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Arara Indians in Brazilian Amazon finally given right to their land

  • Before the 1970’s, groups of Arara Indians lived a nomadic life in the Amazon rainforest along the Iriri River and had little contact with the modern industrialized world.
  • Brazil’s military government pushed a highway through the heart of Arara territory and invited in settlers from northeastern Brazil who violently colonized what had been the Indians’ homeland.
  • The Arara people were decimated by the road and by the invasion, and impacted yet again with the building of the Belo Monte mega-dam.
  • This Spring, Brazil established the Indigenous Territory of Cachoeira Seca, covering 733,688 hectares (2,833 square miles) as a safe haven for the remaining Arara to rebuild their lives and culture. But illegal loggers still threaten their existence, and it remains to be seen if the new government of Michel Temer will actively protect the territory.
The Arara Indians were nearly eliminated in the 1970s, but they managed to hang on in the hopes of securing a territory for their remaining people. Photo © John Miles / Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org)

In a decree published this April, the Brazilian government of President Dilma Rousseff awarded a large area of land to the last remnants of the Arara Indians whose cultural and physical survival was threatened in the 1970s when the military government then ruling Brazil built a highway through their homeland.

The new reserve, named the Indigenous Territory of Cachoeira Seca, covering 733,688 hectares (2,833 square miles), is located beside the Iriri River, a tributary of the Xingu, in the state of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon.

This could be a belated happy ending to the tragic story of the Arara Indians. Never a large group, the Arara traditionally roamed over a large area of forest. Constantly on the move, they occupied shifting agricultural sites in the ‘wet’ season and hunted in the ‘dry’ season, living in temporary huts they built in the forest. They were so nomadic, dispersed, and existed in such small groups, that they had no word for “village” in their language.

From the mid-1800s on there were regular reports of largely peaceful contacts between the Arara and the small fishing communities that arose along the Xingu and Iriri Rivers, not far from what was then the small town of Altamira.

Highway to hell

In the 1970s, their lives were turned upside down by the construction of the Transamazonian Highway, spanning the Amazon basin from east to west. The military government built the road for roughly the same reason the US Interstate highway system was built — out of fear of foreign invasion, and so that troops could be moved quickly to meet an attack anywhere in the country.

Another factor was the government’s mistrust of the Indians, not regarded as “proper Brazilians”, and its wish to see the region occupied by poor Brazilians from the northeast part of the country.

Named the “Highway of National Integration” by the government, the Arara redubbed it the “Highway of Disintegration”.

The Arara were a peaceful nomadic people who wandered so freely they did not have a word in their language for “village.” Photo © John Miles / Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org)

Before the coming of the highway, scattered Arara groups would come together regularly in the dry season at a particular forest location. Those meetings offered an important opportunity for social interaction and an affirmation of indigenous identity. Unfortunately for the Arara, their meeting place was very close to what was about to become a stretch of Transamazonian Highway joining Altamira and Itaituba.

The annual Arara meeting was violently disrupted by the arrival of thousands of Brazilian families intent on finding their fortunes in the heart of the Amazon. The immigrants largely came from the impoverished, drought-riven northeast of Brazil, where land was in short supply due to the dominance of large sugar plantations. The families were given plots of land by the government as part of settlement projects created along Transamazonian Highway feeder roads.

The federal slogan for this ambitious Amazon resettlement policy was “men without land to the land without men” — a catchphrase that sounded to many Brazilians, even 40 years ago, deliberately racist because it denied the existence of the indigenous people who had lived there for centuries, and unintentionally sexist for ignoring the wives and daughters of settler families.

Death by a thousand cuts

The Arara who lived north of the highway were cut off from those living to the south of it, and the Indians’ traditional forms of social interaction were rapidly destroyed. After a series of violent clashes with settlers and loggers, many Arara fled deep into the forest. Bewildered and suffering from malnutrition, some succumbed to disease.

The Arara farmed in the Amazon’s wet season and hunted in the dry season. Photo © John Miles / Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org)

Disturbed by the reports of these events, Funai, the government’s Indian agency, sent in its agents to make peaceful contact with the Arara and to try and limit the damage.

