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"They have suffered 500 years of victimisation"
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Tuesday, 18 April, 2000, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
Protests mar Brazil's birthday

The indigenous population: 500 years of suffering
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

As Brazil marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first white man, the country's indigenous Indians say they have little to celebrate.

They see the arrival of the Portuguese as a disaster and are staging counter-commemorations. About 2,000 Indians have gathered near the place where their problems began - a beach in the north-eastern state of Bahia.

They have suffered 500 years of victimisation and racism and exploitation and they feel the situation isn't getting much better

Jonathan Mazower of Survival International
But while the first encounter between native South Americans and Europeans began with an exchange of gifts, this time the Indians are bearing protest banners.

"The whites shout out today: 'We discovered the land of Brazil'. This is nothing less than a lie," says Davi Yanomami, a leader of the Yanomami tribe.

"Our ancestors have known this land forever. The only thing the whites did was to steal the lands from the peoples of the forest and destroy them."


When the Portuguese arrived, there were some five million Indians in Brazil, comprising 1,000 tribes.

Tragic history
There are some 50 uncontacted tribes in Brazil
Not all indigenous territories have been demarcated
The average life expectancy of Brazilian Indians is 42.6 years

Now there are only about 350,000 people, in 210 tribes, according to the government's Indian agency.

Analysts say their population is only now starting to recover.

Most of the Indians are destitute and live in strips of land, usually allocated by the government.

They have minimum sanitary, health and educational facilities.

Along with Suriname, Brazil is the only Latin American country not to recognise the right, enshrined in international law, of tribal peoples to own their land.

"The government and the ruling classes see them as a bit of an obstacle to what they describe as development," says Jonathan Mazower of Survival International, which supports tribal peoples worldwide.

Indians want their land to be properly marked out
"If there is something interesting such as minerals or logging prospects or hydro-power potential, they want it and the people are a bit of an obstacle."


Mr Mazower says there is still wide-scale persecution and a great deal of violence directed against Indians.

"They have suffered 500 years of victimisation and racism and exploitation and they feel the situation isn't getting much better."

Although the four-day conference - "500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance" - is intended partly as a reflection on the Indians' history, it is also a chance to look forward.

Indigenous people from about 200 different places will be discussing issues like health, education and the demarcation of their areas.

Mr Mazower says Indians want their areas to be properly marked out and protected.

For many of them, their land is parcelled out and roads built close by.

They are also exposed to diseases they do not have immunity to.

In one community, the Guarani, which has been evicted from its ancestral lands, suicide is endemic, according to Brazilian non-governmental organisations.

NGOs, Guarani leaders and academics all link the suicide rate to the terrible lack and loss of land.

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