The Multinational Monitor

WINTER 19878-79 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 1


Indians and Brazil's Miracle

"The corporations and the Brazilian government argue that sacrificing a small minority of so-called primitive people is the price Brazil must pay to become a developed nation"

An interview with Shelton Davis

There is a war going on in the Amazon today, a war that pits the indigenous peoples of the Amazon against the development policies of several Latin American countries. It is a protracted war of low intensity, and the one-sided results of this conflict have failed to capture the attention of most of the world.

This silent war has taken a heavy toll. Between 1900 and 1957, Brazil's Indian population dropped from 1 million to less than 200,000. Estimates today place Brazil's Indian population closer to 100,000. More than 80 tribes have been destroyed or deculturated through disease and disruption. Six tribes became extinct in areas of agricultural expansion, thirteen disappeared in cattle raising regions, and an astounding fifty-nine were destroyed near locations of extractive activities.

Those tribes escaping total destruction fared little better. The Kaingang of Sao Paulo were rediced from 1200 in 1912 to 87 in 1957; the Xokleng of Santa Catarina dropped from more than 800 to 190. The population of the Kayapo fell from 2500 in 1902 to less than 10 in 1957; the Nambikuara fell in population from 10,000 to less than 1000.

In his book, Victims of the Miracle: Development and the Indians of Brazil, (1977, Cambridge University Press) Professor Shelton Davis eschews the typical academic approaches of anthropology to address the root of the crisis facing the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Professor Davis argues that the "Brazilian Miracle," a period of rapid economic growth that peaked in the early Seventies, brought not only prosperity to a few, but death to thousands of Indians and destruction to hundreds of native cultures.

The following interview was conducted with Professor Davis at the Anthropology Resource Center (ARC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Along with teaching duties at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Davis serves as the director of ARC, a public-interest research group providing information and analysis of current national and international issues. The Center publishes a newsletter and issues occasional reports. The address of the Center is: P.O. Box 90, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138.

MM: What role have multinational corporations played in the Amazon, and how have they contributed to the destruction of the Brazilian Indians?

Davis: The rubber boom in the late 19th and 20th centuries brought the first real threat to the Amazonian Indians. At that time, the British Rubber Company controlled all of Brazil's rubber exports. It controlled the entire outer Manaus and Belem areas and all the steamships on the Amazon. During this period, thousands of Indians were killed or thrown into slavery, and thousands more died from disease. The Amazon was a backward and uncontrolled frontier, and the main contact was between Indians and backwoodsmen, rubber collectors, diamond prospectors, and small settlers.

In the later half of this century, especially after the military coup of 1964, the Amazon became very rationalized and controlled. Multinational mining, timber, and agribusinesses in alliance with Brazilian private and state-owned companies became the primary force in the Amazon. So the expansion of multinationals into one of the last frontier areas inhabited by Indians is a basically modern phenomenon, though in a sense it began at the end of the last century with the first Amazonian boom.

MM: What makes the expansion of multinationals into the Amazon a "modern phenomenon?"

Davis: In the past, the Indians and the outsiders were more evenly matched. Often the Indians were able to militarily resist the outsiders. Most of the population moving into the Amazon tended to learn Indian ways, rather than the other way around.

Whereas today, I think, there are three main factors that make the frontier particularly modern. First, the Brazilian state is much' more active in building infrastructure projects in the Amazon, especially highways. Indians have come in contact with the Brazilian Army Corps of Engineers, government agencies, and construction crews. Second, in order to build these infrastructure projects, the Brazilian government has been able to call upon a vast amount of technical and financial assistance from international lending agencies and banks. And third, as I said, corporations are the main economic force along the Amazon frontier. It's a very different and modern frontier.

For example, think of the photographs coming out of the Amazon today: geologists being lowered from helicopters into the middle of Indian villages, Indians with bows and arrows shooting up at the helicopters...

Another good example is the Suia-Missu Ranch to the east of the Xingu National Park, perhaps the largest ranch in the world. It's owned by a Brazilian agribusinessman in collaboration with an Italian petrochemical firm, Liquigas. 707 jets with refrigerated meats units land on the ranch. And there's a huge city for the ranch's 20,000 workers called Liquilandia - all of this right next door to the Xingu National Park where 15 aboriginal tribes live.

This is the kind of frontier we are dealing with.

MM: You mentioned that the situation changed in the Amazon after the military coup. Could you explain the Brazilian policy toward multinationals prior to and after the coup?

Davis: Well, the Brazilian government between the 1930's and the 1960's was strongly nationalistic about Brazil's resource base. Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, was established in the 1950's. And later in the 1950's and early 1960's, there was a move toward nationalizing the entire petroleum as well as the manufacturing industry.

This all changed with the 1964 military coup. One of the first acts of the new government was to create the legal conditions for foreign companies to invest in Brazil's natural resources, especially minerals. The new government also initiated a fiscal incentives program to encourage Brazilian and international companies to invest in cattle-ranching and agribusiness in the Amazon.

