Kayapo Choices: Short-Term Gain vs. Long-Term Damage

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Kayapó Choices: Short-Term Gain vs. Long-Term Damage.

In August, 1993, Kayapó leaders made headlines in Brazil when they went en masse to the national capital to lobby the federal government. They attracted considerable attention on the Ministerial Esplanade by performing traditional war dances in formal attire-face and body paint, father headdresses, shell necklaces, bright woven armbands and shorts. What they were demanding would not have warmed the hearts of most environmentalists. They sought permission to sell mahogany that logging companies had illegally harvested in their reserve. The Kayapó also wanted compensation if miners were removed from the reserve and the Indians could no longer receive the royalties they had been collecting for almost a decade. The federal attorney general had brought suit to expel the miners because of the negative environmental and health consequences of their activities.

The Poisoned Gift

Since the early 1980s, several Kayapó communities have acquired considerable wealth by allowing outsiders to exploit their natural resources (especially gold and timber) and receiving a portion of the proceeds. The village of Gorotire has been the center of mining in the Kayapó Indigenous Area (one of three Kayapó reserves officially recognized by the Brazilian government). After many conflicts with invading prospectors, the people of Gorotire made a deal with the government and private companies, whereby they would allow prospectors to mind gold in exchange for demarcation of their territory and a percentage of mining proceeds.

Gorotire warriors monitored mining operations, doing complete body searches of all those leaving the area to prevent smuggling. They also monitored all transactions between prospectors and gold buyers. Kayapó guards escorted proceeds to the bank in redençao, the nearest city, where Kayapó employees maintained an office.

In the late 1980s, an NGO publication described the Kayapó's activities in Redençao:

During the dry season, they usually arrive in small or full-sized trucks from their fleet of 12 vehicles, driven by hired drivers. During the rainy season, they use their small plane and pay for innumerable air taxi rides. A large part of the funds pays for lodging and supermarket purchases. But there are also large outlays for employees' salaries, air shipping and gas for vehicles and for the village generator, which consumes 40,000 liters of diesel per month.

At first, gold mining seemed ideal for the Kayapó. Goods and money rolled into Gorotire, and the benefits were immediate. The health of the community improved, and a teacher came to give the children instruction. People built better houses; community leaders used video cameras to record ceremonies and negotiations with Brazilian authorities; and several young men even went to Sao Paulo to learn how to make the videos. The Kayapó became the most powerful economic group in the region, as neighboring Brazilians became dependent on he proceeds of logging and mining in the reserve; 70% of the region's economic activity is related to these two industries.

But the village became dirty as a result of the presence of thousands of miners in the reserve. Mining, was environmentally damaging, especially to the rivers and river banks where gold was extracted. The incidence of malaria and sexually transmitted diseases increased. Gorotire's residents shortened their traditional hunting and gathering treks and became increasingly dependent on purchased food. The focus of social life shifted from extra-familial institutions to families and households.

As the outside world massively impinged on the Kayapó, leaders had to acquire sufficient knowledge of the ways of whites to represent their people on regional, national and even international levels. Some were tempted by the prospect of quick and easy monetary gain. Village life was strained by all these changes in the course of a decade.

By the early 1990s, disturbing phenomena, such as stillbirths and birth defects, began to appear in Gorotire. Brazilian anthropologist Olímpio Serra assembled an interdisciplinary team to do research on the effects of mercury contamination on gorotire residents. As a result of widespread gold mining by hundreds of thousands of prospectors, mercury in the soil, on river bottoms, in food and in the air has contaminated vast areas of the Amazon basin. The study, funded by the Rainforest Foundation, found that the Gorotire, their environment, and the miners all showed signs of serious mercury contamination.

The gold deposits near Gorotire were beginning to play out in the late 1980s when the logging companies arrived. They, too, offered attractive deals to the Kayapó in exchange for permission to extract mahogany. While the federal government failed to carry out its statutory responsibilities to the Kayapó, the logging firms offered to build roads, health posts and schools. They paid a derisory sum for each harvested tree, but it was money the Kayapó could use to buy the goods they had "learned to need," observed anthropologist Terence Turner (who has worked with the Kayapó for more than 30 years).

Not all Kayapó leaders wanted to make deals allowing outsiders to deplete their patrimony. In the late 1980s two of them, Payakan and Raoni, became internationally famous as "environmentalists" when they traveled to the First World to defend Kayapó interests. Payakan and his friend Kube-I were even prosecuted by the Brazilian government for criticizing its hydroelectric development plans during a U.S. tour. Raoni accompanied the popular-music star, Sting, on an international tour in support of demarcation of the Kayapó Mekragnoti reserve.

These Kayapó leaders represented an important sector of Kayapó public opinion, which saw intrusions by outsiders as a threat to traditional culture. They also represented those who did not benefit from mining and logging, the proceeds of which were unequally distributed in the community. These Kayapó saw preservation of the traditional means of subsistence as more desirable than transitory gains that may have devastating long-term consequences to people as well as to nature.

In the view of the Rainforest Foundation's former director, Larry Cox, the Kayapó are pragmatists who want a better and easier life. To gain the benefits of modern "civilization," most of their leaders have tried to participate in the market economy on the most advantageous terms. Divisions among the Kayapó arise as they try to decide who will give the best deal with the quickest benefit.

The Role of Government

The Brazilian government has played an ambivalent and sometimes contradictory role in its relationship with the Kayapó. According to the 1988 Constitution, all indigenous land belongs to the federal government, but indigenous people have preferential use and control of land they traditionally occupy. No extractive activities may take place without permission of the indigenous group concerned and, in the case of mining, without Congressional authorization. (Apparently, the latter provision has never been applied or tested.) All indigenous territories were to be officially demarcated by October 1993, in a complicated and time-consuming process of geographic survey, ethnographic research and bureaucratic procedure that FUNAI, the federal Indian protection agency, was mandated to carry out.

In October 1993, almost half of the country's 500-some indigenous areas were still not demarcated. FUNAI itself was almost bankrupt, without sufficient resources to function effectively. Private interests, politicians, and the military pressured (and continue to pressure) for changes in demarcation law and even for repeal of controversial demarcations.

Some of FUNAI's actions in Kayapó territory have been dubious: it has brokered (and profited from) the deals the Kayapó have made to allow gold mining and logging. A FUNAI document prepared in early 1994 admitted:

Lumbering and gold mining in the Kayapó Indian Area has never stopped. It has been argued they were needed to pay for consumption of industrial goods by the Indians, and to overcome financial difficulties, FUNAI had to offer care to that Indian group. Thus, FUNAI not only was omissive regarding the legality of resources coming from lumbering and gold mining used to sustain some Kayapó leaders, but it also used some of those funds to maintain its own activities. According to internal UNAI reports, even though those funds were used, the Kayapó never received effective care from the National Indian Foundation.

Also in 1993, the Procuradoria Geral da Republica (usually referred to in English as the Attorney General's Office and independent of the Justice Ministry), asked a federal court to hand down an order expelling all non-indigenous miners and loggers from the Kayapó Indigenous Area, on the grounds that they were destroying the environment and compromising the health of the Kayapó. The Federal District Court of Brasília duly ordered the expulsion in February, 1994.

Marcio Santilli, who heads the Núcleo de Direito Indígena, a non-governmental organization, traveled to the Kayapó reserve soon after the ruling came down. He observed that the situation in Gorotire was:

difficult; food is scarcer and few fields have been planted... the health situation is grave, and there is much tuberculosis, malaria and venereal disease...the vehicles were broken, and there was no diesel to run the lighting system. The undergrowth had grown, even in the area of the infirmary and the school (closed for lack of a teacher).

The Kayapó thought that the court had banned them, as well as outsiders, from mining or logging. Santilli explained that only non-indigenous miners and loggers had to stop working and:

that the environmental law prohibited that kind of work, which destroys rivers and forests, in any area, even on the lands of the whites. But if the Indians decided to take over the work of mining and do it differently, without mercury and with other environmental safeguards, the Judge (and the law) did not forbid it.

The Kayapó leaders replied:

Someone has to be held responsible for everything that happened during the 12 years that they taught us the wrong way to work. Who will clean up the rivers and the forests that have been damaged? Who will be responsible for health care? Who will indemnify us for the resources and the lives we have lost?

By September 1994, the Kayapó could wait no longer for an answer. Community members were pressuring older leaders to do something. The leaders encouraged young warriors to expel about 2,000 non-indigenous miners still in the reserve. The miners fled to Redençao, where they camped in the main square and threatened to attack the FUNAI office and any Kayapó who were there.

Eventually, a gold buyer in town and the mayor negotiated an agreement whereby the miners would return to Gorotire for six months. In exchange, the gold buyer would pay off the Kayapó's outstanding debts in Redençao, which amounted to some US$200,000. Three young leaders who had benefited personally from earlier mining and logging deals were primarily responsible for these debts, but the Kayapó community as a whole agreed to the deal. The crisis in Redençao seemed to be resolved.

However, the Procuradoria Geral da República found that the agreement was illegal under the terms of the federal judge's expulsion order. In early December 1994, after the federal police set a December 15 deadline for miners and loggers to leave the reserve, Kayapó community leaders met in Gorotire and endorsed the expulsion. According to a press report, the Kayapó agreed not to allow illegal logging or mining in the reserve for at least a year.

Terence Turner, who is in regular contact with Kayapó leaders, said the community has maintained support for an end to mining and logging by outsiders in the Kayapó reserve. Considering how many changes have taken place in Kayapó territory during the past 15 years, this story is by no means finished.

Past and Future Survival

The Kayapó have a long history of internal divisions and conflicts, which will continue to play out as they confront the many challenges of preserving their traditional culture. At the same time, they are trying to benefit from the material improvements that the outside society offers. The Kayapó are neither passive recipients of government assistance nor mere victims of predatory invaders. They have tried to make their own destiny in accordance with their customs. Throughout Brazilian history, they have shown themselves to be fierce opponents and astute tacticians in war and peace. When necessary they have made strategic alliances with groups of outsiders and played one against another. At times they have retreated from or coexisted peacefully with others. On many occasions they have threatened violence or attacked those they defined as enemies.

During the past decade of breakneck change, the Kayapó have used all these strategies to survive and prosper. Some members of the group gained political and economic power by authorizing the plunder of community resources. Others organized protest levels of the outside society. Thus far, the Kayapó have shown extraordinary resourcefulness in defending their culture. They will no doubt continue to decide what's best for themselves and then let the outside world know exactly what they want.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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