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Brazil: The Invisible People
Sunday at thePavilion.com.au

Monday, April 17, 2000

Last of the Invisible People

The remains of fires are found, whistles heard, but for 30 years no outsider has seen a member of Brazil's Ava-Canoeiro tribe. Christina Lamb joins an expedition to find the Indians before their hunting grounds are flooded by a dam, and discovers why they are so afraid of contact with white society.

To ears attuned to the electrical hum of modern living, the dark blue stretch of the Tocantins river by the island of Serra Negra seems eerily silent, apart from the gentle splash of the boat.

All around us are hills clad with trees in every shade of green. There is no sign of life. But the Brazilian trackers on board are alert, heads turning one way then the other, trying to pick up the sound of the softest footfall on the banks.

Suddenly there is a whistle. My head swivels, half-expecting an arrow to fly past. But the trackers are smiling. A troop of monkeys swings towards us, chattering, then disappears into the jungle.

Astonishing, as it might seem at the start of the third millennium, 500 years after the first Europeans landed in Brazil, the expedition is looking for uncontacted Indians; naked men, women and children with bows and arrows, who still make fire by rubbing sticks together and who have no contact with the white man. Even more surprising, we are only six hours' drive from the Brazilian capital.

The Department of Isolated Indians, from the Brazilian government's Indian Foundation (Funai), has identified 46 sites with signs of indigenous settlement and believe there to be at least nine tribes that have never even been named.

But whereas once such groups were tracked in order to introduce them to "civilisation", now they are being sought to protect them as long as possible from the modern world. "In the past, the unknown Indian was
regarded as someone who ought to be contacted," explains Sydney Possuelo, Brazil's leading Indian tracker, who set up the department in 1987 and is heading our expedition. A real-life Indiana Jones, with an unruly beard and flashing eyes, he says: "Today we try not to contact them unless they are threatened."

Such threats include attacks by ranchers and garimpeiros (illegal goldminers) wanting to move into their lands, and the building of dams that flood their territory.

In the case of the Ava-Canoeiro tribe, for whom we are searching without success, one dam opened last November in its area and six more are planned.

Moreover, with only one family found - a group that emerged from the forest 10 years ago after 20 years hiding in caves - the tribe will be wiped out if no others can be located.

For the past seven years, Sydney Possuelo's trackers have been scouring this river and its hills in their search for the Ava-Canoeiro - the name means the Canoers, for their ability with boats. Searching for 20 days at a time, the trackers have come across the remains of fires, found trails in thick jungle and been told of sightings by local farmers, but have heard only the occasional whistle.

They have found no Indians. Not for nothing are the Ava-Canoeiro known as the Invisible People.

They have good reason to stay hidden. This century has not been kind to Brazil's Indians. More than 100 tribes disappeared between 1900 and 1970, according to Darcy Ribeiro, a leading anthropologist. By the 1960s, the Ava-Canoeiro numbered just 150.

The last massacre was as recent as 1970. Encouraged by the local government, which wanted to open up for cattle ranching the central Brazilian state of Goias where they live, a group of armed settlers approached their village as the Indians were celebrating with traditional dancing and singing the planting of manioc.

"Suddenly came lots of white men with guns," recalls Iawi, one of only four survivors. "There was lots of shooting and smoke and everyone was dead: my mother, father, men, women and children . . . I cried a lot."

Apart from Iawi, who was a small boy at the time, the other survivors were a pregnant woman called Matcha, her husband, and her sister Nakwatcha, who fled into the hills.

Within days of finding refuge in a remote cave in the mountains, Matcha's husband was attacked by a jaguar while out hunting. Back in the cave, the others watched helplessly as he bled to death. Hearing the jaguar nearby, they fled.

Eventually they found another cave, where Matcha's daughter, Tua, was born. Fearing that the baby's cries would give away their hiding place, they discussed killing her. Instead, for six years the little girl was not
allowed out of the cave in case she made a noise. In all those years, terrified of discovery, they never lit a fire at night.