Companies took immediate advantage of these incentives. D.K. Ludwig, the multibillionaire shipping tycoon, acquired a ranch the size of Connecticut under the fiscal incentives program in 1966. Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen started to invest in cattle.

By 1968, 50% of the land in some municipalities and counties in the states of Para, Goias, and Mato Grosso was owned by European or North American companies.

MM: How did this change in policy toward the multinationals affect the Amazonian Indians?

Davis: A fundamental shift in resource policy always brings with it a fundamental shift in Indian policy. It's important to realize that the Brazilian Indian Foundation (FUNAI) is part of the Brazilian Ministry of the Interior. This means that the agency making resource development policy - the agency multinationals have to go through to get permission to carry out projects in the Amazon - is the same agency that is meant to protect the Indians. When a conflict of interest arises between the interests of the Indians and the Brazilian government or the multinational corporations, the Indians, almost without exception, lose.

Now on the ground, Brazil's shift in resource policy has left the Indians defenseless against invasions of their landbase. Tremendous conflicts of interest arise when valuable resources are found in areas that are supposed to be well protected Indian reserves.

For example, in the late 1960's and early 1970's large deposits of a strategic mineral, casserite, were found in the Aripuana Indian Park, home of one of Brazil's largest tribes, the Cintas Largas. FUNAI authorized 7 large companies to prospect in the park. By the early 1970's, the Cintas Largas, through contact with mineral prospectors, colonists, and highway workers invading their land, began to come down with diseases. One entire band of Cintas Largas was wiped out by a major epidemic. So these people, who had been bombed, poisoned, and massacred by real estate speculators and diamond collectors in the early 1960's, were once again brutally threatened.

You can see that the Brazilian military's resource development policy has simply meant death and uprooting for the Brazilian Indians.

MM: What order of magnitude decimation are we talking about?

Davis: For example, there were about 26 tribes along the Trans-Amazon Highway. We have information on 4 or 5 of these tribes and almost all of those were severely reduced in population. The Parakanan were reduced from 300 to less than 100; The Kreen-Akarore from 400 to less than 100. 70 Yanomamo Indians died of measles after a highway went through their village not long ago.

MM: How do the multinationals defend these atrocities?

Davis: Well, the first thing they say is that they are not directly responsible for Indian policy. This is true. The responsible agent is the Brazilian Indian Foundation. On the other hand, instead of looking at the indirect responsibility they have for Brazil's resource policy, they argue (along with the Brazilian government) that sacrificing a small minority of so-called primitive people is the price that Brazil must pay to become a developed nation. And they argue that Brazil's development program, of which they form an integral part, is helping the poor and the hungry of the Northeast and the cities.

Now we have shown in our work that not only are the Indians suffering from this development program but so are millions of peasants and workers in Brazil. Large agribusinesses in the Amazon uproot not only Indians but also hundreds of thousands of peasants and squatters. The export orientation of the economy means that the development of the Amazon isn't going to resolve Brazil's economic problems - the problems of hunger and malnutrition.

So it's an open question whether or not development is really taking place. I like to look at what's going on in the Amazon as not development but rather extraction.

MM: Could you give us an example of the destruction of an Indian culture due to a development project?

Davis: The Parakanan are a classic case. This tribe of hunters and gardeners - probably never more than 300 people all told - lived in the jungle southwest of Belem. When the rubber boom came in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Parakanan refused contact with outsiders and retreated into the forest. They remained uncontacted until the late 1950's when the Brazilian government began to build a railroad through the Parakanan village area, in order to bring out nuts and rubber. The Parakanan clashed with the railway workers - bows and arrows against guns - and again escaped deeper into the forest.

Indian agents approached the Parakanan with gifts and eventually ` convinced them to go to an Indian post. Once at the post, the Indians were immediately struck by measles and many died. By the early 1960's the tribe was reduced to 200 people living in appalling conditions. Around that time, the tribe decided that it had had enough of the Indian post, and it ran off into the jungle.

In about 1967, U.S. Steel began exploring for minerals in the vicinity of the Parakanan territory. The investigations uncovered huge iron ore fields. And then in June of 1970, the Brazilian government announced the building of the Trans-Amazon Highway, the first section of which was to go through the Parakanan forest area. And so for a second time, Indian agents went out to pacify the Parakanan, only a day ahead of the engineers and the huge earthmoving machines that were tearing down the forest. The FUNAI made contact with the Parakanan and promised the tribe a reserve. The reserve was created on paper but never on the ground.

Five or six months after the Parakanan's so-called pacification, a visiting medical team reported that the Parakanan had venereal disease, indicating sexual relations between the Indians and the highway workers and FUNAI agents. Two children were born blind. The tribe was painted black in mourning for the dead. Prostitution was taking place along the highway, and Indians were picking up alcohol from highway workers. In November of 1971, a measles epidemic struck. By this time the village had been reduced to less than 100 people - only a year after the Trans-Amazon first reached the Parakanan.

