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Indian Sterilization Campaign Provokes Charges of Genocide in Brazil

Furor: In exchange for votes, congressman Roland Lavigne provides free women's health care. But his tubal ligations among 1,800-member Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae tribe are sparking criticism.

May 30, 1999|MICHAEL ASTOR | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ITAJU DA COLONIA, Brazil — It took only a little cajoling from the campaign workers to persuade Sonia Muniz to get sterilized. She was poor, they told her, and the congressman was doing her a favor by helping her limit her family size.

"I didn't want to do it," Muniz mutters, barely louder than the wind whipping by the deserted Indian Protection Service post in this northeastern village.

But she went anyway.

"They made me. They had my name on a list," says Muniz, a woman who never went to school and didn't know her age without consulting her identity card.

So Muniz, a Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae Indian and mother of four, had her Fallopian tubes tied at a hospital owned by Roland Lavigne, a doctor and congressman famous around here for providing free women's health care in exchange for votes.

In the months leading up to Brazil's 1994 congressional elections, hundreds of women, both Indian and non-Indian, were sterilized at hospitals owned by Lavigne in this backwoods district about 430 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro.

Unlike Muniz, most of the tribe's women, with an average of three children per family, welcomed the sterilization operation and returned the favor by casting votes that helped Lavigne win reelection.

Sterilization wasn't an issue--until last May.

Then a health census revealed that all but one of the 10 women of childbearing age at the Baheta reservation, a cluster of shacks spread over 42 dry, rocky acres, were sterile as a result of Lavigne's offers. The situation was little different at the nearby village of Caramaru.

Tribal leaders say 58 Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae women were sterilized in the months before the 1994 elections and three others were sterilized during the 1998 campaign. The leaders claim the future of the 1,800-member tribe is in jeopardy--and call Lavigne's action genocide.

"The real issue here is land," says Alcides Francisco Filho, 44, the chief at Baheta. "Lavigne is allied with the big ranchers who are occupying our land. Free sterilizations mean only one thing--fewer Indians--and that's better for them."

In 1991, the Brazilian government recognized 133,000 acres as belonging to the Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae. But court challenges by settlers have kept them confined to about 5,000 acres.

Today, the Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae and settlers live in a virtual state of war. Fifty-one Indians have died in land-related conflicts since 1982.

The Indians' genocide charge touched off a furor in the national press, and federal police and prosecutors are conducting investigations. Lavigne didn't return numerous calls asking for comment, and his staff members are testy about the sterilization issue.

"As an American you have no right to protest the treatment of Indians after what you did to your Indians," said Lavigne's chief of staff, Lila Eickhoff.

Lavigne has had his share of legal problems. After the 1994 campaign, one of his two hospitals was shut down when a federal audit found he was charging the government for surgeries that weren't performed.

Auditors found evidence of similar practices at the second hospital but kept it open because it was the only one in the city. Lavigne called the charges "politically motivated" and later transferred the hospital's ownership.

For last year's campaign, he moved his operations into a $170,000 truck converted into a mobile medical center that distributed health care, including sterilizations.

Many residents see Lavigne as the real victim--a well-meaning if unorthodox politician getting picked on by Indians with political and legal savvy.

"Lavigne is providing medical care to women who need it," says Cristina Alves, a housewife. "Even if he is using federal money to do it, I don't care. At least he's giving something to the community."

What Lavigne offers isn't new. Women in rural areas have a hard time getting to cities, where birth control pills and other health services are available at federally financed clinics.

"Lavigne is only the most notorious of the politicians who trade sterilizations for votes," says Luiz Chaves, a lawyer for the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Catholic Church-related group that is investigating the Indian leaders' charges. "It's something of a tradition in the region."

Chaves says it will be hard to make genocide charges stick. But because sterilization was illegal in Brazil until 1996, Lavigne could be charged with committing bodily harm, Chavez says.

Lavigne's defenders point out the Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae in the past have made alliances with opposition political groups. Eickhoff even contends that the Indian leaders weren't real Indians but rather caboclos, a Brazilian word for mestizos.

After years of intermarriage, few Pataxo look very Indian. Although the tribe still performs rituals, the last Indian who spoke the language died last year.

That may be why they get little sympathy from the locals, who often are no better off. Many may have an Indian ancestor but no land they can lay claim to.

For years, the Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae have pushed their land claims patiently through Brazil's courts. Their leaders remain confident the tribe's land will eventually be returned, but they have little hope Lavigne will be punished.

"We know that nothing's going to happen to Lavigne," says Chief Wilson Jesus de Souza. "But at least we hope that by raising the alarm now, not he nor any other politician will ever do it again."

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