BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Spanish Portuguese Caribbean

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Americas  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Brazil's Awa struggling to survive
Awa hunting
The Awa rely on traditional hunting methods
Ten years after a demarcation agreement at the Earth Summit, the Awa people of Brazil are still struggling for their very existence.

BBC World Affairs correspondent Mike Donkin travelled to the Awa territory in the heart of the Amazon to assess the situation.

We glimpsed her on the bank as our wooden boat skimmed the creepers after a long day rounding the bends and rocks of the Caru River.

She was fishing, a child asleep against her breasts and a pet monkey perched on one shoulder, at perfect peace in the shade of the rainforest.

If the Awa's voice is not heard and heeded soon the rainforest will echo to a people's lament

When we landed we followed Kawaia to the hut built of palm fronds where her husband, naked except for a twine armband, was whittling sharp points on a cluster of bamboo arrows.

Kawaia gutted the fish and chopped leaves for their meal.

The forest has always sustained the Awa people and they have sustained the forest. Now the tribe's way of life is at risk, and so is their very existence.

Forest nomads

Kawaia and her husband were found hiding in the trees, the only survivors of a massacre after ranchers and loggers started to exploit their stretch of the Amazon.

A swathe of forest has since been cut for timber and turned into grazing pastures. This is the land the Awa had always hunted as nomads.

Some Awa still roam the forest without coming into contact with anyone else.

The rest - 230 in all - stay reluctantly, for safety, in villages supervised by the national Indian agency, Funai. They want the forest back, and they have taken their fight to the Brazilian courts.

A group of Awa men took us on a trek through their domain. We walked first to a hillside where sunlight scarcely filters through the dense foliage.

This is where they hunt. The prey might be forest pigs, armadillos, tapirs or brightly plumaged birds.

The Awa stalk them with long bows and short spears. Their eyes are sharp, their aim usually deadly, but they caught nothing on our outing and that is becoming all too common.

One hunter, Kamara, explained: "Wherever we look the whites have left their tracks. They destroy the trees where the animals live and the fruits that they eat. Every day there seems to be less game and we must go further to find it."

Brazil's priorities

Kamara moves cautiously as he hunts these days. Onece, when he climbed a tree to retrieve a monkey he had trapped, a white gunman shot and wounded him.

He led us to a hillside where a few charred tree trunks rose through acres of green scrub.

"They plant this grass for the cattle," he said. "But it does not last and then they move on to plant more. The forest can never grow back. They will finish it off, and we cannot live without it."

Traditional tools survive in the Awa territory

Moments of daily life around the village seem to confirm this.

A man sings as he roots through the undergrowth for berries to make medicine. An old woman twists stiff palm leaves to make a hammock.

A girl paints her young brother's face with a black fruit dye before he joins his first hunt.

All around them modern Brazil's priorities are closing in fast. A railway has been cut through the forest to transport iron ore from a vast mine funded by the World Bank and the European Union.

Two hundred wagons rattle behind each train, with loads worth millions of export dollars.

The line has opened the way for settlers, many poor Brazilians escaping the overcrowded cities, to try their luck at farming on this far frontier in the state of Maranhao.

The towns they build start small but grow, then the dirt roads turn to asphalt.

To defend the Awa's interests in the wake of all this, Brazil's Government has stationed a couple of officers from its Indian Affairs agency at each of the four villages.

They are well-meaning, but effectively powerless.

The Awa say white ranchers threaten the forest's existence
Patrolino Viana took us to the makeshift sign erected on the border of the Awa land he is charged with protecting.

It read 'Keep Out' in Portuguese, but as he showed us, a settler wandered past. He admitted defeat.

"All the time there are more and more invasions," he said. "There are no police, no government forces here to stop them."

We went on to a nearby settlers' farm. In the compound a woman pounded grain with a primitive wooden pestle. She was grinding flour for her family while her daughter loaded a mule.

Their house was made from mud and bare of furniture.


"Life is not just hard for the Indians, it is hard for us too," the woman said. "We need land as well."

The conflict between Indian rights and development is not new to Brazil. In the early 1980s, the country's parliament agreed that all ancestral indigenous land should be mapped, marked out, set apart and protected.

When world leaders gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago they endorsed this process of demarcation.

Awa boy and monkey
For the Awa, the future is in the balance

Some of the Amazon tribes have seen demarcation happen - but not the Awa.

The economy of Maranhao State relies on cattle ranching, and if the ranchers are not politicians themselves they have influence where it matters.

Few of the state's voters are likely to raise a voice for Indian rights either. This is why the Awa have taken recourse to the law.

A prosecutor will press their case for demarcation against the determined resistance of one rancher, who claims that the state actually sold him his holding and gave him a paper attesting there were no Indians on it.

They need their land rights respected so they can live the life of their choosing

Fiona Watson, Survival

The rancher asked in a local newspaper, "Why do the Indians need my land? They have so much already." The court case will almost certainly take years, too long for the Awa.

The only pressure being brought which may tilt the odds a little more in their favour is a campaign launched by Survival, the international organisation which supports tribal peoples.

It is led by a Briton, Fiona Watson, one of the few Westerners to visit the Awa.

"This is not a people who need aid or handouts, they can care for themselves," she says. "They just need their land rights respected so they can live the life of their choosing.

Awa example

"When the political leaders gather in Johannesburg to see what progress there's been since they last met in Rio they should look hard at Brazil and ask what has become of its promises."

Awa people
Many Awa remain in their protected villages

With sustainability as the theme for the latest summit, the Johannesburg delegates could also do worse than turn to the example set by the Awa.

As dusk falls in their village the children jump excitedly from tree branches to swim together in the river. Around a fire outside their huts the hunters gather to sing, in their strange staccato language.

Their songs celebrate days in the forest and the good things it provides.

Man may be perfectly in tune with nature here, and nature with man. But if the Awa's voice is not heard and heeded, the rainforest will soon echo to a people's lament.

The BBC's Mike Donkin
"The Awa have only been know in the west for three decades"

Key stories



Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |