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24 August 2000 Edition

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The Awá in Brazil: Uncontacted Indians face extinction

Survival International, a worldwide organisation supporting tribal peoples, has warned that unless the Brazilian government, the World Bank and the mining company, CVRD, take urgent action, uncontacted Awá Indians in Brazil's Amazonia could soon be wiped out.

In 1982, the Brazilian government and its mining company, CVRD, received over US$900 million from the World Bank and the European Union to develop the iron ore deposits in the Carajás project. One condition of the World Bank loan was that all Indian territories within the sphere of the Carajás project should be officially recognised by the Brazilian government, with their boundaries demarcated by FUNAI, the government's Indian agency. Nearly two decades on, and despite the availability of this money, the Awá in Maranháo state are still waiting for their land rights to be recognised. Largely politicians and businessmen, some of whom have substantial landholdings on Awá land, have blocked the demarcation.

The delay in demarcation has left the Indians' land unprotected and led to the massive invasion and devastation of the land by loggers, ranchers, and settlers. Even worst, Awá groups have been attacked and killed as the scramble to steal their land and resources intensifies. There are now 276 properties settled in the Awá area, the centre of which has reportedly been heavily invaded. Much of this has happened since 1990, a year after the project to protect Indian lands was established by FUNAI and CVRD.

Survival International fears that the government may try to reduce the size of the Awá area - originally defined as 247,000 hectares. It is crucial that all their land is recognised: the Awá territory is very important to them, as it is to all tribal peoples, and is necessary to sustain their nomadic way of life.

Moreover, the Awá area is critical as it links two other indigenous areas, the Carú to the south, and the Alto Turiaçu to the north, where Awá also live. There are clear indications that uncontacted groups, which according to local FUNAI employees number at least 50 people, inhabit the Awá area. These groups are extremely vulnerable. In December 1998, six of a group of 10 uncontacted Awá died, probably from disease transmitted by outsiders. The survivors now live in Juriti village with other Awá families. Contacted Awá and non-Indian hunters have reported regular sightings of small, uncontacted Awá groups over the last few years.

The Awá people are one of the last nomadic hunter gatherer peoples in Brazil. In 1950, their population was estimated at 800. Today they number less than 400, of whom about 150 are uncontacted. They are widely spread, inhabiting at least four Indian territories in Maranhão. It is believed that 200 to 300 years ago they were farmers who were forced into nomadism to survive waves of Portuguese and Brazilian settlers invading their land. Now they live in small, mobile groups moving from shelter to shelter in the Amazon forest. They hunt game such as tapir, peccary and monkeys and gather fruits and nuts, especially from the babassu palm. Most of the Awá who have been contacted and live in villages are the survivors of brutal massacres.

The Brazilian government, CVRD and the World Bank are guilty of violating both the Brazilian constitution and the World Bank's operational directive on indigenous peoples by ignoring the Awá's land rights. Failure to act has led to the deaths of unknown numbers of uncontacted Awá and the invasion and destruction of a large part of their land. Survival International is calling for the immediate recognition and protection of their land, which is the only hope for the survival of Brazil's last nomadic people.

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