FEBRUARY 1980 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 1
Mining Projects Endanger Amazon's Yanomamo Tribe
One of the largest unacculturated Indian tribes in the Western Hemisphere faces annihilation if steps are not taken to regulate the mining activities of state and multinational corporations and individual prospectors in the Brazilian Amazon.By Shelton Davis
Large mineral pro\jects and associated highway developments are setting the pace for bitter encounters between isolated Indian tribes and outsiders in the Brazilian Amazon. Throughout the 1970s, mineral exploration projects moved forward-often more than 20 at a time-as part of a cooperative program sponsored by the Brazilian Department of Mineral Production, the U.S. Geological Survey, and several multinational and state-owned mining companies. As the 1980s commence, these exploration efforts have yielded large deposits of iron ore, tin, bauxite and coal, as well as the precious metals - columbium, tantalum, zirconium, gold and diamonds. In the territory of Roraima, a number of radioactive anomalies have been noted, indicating significant deposits of uranium.
The Northern Perimeter Highway is slated to serve as one of the major mineral transportation links in the Amazon Basin. According to government plans, this highway would begin on the Atlantic Coast and pass westward through the Territory of Amapa, where Bethlehem Steel, in association with one of Brazil's largest holding companies, has a manganese mining and pellet operation. From there, the road would cut to the north, passing above the multi-million dollar bauxite operation of Companhia Vole do Rio Doce, Alcan Aluminum and seven other international mining companies. Moving westward, the Northern Perimeter Highway would pass directly through the territory of the Yanomamo Indian tribe. Finally, the road would cut to the south, skirting the border with Colombia and Peru, and passing through one of the potentially largest oil fields in Brazil.
These highway-construction and mineral-development activities have already proved devastating for the 8,500member Yanomamo tribe, one of the largest culturally intact tribes in the Western Hemisphere. Although the Northern Perimeter Highway is still not completed, one section has been built along the southern fringe of Yanomamo territory. Diseases carried by highway workers have already destroyed 13 Yanomamo villages along the first 100 kilometers of the new road. Brazilian anthropologist Alcida Ramos, who was present at the time of the initial invasion by highway workers, witnessed Indians in a state of misery, sickness, and shock. The Indians refused to speak their language, their gardens had been uprooted by bulldozers, and they were wearing ragged clothing given to them by highway workers and infested with influenza, tuberculosis, measles and other germs.
Similar conditions have been reported at the Catrimani mission station, just three kilometers from the new highway. For more than a decade, a group of Italian priests has been trying to prepare the Yanomamo at Catrimani for their eventual contacts with outsiders. The missionaries refused to intervene in the Indians' ceremonial and spiritual lives, but warned their chiefs against indiscriminate encounters with Brazilian settlers. When the highway teams arrived in 1975, neither the Indians nor the missionaries were prepared. Diseases, including tuberculosis and venereal infections, increased eight-fold in a period of I S months. Then, in 1977, a measles epidemic struck the Indians at Catrimani, killing 80 persons and creating chaos throughout the region.
The Brazilian government maintains that many of the problems of mineral development in the Amazon can be avoided if exploration and exploitation is restricted to state and multinational companies, and the role of the more-difficult-to-regulate individual prospectors is curtailed. But multinational and state-owned mineral companies have been .found to be no more socially and environmentally benign than individual prospectors on Indian lands. These companies are in the business of making money from the exploration, production, and marketing of minerals. Modern mining projects are based on large capital and technological investments and have a powerful tendency to create enclave economies. Highways, railroads, hydroelectric projects, and port facilities are usually associated with these developments. Boom towns spring up around mining settlements. Land reclamation seldom takes place; even if there is an interest in it, no one knows how to reclaim land under tropical rainforest conditions. In other areas of the world, such as northern Australia and the western United States, these projects have wreaked havoc among indigenous peoples.
Brazil's own recent history further proves the point: in the early seventies, seven large companies with foreign and local participation explored for cassiterite on the lands of the Citas Largas and Surui tribes in Rondonia. An epidemic of tuberculosis ravished the people; game became critically scarce; most revealing, o a state of warfare existed between the Indians and the 3000 squatters that followed the mining companies into the area.
The situation of the Yanomamo is as serious as that of the Cintas Largas and Surui during the early seventies. It was only in 1977, following three years of highway construction and two years of mineral activity, that FUNAI, the Brazilian Indian rights agency, conducted its first aerial-photographic survey of the Yanomamo area. Based on the results of this survey, FUNAI declared that 21 small Indian reserves would be created for the protection of the Yanomamo who live in the Federal Territory of Roraima and the adjacent State of Amazonas. The Indian agency's own data show that more than 2,900 people living in 58 villages are not included in the reserve proposal. In addition, highway and settlement corridors are planned to run between almost all of these reserves and no provisions have been made for satisfying the demographic, ecological, and subsistence needs of the tribe.
In response to this situation, a group of Brazilian citizens have submitted a counter-proposal to the Brazilian government calling for the immediate creation of a 16-million acre Yanomamo Indian Park. The Indian park proposal, in contrast to the FUNAI reserve policy, would set aside a single, continuous land area for the Yanomamo tribe. Although the park proposal is not an ideal solution to the problems faced by the Yanomamo, it would at least provide the Indians with some sort of reasonable land base and enable them to adapt to Brazilian national society at their own rather than outsider's pace. Most important, the park proposal would outlaw all mining and highway projects on Indian lands and provide the Yanomamo with the ecological conditions to survive.
During the last several months, the Yanamamo park proposal has become a political football in Brazil. At first it looked as if the government would look favorably upon the park proposal and get rid of the reserve plan of FUNAI. The forces opposed to the park proposal continued to gain steam, however, and by October prompted the resignation of the pro-park proposal FUNAI president. In early November, the government named Colonel JTao Carlos Nobre da Veiga as new president of FUNAI. This man had no previous experience with Indian affairs and was the former chief of security and information for Rio Doce Geologia e M ineracao-the same company that is trying to gain authorization to conduct mineral surveys on Yanomamo lands.
Currently, there are more than 3,000 miners reported to be waiting in the town of Boa Vista for government authorization to invade the Yanomamo homeland. At any moment, a decision can be made by the Brazilian government to open up the entire Yanomamo territory to highway construction and corporate and individual mineral exploration. If this happens, we shall witness the systematic uprooting and demise of the entire Yanomamo tribe.
What are the chances of stopping this process of ethnic destruction before it is too late'' Within Brazil, it appears as if most channels of' political protest have been exhausted and that a decision on the Yanomamo Park proposal now rests with the new FUNAI regime. On the international level, however, some things could be done which could potentially have a positive effect on the actions of the Brazilian government. In recent months, major conferences on the Yanomamo Park proposal were held in New York, Boston, Washington, and more than 20 college campuses around the United States. As part of these forums, a petition directed at Brazilian authorities was distributed calling for the immediate creation of the park .
The Yanomamo Indians have lived in the Amazon basin for centuries without polluting its waters and 'lands. The present park proposal is a last-ditch attempt to insure that these unique people and their environment will be provided with the minimal conditions to survive and adapt themselves to Brazilian society at their own pace and on their own terms. As such, the Yanomamo Park proposal deserves the support of all people of conscience throughout the world.
Shelton Davis is Director of the Anthropology Resource Center in Boston, Mass. He is the author of Victims of the Miracle: Development and the Indians of Brazil published in 1977 by Cambridge University Press.