zé Doca. “We told the government that it had to protect us.” Manachika Awá said. “A local mayor said we do not exist. We showed them that we do exist, we live in our forest, and we need our land.”

“We must make sure the loggers are removed,” Amiri told us as we watched his young daughters making juice from the açaí berries we had collected. “If not, the forest will disappear. We are the owners of our forest.”

Survival International has launched an urgent international campaign to support the Awá’s fight for the protection of their land. It is calling on the Brazilian authorities to uphold their constitutional rights and remove all invaders from the Awá’s territory as a matter of urgency, and to put in place an effective monitoring system to ensure that no future invasions take place. If fast action is not taken to save the Awá’s forest, it will not be long before they cease to exist. We can not let that happen.


Sarah Shenker is a campaigner with Survival International.

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 6/Spring 2011.

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