NYTimes.com Article: A New Intrusion Threatens a Tribe in Amazon: Soldiers
- This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by ann.popplestone@....
A New Intrusion Threatens a Tribe in Amazon: Soldiers
October 1, 2002
By LARRY ROHTER
SURUCUCU, Brazil - The Yanomami Indians have lived
precariously in the most remote reaches of the jungle here
for thousands of years, hunting with bows and arrows, and
warring among themselves and with the few white intruders
who have appeared in recent years.
But now they are facing a threat to their very existence as
a people: the Brazilian Army.
As part of a program to strengthen the military's presence
along Brazil's vast and largely undefended northern Amazon
border, the Brazilian Armed Forces are building new bases
and expanding old ones in territories set aside for the
Yanomami and other tribes. As their numbers expand,
soldiers are increasingly getting Yanomami women pregnant,
spreading venereal disease and disrupting patterns of
village life that have endured largely unchanged since the
"The destruction has already begun," Roberto Angametery,
the village chief here, lamented in an interview in the
lodge where members of his community live together. "The
soldiers say they are here to protect us, but they have
brought diseases and taken our land without asking us. Soon
there will be more, and then what will we do? Where will we
Initiated in the mid-1980's, the military's Northern
Channel program was shelved during a budget crisis more
than a decade ago. But with the United States' decision two
years ago to provide more than $1.5 billion in military and
other assistance to neighboring Colombia, Brazilians fear
that the conflict there will spill over into their
Indian advocates, however, argue that the logic of the
military expansion is dubious here in Roraima State, which
borders instead on Venezuela and Guyana.
"The armed forces are just seizing an opportunity to revive
a program that has long been desired but long lain
dormant," Egon Heck, executive secretary of the Indigenous
Missionary Council, a Roman Catholic church group, said in
an interview in Bras�lia, the capital. "There is nothing to
justify the construction of military bases in Roraima,
because no concrete guerrilla threat exists there."
Military officials in the border region, at the
headquarters of the Amazon Military Command in Manaus and
at the Army Chief of Staff office in Bras�lia declined to
discuss the issues that Yanomami leaders have raised,
failing to respond to two weeks of telephone calls, faxes
and e-mail messages seeking comment.
In a letter, however, the minister of defense, Geraldo
Quint�o, blamed the tense situation here on what he called
"a systematic and reiterated campaign" on the part of
Indians and advocacy groups "against the army, which
historically has always conferred a cordial treatment on
He acknowledged the existence of sexual relationships
between soldiers and Indian women but said he saw no need
to intervene because they were "consenting relations"
"A relationship that lasts two or three years is not sexual
abuse," Mr. Quint�o maintained. "It is natural that these
relationships occur," and "to block them is to impede the
fruit of human nature."
As perhaps the most primitive of the indigenous peoples of
the Amazon, the Yanomami, who number about 15,000 in Brazil
and another 12,000 just across the border in Venezuela, are
especially vulnerable to the military effort. In his recent
book, "Darkness in El Dorado," Patrick Tierney describes
the Yanomami as having been victimized repeatedly by
miners, missionaries and anthropologists since sustained
contact with the outside world began in the 1960's.
The impact of the increased military presence in Yanomami
territory appears to have been similar. According to Davi
Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman who serves as a tribal
spokesman, at least 18 children have already been born of
sexual liaisons between soldiers and Yanomami women: 5 here
and 13 in Maturac�, a Yanomami village about 250 miles
southwest of here.
"The soldiers have women of their own, so why don't they
bring them along?" he asked. "They should stop messing with
our wives and daughters, and respect our rights instead of
Tribal leaders here refused to allow interviews with the
women involved, to avoid further humiliation, they said.
But in a videotaped deposition to the Human Rights
Commission of the Brazilian Congress last year, one woman
about 18 years old said she had agreed to have sexual
relations with a soldier after he gave her thread and food
The couple had sex in the barracks at the base here, the
woman testified. "The sergeant knew what was going on, but
he did nothing," she said through an interpreter.
"It is illegal under federal law for government employees
to have sex at their workplace, but that is what these
soldiers are doing," said Martinho Alves da Silva, regional
delegate for the National Indian Foundation, the government
agency in charge of indigenous affairs. "They are having
sex with Yanomami girls in the barracks, on top of cars, in
the jungle, at waterfalls."
