New Internationalist

Native Peoples Stay

May 1980

Along the Colombian and Venezuelan borders of Brazil, where neither agri-business nor peasant farmers have had much impact, vast mining projects are causing havoc amongst isolated Indian tribes and upsetting the fragile balance of the rain-forest environment. Multi­million dollar projects like the one run by Mineracao Rio do Norte have created instant towns in the midst of the jungle. The bauxite company is jointly owned by the Brazilian government and a consortium of multinational mining companies including Canada’s Alcan Aluminium. The isolation and the fact that workers are not allowed to bring their families have led to tremendous social tensions. Last autumn Brazilian federal troops were flown in to put down a protest by workers over squalid living conditions and poverty-level wages of $100-$150 a month. The Wai Wai and Kaxuyanas Indians who live near the mine have been decimated by previously unkown diseases like measles and influenza. Many have been forced off their lands and are sometimes seen near the mine hawking Brazil nuts and handicrafts.

According to anthropologist Shelton Davis in a recent article in Mulitnational Monitor the 8,500-member Yanomamo tribe near the Venezuelan border are also threatened by mining companies anxious to survey the Indians’ territory. The Northern Perimeter Highway, billed as one of the key Amazonian transportation routes, will slice right through Yanomamo land. Near one section already built 13 villages were destroyed by the road crews. In their wake the Indians suffer from tuberculosis, influenza and venereal disease - all introduced by the whites.

In response to the potential destruction of the Yanomamo there has been citizen and church pressure inside Brazil to create a 16-million acre protected park for the Indians - allowing them some autonomy and enabling them to adapt to outside development at their own pace. The decision is up to FUNAI, the Brazilian Indian Rights Agency. But FUNAI appears to be deeply compromised. The agency’s new President, Colonel Joao Carlos Nobre de Veiga, besides having no experience in Indian affairs, was the former Chief of Security and Information for Rio Doce Geologia e Mineracao - the same company that’s pushing to open the Yanomamo territory to exploration.

This column was published in the May 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 87

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