Amazon Indians fear highway will change their way of life

By the slow-moving Tapajos River, monkeys murmur in the forest and Munduruku Indians with bows and arrows tiptoe along the riverbank, hunting turtles. Two boys fish for the family lunch, not even bothering with bait. To attract the piranha, they simply bang on the side of their boat.

It’s a picture that suggests an Amazon idyll of life intertwined with nature.
But, in fact, the Munduruku are caught between two worlds, and they fear one may soon be trampled by the other.

A highway is being paved 50km away to speed the soy crops to export markets, and when that happens, the Indians worry, loggers and slash-and-burn farmers won’t be far behind.

Unlike the more remote tribes that speak their own languages and practise ancient religions, the Munduruku in Braganca have been Roman Catholics and Portuguese-speakers for generations.

Tribal leader Fortunato Rocha wears a feathered headdress, jeans and a red T-shirt with an Indian-rights slogan: “Indigena! Sim! [Indigenous! Yes!]”

Another leader, Edimilson dos Santos, sports Bermuda shorts and a necklace of jaguar teeth to scare away snakes.

Each day, double-decker river boats haul freight and people along the 1,6km-wide Tapajos, bringing the influences of a modern industrial state to Braganca’s three settlements. But it’s still easier to travel the muddy road to the village on horseback than in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

There’s no electricity, television or store. The closest phone is more than 16km away. But news travels fast.

Arriving with a photographer after a bone-jarring five-hour trip, I was promptly informed that pope John Paul II had just died. The villagers heard about it on their battery-powered radios.

The next day, they held a Mass in their tiny church festooned with woven palm garlands. They sang hymns to the beat of a single drum carved from rainforest wood, and mourned a pope they considered an ally of the Indians and the rainforest.

“With the pope dead, things are getting complicated,” said Rocha.

“We still have an abundance from the forest,” he said as he barbecued fish, using a wood fire because his family had run out of the bottled gas for their ancient cooking range. “But we have to take care of it, and the road could bring a lot of threats that will ruin our society: people, drugs, prostitution.”

A paved road could bring modern comforts such as phones and electricity, but the Indians believe the downside outweighs the advantages. The highway, called BR163, is already accelerating development along its shoulders, and the Indians fear for the forest that provides them with their food, building materials and natural medicine.

“The trees give us fruit, they help make the rain that gives us water and they shelter the animals,” said Dos Santos. “When farmers and ranchers come, they destroy the forest for profit, but the only thing we have is nature, and we have to protect it to use it.”

Loggers have selectively cut many of the 22m-tall Itauba trees the Munduruku use to fashion canoes. Forest outside traditional Munduruku land has been burned down to make way for cattle.

A small river feeding into the Tapajos, which in turn joins the Amazon, has dropped more than 1m over the past several decades. The Indians believe deforestation is reducing rainfall.

The short, dark-skinned Munduruku worry that pieces of their culture could evaporate as tall, European-descended Brazilians arrive eating different food, drinking bitter herbal tea instead of super-sweetened coffee and speaking a different-sounding Portuguese.

“When something new comes, people want to try it: to become blond, a new drink, new slang,” said Milenilda Rocha (23). The daughter of a tribal leader, she lives 71km from Braganca, in the city of Santarem on the Amazon River, where she is training to be an Indian rights activist.

As night falls and the forest quietens down, the Munduruku leaders gather in a communal building lit by kerosene lamps. They nod appreciatively as Dos Santos speaks of his nightmare vision of the jungle giving way to endless, orderly fields of soy.

“These soy farmers poison the soil with fertiliser,” he says. “Our Amazon is being destroyed by people who don’t realise what a treasure it is.”—Sapa-AP

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