The tribe that stood their ground

The Sunday Times, 15 February 2009

by Christina Lamb

What do you do if you're waiting to be picked up by some Indians from the Enawene Nawe tribe on a river bank in the depths of the Brazilian rainforest and they don't turn up? I'm miles away from mobile-phone reception and didn't bring a satellite phone for fear of losing it if the canoe capsized. But even if I had, who would I call? "Hello — is that the Enawene Nawe?" Naturally, Amazon Indians do not have phones. The rendezvous had been arranged by radio message via third parties. But four hours of waiting on the banks of the Juruena river with the sun climbing in the sky and giant ants crawling up my legs was bringing home the fact that the distance between their world and mine was not simply a matter of geography.

The more I wait, the more I realise it always sounded a dodgy arrangement. My instructions: fly to Cuiabá, the capital of Brazil's Mato Grosso province, 16 hours from London via Lisbon and Brasilia. Get the night bus west to Brasnorte (10 hours), a place that isn't even a on my map. There, someone called Mathias would pick me up in his freight truck, then drive me three hours to the river, where I would meet the Enawene Nawe, who would come from their village a seven- hour canoe ride away. They would come, I was assured, because they were anxious for the world to know their struggle to hold back those who are destroying the forest and turning it into cattle pasture and soya- bean plantations. Burning the rainforest is responsible for 20% of carbon emissions — more than all cars and planes combined — which is why both the Conservative party and Prince Charles are launching rainforest initiatives from Brazil next month. The Enawene Nawe might be very far away but they are protagonists in a drama involving climate change, globalisation, poverty and hunger that has implications for us all.

The only problem, it seems, is getting to them. The first part went fine. My plane landed more or less on time in Cuiabá and a taxi took me to a bus station. Even at 8pm it's sweltering, so I am surprised to see the other passengers clutching pillows and blankets. On board I discover why, as an icy blast of air conditioning leaves me shivering. The lights of the city are quickly left behind and we head through the forest. I spot a vast soya silo emblazoned with the name Maggi — the world's biggest soya producer and the surname of the state's governor.

Every so often we lurch to a stop in a bubble of light — the razing of the forest for cattle ranches and soya means frontier settlements are constantly springing up in the middle of nowhere. Each has a bus stop and a bar with flower- bedecked saints in the window. The clientele are hard- faced men downing cachaça — rough sugar- cane rum — in between resting their hands on the narrow-waisted shorts of women known as meninas de programa — literally programme girls: prostitutes.

Around 5.30am we pull into Brasnorte. I am relieved when, across the road, the lights of a white pick- up flicker on. Mathias greets me with a gruff smile. As we drive along the main road, he tells me that his family came from the south in the 1970s as part of a military- government scheme to colonise the Amazon. In common with thousands of poor families, they received grants to move and were given work on a fazenda — a large farm — cutting down trees until they managed to get their own patch of Amazon and chop down its century old trees to grow capim — grass for feeding cattle.

Over the last few years his contact with the Enawene Nawe has made him regret such destruction. "Look at this," he says, gesturing either side of the road to the river. Where once there was forest, now there is just grass dotted with black burnt- out stumps and broken logs around which graze hundreds of white- humped cattle.

It's shocking but this, along with those Maggi soya silos, is why I have come here. I look at this and see the destruction of the world's largest rainforest, the precious carbon sink for our children's future. Not only do rainforests maintain our climate stability by absorbing billions of tonnes of heat- trapping carbon dioxide and emitting clean oxygen, but destroying them means wiping out species before we even know what cures they may hold.

As I climb down from Mathias's truck, I see the blue waters of the Juruena river. It looks so serene, yet it was from here, 40 years ago, that Norman Lewis wrote a shocking report in this magazine, entitled Genocide in Brazil, about the extermination of the Amazon Indians. Along these banks, land- grabbers wiped out whole tribes by handing out clothes impregnated with smallpox, or sugar laced with arsenic. All this was taking place with the connivance of the Brazilian government's own Indian Protection Service.

By 1969 there were estimated to be fewer than 100,000 Indians left from a population believed to have been between 4m and 6m at the start of the century. The leading Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro predicted there might be none left by 1980. Happily, his fears were wrong and, far from being wiped out, the Indian population has been growing. Today there are an estimated 460,000 Indians from between 225 and 227 tribes, of which about 26 have never been contacted.