Mr. Alves da Silva said he had complained to the army about
such incidents, with few results. "They tell us they have
taken measures to stop that behavior and opened an internal
investigation," he said. "We would like for federal
prosecutors to supervise that process, but they have been
unable to do so."
A four-day visit here revealed few if any restrictions on
fraternization between troops and Indians. Yanomamis were
observed playing soccer on the army base, and soldiers
would occasionally swim at a nearby waterfall that is also
frequented by the Yanomamis, including young women wearing
For the Yanomami, the sudden appearance of mixed-race
children in their midst has created a cultural quandary.
The village here consists of only 143 people, and has until
now been racially homogenous, which is one of the
requirements for an Indian tribe to maintain its status
under Brazilian law.
If tribe members intermarry with whites and the group
becomes excessively acculturated, its members run the risk
of being reclassified as caboclos, as persons of mixed
white and Indian blood are called in Portuguese, and losing
the benefits and protections provided to indigenous
peoples. For that reason, the mixed-race children here are
regarded not just as a source of shame but also as a
"When these children grow up, no one knows where their
loyalties will lie," explained Ivanildo Wawanawetery, a
Yanomami who works for the National Indian Foundation as an
interpreter. "They may want to follow the path of their
fathers and live with the whites, and then they will no
longer be Indians."
In at least one other case, near Maturac�, a soldier has
announced his intention to settle down with the mother of
his child and move into the village and live as a Yanomami.
This, too, has caused consternation among the Yanomami who,
while not hostile to occasional visits from strangers,
clearly delineate between themselves and outsiders.
Mr. Kopenawa said that one particularly alarming result of
sexual contact between soldiers and Yanomami women was the
introduction of venereal diseases, which had not previously
been reported in the tribe. "The soldiers have already
brought gonorrhea and syphilis with them, and we fear that
if they continue to have sex with Yanomami women, they will
transmit AIDS," he said.
Claudio Esteves de Oliveira, director of Urihi, a nonprofit
group that provides health care to the Yanomami under a
government contract, acknowledged that doctors have
recently treated cases of gonorrhea in Yanomami villages
here and elsewhere.
But he said he lacked proof that the disease originated
with soldiers, because the Yanomami may have also had
sexual contact with miners and employees of the
government's Indian affairs agency.
At the same time, tribal leaders complain, the army is
stepping up efforts to recruit young Yanomami men as
soldiers. Because the Brazilian military has intensified
its presence along the border, guides and scouts who know
the their way through the dense, trackless jungle are in
greater demand, and the Yanomami are clearly the best
qualified to fill that crucial role.
Tribal elders worry, though, that the young men will return
from their one-year enlistments with the white man's
materialistic values and a sense of cultural inferiority
that will make it difficult for them to fit back into
village life. The few Yanomami who have come back from
military service have already become disruptive forces in
their communities, leaders say.
Alarmed by what they see as the threat the military poses
to their identity and culture, the Yanomami and other
Indian groups are now seeking to block the construction of
new bases along the border. The focus of that effort is
Eric�, a Yanomami village north of here where virtually
none of the residents speak Portuguese or have had extended
contact with whites.
The Indians have also filed a suit seeking the dismantling
of a new base at Uiramut� on the border with Guyana and
another older base at Pacara�ma, on the Venezuelan border.
They argue that the military bases are unconstitutional
because they violate provisions granting Indians "exclusive
use" of lands designated for them.
"The military argues that national security is above Indian
rights, but we don't think the Supreme Court will agree,"
said Joenia Batista de Carvalho, a Wapixana Indian who is a
lawyer for the Roraima Indigenous Council. "But we are
prepared to go all the way to international courts if
Brazil does not respect rights of indigenous peoples that
it has already recognized."
In the meantime, the situation here is growing increasingly
complicated. Fleeing a conflict with a group of villages
further north that has denied them access to their
traditional hunting grounds, one Yanomami community
recently moved to a site that is about 200 yards from the
military base here.
"Now the Yanomami look forward to the whites' giving them
food instead of going hunting and tilling their fields,"
Mr. Kopenawa said. "This is bad, like a dog you feed every
day. Everything is being ruined."
HOW TO ADVERTISE
For information on advertising in e-mail newsletters
or other creative advertising opportunities with The
New York Times on the Web, please contact
onlinesales@... or visit our online media
kit at http://www.nytimes.com/adinfo
For general information about NYTimes.com, write to
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company