But the Indians, unable to distinguish between white men who wanted to help and those who wanted to drive them violently off their land, were hostile. Slowly, over a decade, some progress was made and Sydney Possuelo, one of Brazil’s most experienced sertanistas (frontiersmen dedicated to protecting indigenous people), eventually made contact with the last remaining group.

However, once contact with the Arara was made, funds dried up and little was done to stop outsiders, particularly loggers in search of mahogany, from invading the Indians’ land and riding roughshod over their culture.

In 1987, after seeing drunk Arara begging for food beside the Transamazonian Highway, a furious Possuelo went to Brasilia and demanded a sea change in indigenous policy. From then on, he insisted, Funai should not seek peaceful contact with isolated Indians, but must take effective measures to bar outsiders from entering indigenous lands. As a result, Funai set up the Department of Isolated Indians, which still exists today. Its first head was Sydney Possuelo.

But for the Arara, the new policy came too late. The cultural damage already done was now about to be compounded by big new infrastructure projects, defended by powerful government and corporate interests, that would transform the Arara’s part of the Amazon. The most harmful of these was the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, a mega-project whose impact on indigenous cultures has been described by a Federal Prosecutor as “a genocidal action”.

Against all odds, some Arara survived, and today they are struggling to rebuild their culture.

The Arara have been given a homeland by the Brazilian government, at last. Photo © John Miles / Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org)

In 2015, the Arara and the Juruna people were finally given a reserve — the Indigenous Territory of Volta Grande de Xingu. Covering just 25,498 hectares (98.4 square miles), it is relatively small and is home to just 236 Arara.

But one of the condicionantes (conditions for the authorization of the Belo Monte dam) was that the Indians would be given a much larger territory higher up the Iriri River. It is this condicionante that led to the creation of the Indigenous Territory of Cachoeira Seca in April, 2016.

A difficult rebirth

So large was the scale of devastation suffered by the Arara over recent decades that reconstruction now will be difficult.

An indication of the group’s horrific suffering can be gleaned from the fact that in 1998 all of the 56 Arara living in the area that was to become the Indigenous Territory of Cachoeira Seca were descendants of just one woman. Since then, the group has grown somewhat, with the current population standing at 105. Even so, it is evident to observers that the Indians urgently need protection and support if they are to rebuild their society.

One of the first measures they are demanding is the eviction of the settlers illegally living in their reserve.

According to government figures, there are 1,086 plots occupied by non-indigenous people, 72 percent of which belong to peasant families, most of whom were not aware that they were settling on land claimed by the Indians.

When Mongabay spoke to some of these settlers in the small port of Maribel on the Iriri River, now part of the reserve, the settlers all expressed their willingness to leave, provided the government found them an equivalent plot of land and paid them compensation for their crops and buildings.

A trickier problem will be dealing with illegal logging.

On a trip along a road that cuts through the Cachoeira Seca reserve — a road that should be closed as part of another agreed to Belo Monte condicionante — the driver revealed that on frequent trips through the area he almost always sees trucks bringing out hardwood logs illegally extracted from the reserve.

Satellite images, analyzed by ISA (Instituto Socioambiental), a large Brazilian NGO, showed that in 2015 loggers illegally opened 333 kilometers (207 miles) of rough roads inside the reserve. When Mongabay visited an Arara village, the Indians were clearly disturbed and frightened by the proximity of the loggers, now working just 12 miles from their homes.

Though granted a reserve, the Arara are still at risk from illegal logging and the violence that can come with such activities. Whether the new Temer interim government will actively secure the borders of the preserve is still unknown. Photo © John Miles / Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org)

The taking of this first step in creating the Arara territory is extremely significant, yet the process is far from complete. While there have been rumblings within the interim Temer government suggesting pushback against indigenous rights, it seems unlikely that the administration would dare cancel the measure, because of the backlash it would create in the indigenous community.

What indigenous organizations expect is inaction — with the government doing nothing to ensure that the process of creating the reserve is completed and that effective action is taken on the ground to ensure its boundaries are respected.

Even so — as long as the federal government can be made to keep its commitments and curbs illegal logging — the creation of the reserve could mark the beginning of a slow and difficult rebuilding of fractured lives and the rebirth of the Arara culture.