issue 219 - May 1991
Photo: Alex Shankland
The devil's design
Can white ‘devils’ help the people of the rainforest?
Alex Shankland investigates.
Suddenly, as we rounded the corner, there they were. The curtain of rain that separated us reduced them to silhouettes at the top of the riverbank, but the robes, the crown-like hats, the proud bearing – these were unmistakable.
My first sight of the Kampa Indians, almost a year ago, was probably much the same as the vision that greeted the rubber tappers who first pushed up the River Amônia a century ago. Such early encounters often ended abruptly with a volley of arrows and the Kampa disappearing back into the forest. Now, on my second visit a year later, they wait impassively for us to land and explain our business.
The Kampas’ word for non-indigenous people, virakocha, also means ‘devil’. It’s not hard to see why. Their control of vast areas of the Peruvian Amazon was once guaranteed by close contacts with the Inca Empire. From the sixteenth century onwards it was undermined by successive waves of conquistadores, missionaries and settlers. Semi-nomadic Kampa communities were herded into mission compounds, children were taken for ‘civilizing’ and never came back, villages were sacked and women carried off. Resisting where they could, but always moving on when conflicts became too intense, the Kampa gave up huge tracts of their traditional territory.
Then, in 1742, the appearance of a would-be Messiah calling himself Juan Santos Atahualpa and claiming to be the reborn Inca Sun King ignited the smouldering Kampa resistance. In a devastating guerrilla campaign they swept the invaders from their ancestral forests. Their territory remained closed to the virakocha for almost 150 years.
This hard-won respite for the Kampa was over by the end of the nineteenth century when the Rubber Boom flooded the forests with outsiders once again. But though they were pushed to the margins of their territory for a second time, the legacy of conflict and the hope of deliverance lived on among them.
In Kampa mythology the god Inca is the creator of all technology. He has been captured by the whites, giving them dominion over the machines that are the source of their power. One day, however, he will escape and return to his people, the Kampa (who call themselves Ashaninca), and they will finally drive out all invaders.
Echoes of this myth lie behind the constant efforts of the Peruvian guerrilla movement Sendero Luminoso to recruit the Kampa to their cause, promising a return to the glorious past of the Inca Empire. The same echoes were present too in a warning uttered by the tribal elder Pedrillo at a meeting of the River Amônia community called to discuss the continued invasion of their reserve by loggers and settlers: ‘We Ashaninca are a patient people, but the time is coming when we will just have to sort out these invaders once and for all’.
The River Amônia reserve is a triangle of territory where some 400 Kampa live, separated from 40,000 others who live in Peru by a border that means nothing to them but everything to the non-indigenous people – drug-runners, settlers and the military. It is an enclave where hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree, is not found. This quirk of nature turned it into a refuge a century ago – now, another quirk of nature is threatening to destroy it.
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
The area contains some of Amazonia’s richest collections of prized hardwood trees like cedar and mahogany. White settlers living on both sides of the border are hired by timber bosses to fell trees in the reserve and float them down the River Amônia. Toxic compounds in the sap of the cedar logs contaminate the water, which the Kampa use for drinking and bathing.
The logging activity also serves as a cover for drug-running. This is now a major source of wealth for local politicians and landowners – the direct descendants of the rubber barons. Last year the Federal Police were sent up the Amônia in search of drugs. They headed straight for the Kampa’s gardens. They pulled up the four or five coca bushes grown there for medicinal use – a tradition the Kampa owe to their links with Andean civilization. The police returned triumphantly to Rio Branco, the state capital of Acre, to proclaim on television that they had destroyed a 50,000-bush plantation belonging to the Indians. Evidence that settlers had been planting coca inside the reserve was completely ignored. ‘To the police, one word from a virakocha is worth a hundred of our words’, says Francisco Pianko, administrator of the community’s cooperative and eldest son of chief Antonio Pianko.
The casual racism with which the Kampa are treated by most non-indigenous people shows a dangerous ignorance of history and a failure to read the warning signals in the Kampa’s silence. Francisco’s brother, Moisés, says that when the explosion comes it will claim ‘not one but many’ lives.
On my first visit here I came as a journalist seeking the story of a proud people caught in the cross-fire of drug barons, the military, guerrilla movements, landless migrants, unscrupulous loggers – the elements of the perverse greed-and-power complex that Western civilization has unleashed on the Amazon.
This time I am returning with an offer of collaboration, a project to export their beautiful handicrafts to rich northern countries, cutting out the intermediaries, guaranteeing that the Kampa will receive the full market value for their art.