"It's actually been a tremendous success story," says Fiona Watson, a campaign co-ordinator for Survival International, the organisation for the rights of tribal peoples founded as a result of Lewis's article. Much of this is down to Survival, which from cramped offices in London's East End has become the first port of call for indigenous people under threat. Yet Watson is now more worried than in all her 19 years at Survival. "A real war is going on again against the Indians," she says. Instead of the gold miners, rubber barons and missionaries written about by Lewis, they face a new threat — from those who would turn the Amazon into a food factory for an ever- expanding world. In a quietly global shift, over the last few years Brazil has become the world's biggest beef and soya producer. Within the next decade it hopes to overtake the United States as the world's largest agricultural producer, though many of its biggest exporters are multinationals such as Cargill and Monsanto.

All this has come at a cost. Over the last eight years, Brazil has lost more than 170,000 square kilometres of rainforest — an area larger than Greece — and, since 1970, over 700,000 square kilometres — one- fi fth of the forest. After several years of reduction, last year deforestation was once again on the increase, rising 4% to almost 12,000 square kilometres. Around two- thirds of this was for cattle pasture. Much of this Amazonian beef may end up on our dinner tables; partly because of foot- and- mouth disease at home, the EU has become Brazil's biggest customer.

Soya exports have also boomed with the development of a new strain suitable for cultivating in the Amazon region. Soya farmers generally take over already- cleared land, but Philip Fearnside of the Amazon Research Institute points out this drives the small slash- and- burn farmers deeper into the forest, pushing back the frontier. "Soya bean farming provides a key economic and political impetus for new highways and infrastructure projects," he says.

Decades after Lewis's report, pioneers are once again in league with corrupt politicians. Last summer the Brazilian government launched its Amazon fund, requesting billions in international aid to preserve the forest (Norway has already pledged $ 1 billion). But at the same time it is planning huge dam- and road- building projects under Pac — the rapid- growth programme — which Survival says will destroy many tribes' ancestral lands.

The central Brazilian province of Mato Grosso has become the main battleground in this struggle, overtaking Para as the state with the highest deforestation.

The last few years have seen much of its tropical forest razed for cattle pasture and industrial soya- bean farms. In 2003, one of the worst years on record for deforestation, 20% of Mato Grosso's forests were converted to cropland. In 2005, Greenpeace awarded its golden chainsaw to the state governor Blairo Maggi, whose family firm happens to be Brazil's biggest soya producer.

Maggi was recently reported as saying: "We are big producers but we know how to preserve." He added that there are more damaging forms of pollution than deforestation. "There's no point discussing month after month whether it's gone up 2% or 5%." The Enawene Nawe are right on the front line of this war. Not only are the lands under threat from cattle ranchers and soya barons, but to help provide power to the soya plantations the state government has begun building a series of hydroelectric dams on the Juruena river. The Indians fear these will pollute their water and kill the fish on which they depend. "It's David and Goliath," says Fiona Watson.

I have been waiting nearly five hours on the river bank when suddenly I hear the putt- putt of a motor. A long aluminium canoe appears, piloted by an Indian wearing red trunks, scarlet feathers in his ears, red cords round his wrists and black war paint smeared across his face. His name is Xiwiro and he is clutching a sheaf of wooden arrows. I greet him with relief and then ask foolishly: "Where have you been?" "I saw the river was full of fish and they looked too good," he explained through a combination of gestures and odd words in Portuguese. I could not see any fish in the boat — he had not only stopped to fish but also cooked and eaten them.

I had come 10,000 kilometres to meet him and he'd gone fishing. These are people with an entirely different sense of time and priority.

Finally, around dusk, Xiwiro turns the boat into a narrow inlet overhung by trees. As we round a bend, the air is full of whooping. On the bank are dozens of naked Indians, done up with war paint, beads and feathers and brandishing arrows. It's like stepping into the pages of National Geographic. Immediately I am surrounded by Indians wanting to touch my fair hair and use my torch, which has a blue light and disco- fl ashes if you press it twice. Everyone is smiling and joking and speaking in nasal sounds. One old man grabs my pack and I follow them up a sandy path to a clearing where, in the fast- gathering darkness, I can just make out some long huts arranged in a circle.

It turns out that whoever grabs the foreigner's pack gets the "honour" of having them sleep in their hut. The old man leads me into his, which is pitch- black inside and smoky from a number of fires. There are coughs and grunts and chatter coming from different directions. My torch swings around and I see a number of women and children lying in string hammocks, and a few green parakeets on a perch of sticks.