In time, Tua and Iawi became man and wife, but the couple had no children, deciding they did not want a child for settlers to kill. In the 1980s, however, work began on a hydroelectric project, frightening off many of the animals on which the family had lived, forcing them to steal food from local
farms.

After 20 years on the run, the bedraggled group appeared to a local farmer. At first he was scared, but seeing them so thin and ill, he gave them food and contacted Funai.

Today, they live on a reserve of 94,000 acres funded by the electricity company that built the dam that had flooded the lands they had traditionally occupied.

Although they have now met many whites, the Indians jabber excitedly when we arrive, surrounding our vehicle and pulling us toward them, stroking my hair and grabbing at the equipment of our photographer, Justin Sutcliffe.

Following them, we were surprised to see a brick house, on the verandah of which sat Iawi, shooting stones from a sling at a flock of bright green parakeets. "We built them a traditional Indian straw lodge," explained
Walter Sanches, the Funai officer, "but they said: 'No, we want a house like yours'."

Inside the house, there is just one room, in which six hammocks swing over the dusty mud floor. In the corner is a small fire on which an anteater is being roasted in a clay pot. Amid the smoke and dust we could make out a green parrot cackling away on a wooden stand, several small doves and three miniature owls, Matcha's pets.

Iawi and Tua have had two children in their new surroundings, but, unless Funai can make contact with other Ava-Canoeiro in the jungle, the group faces extinction. "The older ones never talk about it," said Mr Sanches, "but the children have started asking me who they will marry."

Funai, fearing that it may never make contact with the remaining Ava-Canoeiro, is promoting contact with a tribe from Ilha da Bananal 500 miles away, where there are 10 Indians descended from an Ava-Canoeiro woman. It is too early to say whether the twice-yearly visits will result in matrimony.

"The older ones complain all the time about the other Indian group," said Mr Sanches, "but the children play together, which is encouraging."

Despite Funai's attempts to protect these last Ava-Canoeiro, Mr Sanches admits their rituals are dying out. The traditional long flute which Matcha used to play is broken and has not been repaired, and even the clay pipe is rarely smoked. The group like wearing T-shirts and keep asking for biscuits.

Although they do not know what money is for, they adore trips to the nearest town, where they are fascinated by television. Tua, alarmingly, has a tendency to kiss everyone at bus-stops.

Sydney Possuelo has a theory as to why every tribe touched by Brazilian society has been destroyed, and it has little to do with the illnesses against which they have no immunity. "Until they have contact, they are
proud and beautiful and think they can defeat the white man," he says. "But when they see their first towns and the thousands of people, and begin to discover the size of the white nation, they lose all their spirit and their shoulders stoop."

Possuelo, who will be 60 this week, has spent 40 years as a sertanista or Indian tracker. He has been involved in making contact with seven hitherto unknown tribes, the most recent of which was the Korubo in 1996.

It is a dangerous profession. Not only has Possuelo had malaria 36 times, but he has had many narrow escapes from uncontacted Indians, who see all whites as gun-toting settlers. In the past 30 years, 120 staff of Funai have died in the jungle: two years ago, Possuelo lost a close friend, clubbed to death when the newly contacted Korubo suddenly turned violent.

But he insists that his real danger is from whites. Possuelo has many enemies who would like to see his department closed. Earlier this year, he had a petrol bomb lobbed at his boat. Miners, ranchers and politicians wanting to get their hands on the land and mineral resources of the indigenous areas, point out that Indians make up only 0.2 per cent of Brazil's population but claim 11 per cent of its territory. American
missionaries see him as blocking their access to the primitive soul, while anthropologists yearn to get their hands on such primary material.

The Indians themselves have little say. Regarded by Brazil as "wards of state" and treated as minors, they are now facing legislation that will allow mining in their areas.

Possuelo is not naive enough to pretend that the Indians' life is easy, but he insists that, if they want contact, they will come forward. "Maybe I cannot stop the modern day encroaching on them for ever," he says, "but even if I can give them 20 more years, isn't that something?"

- The Sunday Telegraph, London

Copyright © 2000. The Sydney Morning Herald
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