Sunday, June 01, 2008




[Note: With gratitude, this report is for Kevin.]

Last week the world was treated to extraordinary photographs emerging from Indian land in the Brazilian Amazon. In first picture above an Indian woman from the Xingu River menacingly waves her machete to say that the proposed Belo Monte hydroelectric project will cause her home to be lost. In the second photograph members of an unknown tribe in Acre state menacingly point their arrows at a government helicopter flying over their encampment to capture first photos. Both photos present icons of Indians saying to the developmental forces of modern civilization, GET LOST!!!!

That seems to be exactly what the media reports emerging from Brazil proceeded to do. First, the Brazilian mainstream media became totally obsessed with the fact that an engineer had become slashed in an obviously ritualized "attack" in a public gymnasium (see the live video) in which he could have been very seriously injured if that had been the Indians' intention. Picking up on the theme, Associated Press journalist Alan Clendenning reported that, "Mobs of Indians from different tribes surrounded Eletrobras engineer....", thus amplifying the message of violence and losing the deeper messages of the damaging consequences of dam building.

In the midst of the mainstream media torrent about the violence in Altimira, no one seemed to notice that the ever-alert blogger Altino Machado from Acre state, the online journal Terra Magazine and GlobalVoicesOnline had serially passed onto the Internet a set of extraordinary photographs that had been released by FUNAI, the Brazilian agency of Indian affairs. Spectacular as these photos are,

the Brazilian blogosphere quickly became equally lost, obsessing over the fact that the global media had taken 5 days to pick up the story and had not attributed the Brazilians for the "scoop" of placing photos released by a government agency onto the Internet. One blog raised the question of who would financially gain from the photos, challenging the fact that the non-Brazilian NGO Survival International was spreading the photos under its banner, but also noting that the official government "Indian scout" seemed delighted that the mainstream media were finally paying attention to his work.

And, indeed the media are now telling the story: Jose Carlos Meirelles, an official with Brazil's Indian protection agency who was on the helicopter that overflew the tribe, said they should be left alone as much as possible. "While we are getting arrows in the face, it's fine," he told Brazil's Globo newspaper. "The day that they are well-behaved, they are finished." The story continues,

Contact with outsiders has historically been disastrous for Brazil's Indians, who now number about 350,000 compared to up to 5 million when the first Europeans arrived. "In 508 years of history, out of the thousands of tribes that exist none have adapted well to society in Brazil," said Sydney Possuelo, a former official with Brazil's Indian protection agency who founded its isolated tribes department.

In recent years, though, tribes like the Yanomami have succeeded in winning greater protection by becoming more politically organized and forming links with foreign conservationists. "It's not about making that decision for them. It's about making time and space to make that decision themselves," said David Hill of the Survival International group.

More than half of the Murunahua tribe in Peru died of colds and other illness after they were contacted as a result of development for the first time in 1996, Hill said. Sightings of such tribes are not uncommon, occurring once every few years in the Brazil-Peru border area where there are estimated to be more than 50 out of the total global number of 100 uncontacted tribes.

The deeper issue is development -- illegal logging, oil and gas prospecting, new roads and hydroelectric projects are all arriving in the region.

Coming back to the Altimira controversy, it was good to see that elements from both the blogosphere and the mediasphere are now picking up on the theme. The BBC is running a special series on the Amazon and the The Independent UK photo-journalism team of Patrick and Sue Cunningham and the NGO International Rivers have provided excellent coverage as I reported previously. And now Julie McCarthy of National Public Radio has provided an in-depth report on the current "Weekend Edition" that you can listen to or read the transcript here.

One of the excellent aspects of Julie's story is that she fully lays out the context that had preceded the violence in Altimira and offers an explanation for the fierce stance of the woman pictured at the beginning of this post. She spoke with the photographer Sue Cunningham, who tells of her experiences taking the pictures in the Indian villages,

"I had a number of experiences in the 48 villages of women coming up to me with tears streaming down their face — totally naked, painted black, aggressive and nasty, saying, 'Who are you? Please, whatever you are doing here — tell those people not to construct the dams. Where will I run with my children? Where will I find food? What boats will take me where?'"

Julie, continues her report, "Streaked black, Kayapo tribe leader Tuira could have been one of those women. At the mass gathering opposing the dam, she wields a machete and a sharp tongue. 'You've come here to make this dam, and you think you can just push us aside. But I am not afraid!' she cries. 'I am not a child or an orphan. And together we are strong and we can fight back.'"

Perhaps this is also what Jose Carlos Meirelles (the FUNAI official quoted above) meant when he stated, "The day that they are well-behaved, they are finished."

Many have been "finished." The history of the last 500 years of conquest over nature and indiginous peoples is not pretty. And yet, people still say, "Development is inevitable, civilization and modernity must keep progressing. After all, look at what we have now. What really has been lost?"

On the same day that I listened to Julie McCarthy's NPR report, I listened to another public radio story from the Canadian Broadcasting Company whose weekend Science Program, "Quirks and Quarks" had a special report on Terra Preta soils entitled Bio-char: Black is the new Green. The program reports that "Thousands of years ago, Amazonian farmers plowed charcoal into their land to increase its fertility, creating Terra Preta, or black earth. Today, researchers are learning from these prehistoric farmers to make a new kind of black earth that will increase the sustainability of farming and provide a way to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming."

The promise of Terra Preta is great -- feed hungry people, reverse global warming, slow or halt deforestation, create sustainablity and harmony between people and nature, and on and on. The only problem is that we still haven't been able to quite figure out how to make these special soils and there's no way to find out about the old ways because there are no surviving generations to tell us the stories. They all died from the diseases that were carried into the region with the first contact with Europeans.

1 comment:

Jorge said...

The second picture took place in 1972 in the brazilian Amazon ,where Xabantes indians pointed their arrows against the helicopter