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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN : A Crime in Benefit of Land Grabbers : Rape charges against a Brazilian Indian leader smell of a political frame-up.

September 09, 1992|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications. and

The fight to save the world's tropical rain forests has spawned its heroes and its martyrs, none more renowned than Chico Mendes, the leader of the rubber tappers, who was gunned down in the western Amazon four years ago.

Since Mendes' murder, the man who has perhaps come best to symbolize the struggle to save the Amazon is an Indian chief named Paulinho Paiakan, of the Kayapo tribe who live on a tributary of the Xingu River. Paiakan led the fight in the late 1980s to beat back a scheme, partially financed by the World Bank, to submerge millions of acres of rain forest in a network of dams. He has been instrumental in securing the rights of tribes to control their natural resources--timber and minerals--eyed hungrily by Brazilians chafing at Indian assertion of ancestral rights. Paiakan has become a familiar figure far beyond the borders of Brazil. He has toured the world raising money for the Kayapo cause. Hollywood is interested in his life story.

But now Paiakan's stature as an environmental and indigenous leader is threatening to crumble. And if his career ends in disgrace and maybe a prison cell, the rain forest movement will itself have sustained a serious blow. Already Brazil's powerful timber, mining and ranching lobbies are clamoring for an end to restrictions on exploitation of native reserves. Some environmental groups are starting to shun Paiakan, leaving the Kayapo without international support.

Paiakan's potential downfall stems from charges of rape. Previous supporters have divided violently on the issue. Paiakan's allies charge racism abetting a frame-up, exemplified by the cover of a mass-circulation magazine, Veja, that featured a cover photo of Paiakan with the words "The Savage" splashed across it. Many Brazilian liberals see Paiakan as an uppity Indian getting his comeuppance.

The case against Paiakan at first seems overwhelming. On the last Sunday in May, the Kayapo chief took his wife, Irekran, his little girl, Maia, and some relatives to a campground he owned outside Redencao, a town on the edge of the Kayapo lands. He also invited along a non-Indian young woman of 18, Leticia Ferreira.

At the end of the day, after a fair amount of beer-drinking, Paiakan set off for Redencao with Irekran and Maia in the front seat of his white Chevette and Ferreira in the back. As Veja reported Ferreira's version, Paiakan stopped the car on the empty, dark road, turned off the lights and locked both doors. He and Irekran jumped over the seat and began to beat up Ferreira. Veja quoted Redencao police chief Jose Barbosa as saying that the car was so bloodied it looked as if an animal had been butchered inside. Doctors, said the magazine, confirmed that Ferreira had been raped.

The truth may be physically less violent and politically more complex. Here are some facts omitted by Paiakan's accusers:

The couple to whose house Ferreira made her way immediately after the incident say that she was calm and without the major injuries later asserted in the account in Veja. Scott Wallace, an American free-lance journalist to whom the couple spoke, also established that there were no bloodstains in the Chevette.

Ferreira's charges were relayed by her uncle, who is running for mayor of Redencao. This uncle immediately enlisted the services of the legal assistant to the governor of the state of Para, a man under unremitting political pressure to erode Indian autonomy. Paiakan claims a "confession" was concocted by adroit videotape editing. The police chief told Wallace he was misquoted. The first doctor to examine Ferreira was being sued by Paiakan for allegedly performing a tubal ligation on Irekran without permission. Ferreira's uncle contacted Veja with the story before she went to the police.

Paiakan denies either raping or beating Ferreira. Irekran, who speaks only Kayapo, last week told the anthropologist Darrell Posey, who has known the couple for years, that Ferreira invited herself to the picnic, got drunk and in the car on the way home, fondled Paiakan. Irekran said she told Paiakan to stop the car and then attacked Ferreira, scratching, biting and pummeling her. "I can remember," she said, "her blood under my fingernails," adding that she would do it again. Finally, she said, Paiakan held her back while Ferreira escaped.

The case awaits trial amid much wrangling over the legal status of a Kayapo under Brazilian law. There are those, like Veja, who say that Paiakan's guilt is clear. But a strong case can be made for a political frame-up, where opponents of the Kayapo, explicitly citing the Mike Tyson rape case, have organized a trial-by-media to punish the Green lobby and the Indians who dare assert ownership of lands on which they have lived for centuries.

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