Since 1971, the FUNAI has attempted to maintain relations with the Parakanan. More Para kanan have died of disease, and others have run off into the jungle. Those remaining at the Indian post are now going to be relocated due to a hydroelectric project which will flood that section of the Trans-Amazon highway where the Parakanan originally lived. The plant will supply power to several bauxite projects developed by a host of multinationals. (The flooded section of the highway will be re-routed.) The relocation of the remaining Parakanan will probably cause more disease, and we'll probably see the final destruction of the Parakanan.

MM: Can you mention any corporations whose Amazonian operations have been particularly destructive?

Davis: It's hard to know who's the worst enemy in the Amazon today, but Brazilians are extremely concerned about two corporations that I've already mentioned, Volkswagen and National Bulk Carriers, D.K. Ludwig's operation.

The Brazilian Forestry Institute has repeatedly denounced Volkswagen for massive deforestation of its 180,000 acre cattleranch. The Brazilian press has questioned Volkswagen's labor practices, and there has been a lot of criticism of such a huge beef export business operating in a country where the protein intake of the majority of the population is absolutely insufficient.

There have been reports that working conditions on Ludwig's estate are terrible, that his workers are brought in from other parts of Brazil and bound by debt peonage. A large bauxite mine and a huge floating sawmill will soon be in operation, and there has been no indication that environmental controls will be set on these operations.

In terms of the destruction of the Amazon, the mining companies have been particularly dangerous: International Nickle of Canada, U.S. Steel, Alcoa Aluminum, The Anglo-American Corporation, W.R. Grace and Co., Union Carbide, and the large Brazilian company, Estanifera do Brasil, among many others.

But the point is that what's going on in the Amazon must be looked at as a whole, as an alliance between the Brazilian military, the multinationals, and the international lending institutions.

MM: What about the international lending agencies? What role have they played?

Davis: Between 1968 and 1972 the World Bank made its largest loan ever to a highway sector - $400 million to build the Brazilian Federal Highway network. In fact, the World Bank itself, two years after the coup, designed the entire system. The Amazon highways formed part of the Brazilian Federal Highway network and speeded up immeasurably the invasion of Indian territories. I think that without World Bank funding, Brazil never would have been able to build its Federal Highway network.

And I think that in the case of the Amazon, the U.S. Export-Import Bank was also extremely important. The Bank made possible Brazil's purchases of the heavy earthmoving equipment needed to build ports, highways, and airstrips. Clark Equipment, J.I. Case, Ford, Caterpillar - all the companies that cashed in on the market in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War - have cashed in on the jungle earthmoving market in Brazil.

Also, the Inter-American Development Bank made two important loans to the Brazilian cattle industry. The loans were meant to help the rural social problems of Brazil, but they actually went to build refrigerated meat factories and to provide credit to Brazilian cattle ranchers.

You see, though these international lending agencies talk about development, they're really concerned with balance of payments. They're interested in the same model of extractive development...

MM: Are the international lending agencies still playing a crucial role?

Davis: Well, I have the feeling that multilateral aid was much more important at the height of the Brazilian economic miracle between ,1968 and 1972 than it is today. For example, the hydroelectric dam that will flood the Parakanan village area is being financed by a consortium of French banks.

It's becoming clear that not only the multinational corporations but also the multinational banks have found Brazil to be a haven.

MM: Are there any hopeful signs for Indians in the Amazon?

Davis: Yes. First of all, there has been an opening up in the political situation in Brazil. The Church and the universities are again active; there is a strong labor movement in Sao Paulo; there's an election going on this year. So there's the beginning of a political environment in which the situation in . the Amazon can begin to be discussed.

I had the opportunity to attend a conference on Indian policy in Brazil this July. I was amazed - 1500 people attended. It shows that there is real national concern on the part of the Brazilians.

You know, many of my friends here think that Brazilians are a problem because they don't have an environmental conscience. It's very hard for me to convince North Americans that there is a tremendous concern on the part of Brazilians about what is happening to the Indians and to the environment. Hopefully, with an opening-up in the political situation, the Brazilian people will be able to convince the Brazilian government to move in a certain direction...

Second, it must be understood that the hope for the Indians is in the Indians themselves. It's not in anthropologists, nor the Church, nor the government, nor consumer advocates - it's in the Indians. It's in terms of Indians organizing for their own destiny, in order to create the conditions for their survival and the rights to maintain their own culture. I think that there is an Indian movement going on all over the hemisphere; Indians are beginning to meet on the international level. And I think that the building up of that movement - led by Indians, with Indian goals, in favor of Indian preferences - is the real hope for the Indians. And finally, I think that with the right conditions in Brazil, we are going to see Brazilian Indians really at the forefront of that movement ...Xavante Indians, Yanomamo Indians, Kreen-Akarore Indians... They are not going to vanish.

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