Juliana Almeida, a young Brazilian anthropologist from Opan, a nongovernmental organisation that defends the rights of Amazon Indians in the region, helps me string up my hammock.

After the long journey to get here I am exhausted, so hardly overjoyed when she warns me that the Enawene Nawe don't sleep in blocks like us but odd hours here and there, and quite likely to be wandering around at 3.30am.

The last thing I expect to see when I emerge blinking from the hut the next morning is an office chair. An Indian girl is playing on it but scampers away when she sees me.

I have travelled in the Amazon many times but never seen a tribe of such beauty. There is clearly no shortage of food, and their diet of honeywater, corn, cassava bread, fish and fruit seems to result in glossy hair and skin. Among Amazon Indians, the Enawene Nawe are a rare success story. They survived the fl u epidemics and the massacres that Lewis wrote about in the 1960s because they kept moving deeper into the forest.

All this is now threatened. Five years ago, men from Maggi Energia arrived in the village and announced plans to build hydroelectric dams on the Juruena river. The Enawene Nawe were horri- fi ed. Unusually for Indians, they only eat fi sh, never meat. Moreover their whole belief system revolves round the river and fish, which they believe commune with their ancestral spirits.

"If the fish dies, we all die, you inuti [non- Indians] and we Enawene Nawe," explains Marikerosene, a man in his thirties with red- and- black stripes daubed across his face.

It was not the first time the Indians had come into conflict with the Maggi group. In 1998 — two years after their land had been demarcated — they had discovered them building an illegal road through the reserve to transport soya. They succeeded in getting that closed by a judge. But this time around the Indians were tricked into signing a document. "They told us it was just the minutes of the meeting," said Marikerosene.

Construction started without the tribe being informed. In September 2007, some Enawene Nawe were out fishing when they came across building works. They secured the support of the public prosecutor in Cuiabá, who managed to stop the work for fl outing environmental laws.

But Governor Maggi appealed to the Supreme Court and the suspension was overruled. Another delegation of men from the company arrived, offering 470,000 Brazilian reais in compensation.

"We thought if we take the money and the dams are built, we'll lose the fi sh and rituals and all that is precious," said another Enawene Nawe, Daliyamase. "All that we will have is the money, which will run out — and then what?" Unfortunately for the Enawene Nawe the other four tribes who live along the river did accept the cash along with boats and promises of electricity.

"The other Indians live a very different life," explains Marikerosene. " They don't live on fish like us, they plant soya, they commute from the cities and they are further away from the dams." For a while the issue threatened to split the tribe. Ten Enawene Nawe went to meet with people from the company.

"But each time we went to a meeting, the numbers changed," said Marikerosene. "First it was five dams, then eight, then 11." Then, last July, they discovered that the state government now intended to build 77 dams on the river. "They have lied to us," said Daliyamase. "We've written to the authorities, we go to meetings but nothing happens, nobody listens, and so we got angry." Last November they decided to take matters into their own hands. "We spent six or eight days planning the attack on a dam," said Marikerosene.

"Some people were very angry and wanted to go and kill whites. They said otherwise this won't solve anything; they will just go back and start work again. But we agreed we wouldn't, only if they tried to kill us.

“Our idea was that by doing this, everyone will know what the government is up to and it will be forced to act." They chose the nearest, Telegráfica dam, three and half hours away by boat. "Everyone gave money from selling beads and bracelets to buy diesel," said Daliyamase.

"We got there about 8am, pointing our bows and arrows, shouting and whooping to frighten them," said Marikerosene. They must have been a fearful sight. "The first thing we did was take the radios of the guards and cut phone cords to impede communication," he continued. "Then we began to break cars, puncture the tyres of lorries, setting fire and smashing equipment. We looted office chairs, computers, cameras, TVs and phones. Then at about 11 we left." When after 10 days there was no reaction, a group of Enawene Nawe travelled upriver to the small town of Juina, which has the nearest office of Funai, the government Indian service. There they demanded a meeting with its president in Brasilia. Funai arranged a bus to take a delegation of Enawene Nawe on the two- day journey. Arriving at the futuristic capital was a huge shock — until then the biggest town any of them had seen was Brasnorte, with its population of 16,000.

