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Amazon Indians in Brazil Fear That Blacktop Will Seal Their Fate

The Munduruku worry that loggers, farmers -- and modernization -- will come on the heels of a highway being built 30 miles away.

June 26, 2005|Alan Clendenning | Associated Press Writer

BRAGANCA, Brazil — By the slow-moving Tapajos River, monkeys murmur in the forest and Munduruku Indians with bows and arrows tiptoe along the riverbank, hunting turtles. Two boys fish for the family lunch, not even bothering with bait. To attract the piranha, they simply bang on the side of their boat.

It's a picture that suggests an Amazon idyll of life intertwined with nature. But in fact the Munduruku are caught between two worlds, and they fear that one may soon be trampled by the other.

A highway is being paved 30 miles away to speed soy crops to export markets. When that happens, the Indians worry, loggers and slash-and-burn farmers won't be far behind.

Unlike the more remote tribes that speak their own languages and practice ancient religions, the Munduruku in Braganca have been Roman Catholics and Portuguese-speakers for generations.

Tribal leader Fortunato Rocha wears a feathered headdress, jeans and a red T-shirt with an Indian-rights slogan: "Indigena!, Sim!" Or, "Indigenous! Yes!" Another leader, Edimilson dos Santos, sports Bermuda shorts and a necklace of jaguar teeth to scare away snakes.

Each day, double-decker river boats haul freight and people along the mile-wide Tapajos, bringing the influences of a modern industrial state to Braganca's three settlements. But it's still easier to travel the muddy road to the village on horseback than in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

There's no electricity, television or store. The closest phone is more than 10 miles away. But news travels fast. Arriving with a photographer after a bonejarring five-hour trip, a reporter was promptly informed that Pope John Paul II had just died. The villagers had heard about it on their battery-powered radios.

The next day, they held a Mass in their tiny church festooned with woven palm garlands. They sang hymns to the beat of a single drum carved from rain forest wood, and mourned a pope they considered an ally of the Indians and the rain forest.

"With the pope dead, things are getting complicated," Rocha said.

"We still have an abundance from the forest," he said as he barbecued fish, using a wood fire because his family had run out of the bottled gas for their ancient cooking range. "But we have to take care of it, and the road could bring a lot of threats that will ruin our society: People, drugs, prostitution."

A paved road could bring modern comforts like phones and electricity, but the Indians believe that the downside outweighs the advantages.

The highway, called BR163, is already accelerating development along its shoulders, and the Indians fear for the forest that provides them with their food, building materials and natural medicine.

"The trees give us fruit, they help make the rain that gives us water and they shelter the animals," dos Santos said. "When farmers and ranchers come, they destroy the forest for profit. But the only thing we have is nature, and we have to protect it to use it."

Loggers have selectively cut many of the 75-foot-tall Itauba trees that the Munduruku use to fashion canoes. Forest outside traditional Munduruku land has been burned down to make way for cattle.

A small river feeding into the Tapajos, which in turn joins the Amazon, has dropped more than three feet over the last several decades. The Indians believe that deforestation is reducing rainfall.

The short, dark-skinned Munduruku worry that pieces of their culture could evaporate as tall, European-descended Brazilians arrive eating different food, drinking bitter herbal mate tea instead of super-sweetened coffee, speaking a different-sounding Portuguese.

"When something new comes, people want to try it: to become blond; a new drink, new slang," said Milenilda Rocha, 23. The daughter of a tribal leader, she lives 44 miles from Braganca, in the city of Santarem on the Amazon River, where she is training to be an Indian rights activist.

As night falls and the forest quiets down, the Munduruku leaders gather in a communal building illuminated by kerosene lamps. They nod appreciatively as dos Santos speaks of his nightmare vision of the jungle giving way to endless, orderly fields of soy.

"These soy farmers poison the soil with fertilizer," he said. "Our Amazon is being destroyed by people who don't realize what a treasure it is."

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