Tribe sharpens arrows against Amazon invaders

2017-10-25 13:24
Jawaruwa Waiapi and his family walk amidst fog, early in the morning, at the Manilha village in the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state in Brazil on October 13, 2017. (Apu Gomes / AFP)

Jawaruwa Waiapi and his family walk amidst fog, early in the morning, at the Manilha village in the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state in Brazil on October 13, 2017. (Apu Gomes / AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Waipi - They appear silently, seemingly from nowhere: a dozen figures, naked except for bright red loincloths, blocking the dirt road.

These are the Waiapi, an ancient tribe living in Brazil's Amazon rainforest but now fearing invasion by international mining companies.

Leading AFP reporters to a tiny settlement of palm-thatched huts hidden in foliage, the tribesmen streaked in red and black dye vow to defend their territory. They brandish two-metre bows and arrows to reinforce the point.

"We'll keep fighting," says Tapayona Waiapi, 36, in the settlement called Pinoty. "When the companies come we'll keep resisting. If the Brazilian government sends soldiers to kill people, we'll keep resisting until the last of us is dead."

The Waiapi indigenous reserve is in pristine rainforest near the eastern end of the Amazon river. It is part of a much larger conservation zone called Renca, covering an area the size of Switzerland.

Surrounded by rivers and towering trees, the tribe operates almost entirely according to its own laws, with a way of life at times closer to the Stone Age than the 21st century.

Yet modern Brazil is barely a few hours' drive away.

And now the centre-right government is pushing to open Renca to international mining companies who covet the rich deposits of gold and other metals hidden under the sea of green.

In August, President Michel Temer abruptly ended mining restrictions in swaths of Renca, sparking an outcry from environmentalists and celebrity campaigners like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Temer backtracked in September. However, the Waiapi, who were nearly wiped out by disease after being discovered by outsiders in the 1970s, remain terrified.

The rainforest, says 35-year-old Moi Waiapi, another inhabitant of Pinoty, "is the foundation for our survival".

The road 

The dirt road is the only route into Waiapi territory. Pinoty, where a few dozen people sleep in hammocks under roofs with open sides, is the first village - the frontier.

To get here requires several layers of authorisation, then a bumpy two-hour drive from the small town of Pedra Branca. The Amapa state capital Macapa, one of the most remote in Brazil, is several hours further.

By the time you reach Pinoty and a government sign reading "Protected Land", you are already well beyond cellphone reception, the electric grid, the last gas station, and many Brazilian laws.

But for all the remoteness, the Waiapi have scant protection against the powerful forces that for decades have pushed industry and agribusiness deeper and deeper into the Amazon in a bid to make Brazil a commodity exporting superpower.

The road itself is a monument to those ambitions.

Known as the Northern Perimetral, highway 210 was started under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship with the aim of linking Brazil to Venezuela.

Funding collapsed and the road was abandoned in the 1970s, literally stopping dead in the deep jungle, more than 1 100 km from its intended goal.

But even unfinished, the pharaonic project retains an ominous presence. Barely a car a day passes, yet the road to nowhere, slicing in a broad red scar through the tree-covered hills, has been remarkably well maintained.

Calibi Waiapi, another tribal villager, suspects that the government hopes one day to resurrect that dream of a thoroughfare through the wilderness. Wearing a circular headdress of parrot feathers, Calibi frowns at the thought.

"There'd be cars, trucks, violence, drugs, robberies. The culture would change. The young would want the cellphones, the clothes, the computers," the 57-year-old says as he imagines Brazilians pouring down the road.

"If a lot of white men came, it would be the end."

Arrow 'for Temer' 

Hotter heads threaten a violent response to any attempt at encroachment.

"If Temer comes here, anywhere near me, this is what he'll get," says Tapayona Waiapi, brandishing one of the long arrows, tipped in a lethally sharp sliver of wood.

Although the Waiapi have had shotguns for hunting since first contact with the government in the 1970s, they still also use arrows, which are poisoned.

"These are our weapons so that we are not dependent on non-Indian weapons," said Aka'upotye Waiapi, 43, in Manilha village, as he carved a new bow.

But the show of force by the tribesmen, one of whom swung a club in the shape of a wooden ax, was mostly bravado.

There are only about 1 200 Waiapi, scattered in villages reached by foot or river: they can barely monitor, let alone protect their territory. Just this May, an illegal mine was discovered and shut down a mile south of Pinoty.

Jawaruwa Waiapi, 31, says that fighting or even fleeing into the forest will no longer work.

Last year he was elected to the municipal council in Pedra Branca, the first member of his tribe to hold a Brazilian political post. He says peaceful persuasion is the only viable way now.

"We have another road, another strategy, which is to participate in political life," he said.

"Today we don't have to fight with arrows or clubs. We have to fight through knowledge, through politics.... This is our new weapon."

KEEP UPDATED on the latest news by subscribing to our FREE newsletter.

- FOLLOW News24 on Twitter

News24 (@News24) | Twitter

The latest Tweets from News24 (@News24). News24 is Southern Africa and Africa's premier online news resource reaching over 2.3 million local users each month. South Africa


Read more on:    brazil

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Inside News24

 
/News
Traffic Alerts
Traffic
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.