But the Enawene Nawe refused to be intimidated.

"We asked why is Funai in favour of these dams?" said Marikerosene. " The president said the decision was taken by his predecessor and that he'd thought they were outside Indian lands.

He promised the work would stop but he has gone back on this." On the way back, they stopped at Cuiabá for a meeting with Governor Maggi. He told them it would be very difficult to stop the work because loans had been made and contracts awarded.

"He is not just the governor — he is the soya chief and owner of some of the works," said Kawari, another Enawene Nawe. "He doesn't care about the animals and plants and trees. Indians don't matter. He's only worried about money." As the day finally starts to cool, there is a whooping sound and someone comes to get me.

A long line of wooden gourds containing fish soup has been laid out across the centre of the patio. Large grilled fish are carried out on banana leaves and placed on the ground, and the Indians come and grab chunks of the white flesh. Kawari explains it is an offering from a family that has been experiencing a lot of illness. "By giving to the others they are giving to the spirits." As darkness falls, everyone drifts off to their huts. In the middle of the night I am astonished to be woken up by pop music. Some of the men are listening to the ring tones of mobile phones they have looted.

Sadly, it's unlikely in today's Brazil that the Enawene Nawe will win. The first five dams are already two- thirds finished. Last year, local farmers held a protest against expanding Indian reserves under the slogan: " Wake up Brazil — the Amazon is ours!" "The world is looking at Amazonia from the wrong viewpoint," complains Wanderlei Ferrari, a cattle farmer who owns the local supermarket.

"You go on about deforestation but the world needs to eat, and if Brazil doesn't use all its land to produce food we won't even have enough for our own population, let alone Europe and China.

Instead of giving more land to the Indians we need to take back at least half. Indians don't generate economic activity — they just cost money.

Brazil should spend that money by building more ports and making the rivers navigable." This is the real issue, according to Opan's Fausto Camponelli, who has been visiting the Enawene Nawe since 1990. "The problem is the dams are just the beginning," he says. "There is already a bill in Congress to install locks to make the Juruena navigable so they can transport soya more cheaply. More soya means more agri-toxics in the river, more pressure on the forest. That really will be the end of the Enawene Nawe." It's a view echoed by the state's public prosecutor, Mário Lúcio Avelar, who has been fighting in court to stop the dams, which, he says, contravene the country's own laws. A young man with round Harry Potter glasses, he arrives harassed and two hours late for our meeting at his office in Cuiabá. Papers and files cover every surface, and he has to move a mountain off a chair so I can sit down.

"There's no way these hydroelectric projects should be going ahead," he says. "There's been a series of irregularities in the licences granted by the governor — no independent environmental studies and no attempt to look at their impact on the lives of indigenous people. Our own laws are not being complied with." When he cited these issues to halt the works last year, the Supreme Court overruled him. "It's a conflict of civilisation versus resources," he says. "A society based on harmony with nature versus a country only interested in economic development.

The argument they put is more or less like this: can 500 Indians derail the development of the whole country of more than 180m?" He has gone back to court but is not hopeful.

"Unfortunately, the matter is complicated by the fact that the state governor owns 50 to 60% of these dams. It's a real conflict of interest. Maggi wants these dams because they are a gold mine — you get a licence for 30 to 35 years, cheap state funding, and the electricity produced pays back the cost within four years. It's actually a much better business than soya.

"It's very unlikely we'll win, as Brazil's highest courts are very susceptible to economic- development arguments and there is tremendous political pressure," says Avelar. "I fear within the next 10 to 15 years that the Enawene Nawe will lose their culture of hundreds of years." Despite the cloud hanging over them, in my few days with the Enawene Nawe I never saw them less than cheerful or utter a cross word.

"They avoid sadness," says Juliana Almeida.

"They have strong bones, fast feet and rapid smiles," adds Camponelli. "They live totally in balance with nature, eating very well but not polluting and conscious of conserving resources. But that seems to have no relevance." Their words remind me of Norman Lewis's description from 40 years ago of the Indian as "the perfect human product of his environment", and how he added: "from which it should follow that he cannot be removed without calamitous results".

When I get home I discover the flashing blue torch that so intrigued them has disappeared from my rucksack pocket. In its place is a necklace of seeds in many colours.

Christina Lamb OBE

One of Britain's leading foreign correspondents, bestselling author and inspirational speaker.
You can contact me through my Agent or Facebook page.