But the path to communication between cultures has to be trodden carefully. I am now not an observer but a participant and although the Kampa recognize me as a friend I have not forgotten the tension that seemed to underlie that first moment of contact. The reality is that the Kampa’s friends as well as their enemies can be responsible for the disruption of their traditional structures.
The additional presence on this trip of Forest People’s Alliance leader Macedo, visiting the community in the name both of his long friendship with them and of the political necessity of good relations between them and their rubber tapper neighbours in the Extractive Reserve, gives me further food for thought.
Macedo and his friend Terri Vale de Aquino, a pioneering anthropologist, have a legendary reputation among the Indians of Acre. They owe it principally to their efforts to free indigenous communities from exploitation through the founding of co-operatives. Most observers agree that this movement has been very important in helping the Indians of Acre to organize and fight for self-determination.
Not so long ago, Francisco Pianko tells me, some Kampa felled 12 majestic, century-old mahogany trees to pay for just one shotgun and ammunition – now a necessity because over-hunting by white settlers has reduced the availability of game beyond the point where a bow and arrow can produce a full stomach. The Kampa became exploited labourers for the loggers who had invaded their land. Logging became their main means of access to industrialized goods.
The idea behind the co-op, originally funded by the Gaia Foundation, is not just to bring material benefits but to put an end to the system which forces the Kampa to collaborate with invaders in destroying their own forest.
I’ve heard it said, however, that the only thing wrong with Macedo and Terri’s co-ops is that they don’t work. Looking at the Kampa’s difficulties with the co-op I begin to see what this might mean.
In the absence of rubber the Kampa lacked any saleable product to exchange for industrialized goods. The only answer seemed to be agriculture. However, the Kampa traditionally grow their produce in small gardens tended by each family to supply their immediate needs. The idea of communal plots generating surplus produce has little meaning for them.
Nevertheless, Francisco Pianko went ahead and installed the co-operative’s own fields where beans, rice and sugar cane are now grown. A couple of dozen hectares of ‘secondary growth’ – previously cleared and now overgrown – forest were cleared to make way for the fields. The Kampa who now work them in exchange for goods from the co-operative store have come to regard the communal plot as belonging to Francisco Pianko, since he controls the payment they receive. Far from being their representative he has become their boss.
Photo: Alex Shankland
Matters are now coming to a head. Francisco Pianko has used a grant from the Brazilian Development Bank arranged by Macedo to buy a rice-husking machine in the hope of improving on the low prices received for unhusked rice. Splendidly incongruous under the thatched roof of the cooperative hut, the husker has become an object of suspicion and incomprehension. ‘We can’t eat a machine’, run the muttered complaints.
Summoned to help Francisco Pianko reply to such criticism at a meeting, Macedo defends the machine’s potential for giving the Kampa a better return for their work. But later he admits to me that its purchase has been a step in the wrong direction. ‘The worst of it is that the Kampa don’t even eat rice – they’re growing white people’s food to exchange for white people’s goods’, he says.
But he does not yet have any alternative to offer the Kampa. Handicrafts fetch such derisory prices locally that, despite the Kampa’s enthusiasm, they can only come to the co-op’s rescue if a direct channel to the international market can be opened up. All the evidence seems to be there to justify the critics’ claim that the co-operative is doomed to failure: power concentrated in the hands of a single family, no perception of the project as truly communal and no relationship between the Kampa’s traditions and what the co-op has ended up producing to maintain its economic viability.
My unease is most intense during the kamerambi session jointly presided over by Macedo and the Kampa shaman Pedrinho. As the drink – brewed from the sacred hallucinogenic ayahuasca vine – takes effect and we each begin our inner journey, strong bonds of shared experience seem to link us all. We murmur ‘beautiful, beautiful’ as the Kampa sing their ancient invocatory songs. They respond with ‘kameta, txai’ – ‘that’s great, my brother’ – to Macedo’s guitar-accompanied hymns to the Queen of the Forest.
But, increasingly, Macedo seems to be taking control, steering the ceremony away from the simplicity with which the Kampa approach their ayahuasca visions and towards the semi-Christianized ceremonial of the Daime cult to which ecologically-minded urban Brazilian intellectuals are flocking. My own visions seem to show the proud Kampa paralyzed in the face of the individualistic energy represented by Macedo. He in turn seems to be questing after spiritual integration with the forest in an aggressive, almost predatory way, as if trying to bend it to his will. I begin to wonder if he is truly the ecological visionary, the jungle sage I have always taken him for.
Before condemning Macedo’s imposition of an inappropriate system, however, I pause to think again about how the co-op was created. When it began, the Kampa were not an uncontacted tribe living in undisturbed harmony with the forest. They had been pushed into their enclave by successive invasions. Here they were forced to deplete the forest on which they depended both materially and spiritually – forced, that is, by their need for the white people’s goods which contact had created long ago. They were fragmented and exploited. Despite the pride which enabled them to hold onto their traditions, their culture was being eroded.
For all its defects, the co-operative has broken their dependence on the loggers. It is a focus around which they can organize to rid themselves of the invaders. Their enthusiasm for working with handicrafts provides hope that a combination of outside support with the flexibility to adapt the co-operative to the Kampa’s cultural realities could turn it into a genuinely viable option for the future.
Above all, in Macedo and the Forest People’s Alliance they have a channel to negotiate, in dignity as a separate culture, with the society which dominates the world around them. Within a few days of our visit Macedo secured a space on the local TV news for Antonio Pianko and his sons to denounce the continued invasion of the reserve, and has set about raising funds to take them to Brasilia to press the Federal Government into action to avert bloodshed.
My own ayahuasca vision ends with a symbolic reconciliation between the force of individual will that the West has brought to Amazonia and the instinctive sense of a community – extending beyond humanity to include all living things – that is the essence of indigenous wisdom. The Forest People’s Alliance represents the struggle of people like Macedo to find a middle way between the cultures, given the impossibility of returning forest peoples like the Kampa to a state of complete isolation – even supposing that this is what they actually want.
We need the Kampa and other indigenous cultures to restore the balance to our world view. They need our individualistic energy to force open a space for their own survival in the world we are creating. We should not deny our own roots, pretending we are not virakocha, any more than we should tolerate the genocidal stupidity of policies that seek the enforced ‘integration’ of indigenous peoples.
Now the images that fill my memory are mostly happy ones: but the ambiguity of my feelings remains. The cross-cultural struggle for an alliance to save the forest is full of contradictions, paradoxes and blind alleys – but, if we are prepared to learn as we go along rather than impose simplistic solutions, it can be won.
Alex Shankland, a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, is also active in environmental and development projects in western Amazonia.
A place for humans
People have been a part of the forest for thousands of years – though, like the forest itself, they have gone through many changes.
Estimates of the total population of the Amazon Basin vary between 20 and 25 million. Of these, two thirds live in cities and towns. The largest Amazonian city, Manaus, has a population of about two million, including industrial workers in large electronics factories set up by multinational companies with government subsidies.
Between 750,000 and 800,000 indigenous peoples still live in the Amazon – a decline from around four million in 1900 and perhaps as many as 15 to 20 million in 1500. Of the 500 indigenous nations in Latin America, about 180 live in or around the rainforest.
Caboclo (literally ‘copper-coloured’) is the term sometimes used to describe people of mixed Indian and white blood – there are, however, no clear racial distinctions between them and people known as branco, or white.
Most Amazon peoples, other than the indigenous nations, are distinguished by their activity rather than their race or nationality and many switch regularly from one activity to another.
Ribeirinhos are people who live by the river and make their living from it, or from petty extraction from the forest and its land.
There are about 70,000 seringueiros, or rubber tappers, still working in the forest. With their families they total around 400,000 people. They or their ancestors usually migrated from the North East of Brazil.
Garimpeiros are ‘placer’ miners or panners, people who extract ores from superficial deposits using simple techniques. They may do some preliminary refining as well. The numbers involved vary enormously from perhaps 300,000 to as many as one million. It is dangerous and unhealthy work: few garimpeiros use this as their main form of income for more than 10 years.
The most recent arrivals in the Amazon are landless colonizers. The majority of these have arrived during the past 15 years in the states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia and Acre to the West, and Pará, Goiás and Maranhão to the East. The population of Rondônia grew at an average 28 per cent per year during the 1980s – or more than ten times the national average. The town of Imperatriz in western Amazonia has grown from about 75,000 people in 1980 to more than 400,000 today.
But with a population density still probably less than one person per square kilometre, and not substantially greater than it was at the time of discovery by Europeans, any argument that the forest is being destroyed by sheer weight of human numbers has little solid foundation.
Sources: ed. Anthony B Anderson, Alternatives to Deforestation, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990; S Hecht and A Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest, Verso, London, 1989; The Amerindians of South America, Minority Rights Group Report No. 15, London, 1987.