Ancient tribe vows fight to the death as Brazil pushes mining in Amazon

26 October 2017 - 07:27 By AFP
GREEN PEACE Waiapi tribesmen in the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state in Brazil. Their ancient way of life is under threat from international mining companiesPicture: Apu Gomes/AFP
GREEN PEACE Waiapi tribesmen in the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state in Brazil. Their ancient way of life is under threat from international mining companiesPicture: Apu Gomes/AFP

They appear silently, seemingly from nowhere: a dozen figures, naked except for bright red loincloths, blocking the dirt road.

These are the Waiapi, an ancient tribe living in Brazil's Amazon rainforest but now fearing invasion by international mining companies.

Leading reporters to a tiny settlement of palm-thatched huts hidden in foliage, the tribesmen streaked in red and black dye vow to defend their territory. They brandish 2m bows and arrows to reinforce the point.

"We'll keep fighting," says Tapayona Waiapi, 36, in the settlement called Pinoty. "When the companies come we'll keep resisting. If the Brazilian government sends soldiers to kill people, we'll keep resisting until the last of us is dead."

The Waiapi indigenous reserve is in pristine rainforest near the eastern end of the Amazon river. It is part of a much larger conservation zone called Renca.

Surrounded by rivers and towering trees, the tribe operates almost entirely according to its own laws, with a way of life at times closer to the Stone Age than the 21st century.

Yet modern Brazil is barely a few hours' drive away.

And now the centre-right government is pushing to open Renca to international mining companies who covet its rich deposits of gold and other metals.

In August, President Michel Temer ended mining restrictions in swaths of Renca, sparking an outcry from environmentalists.

Temer backtracked in September. However, the Waiapi, who were nearly wiped out by disease after being discovered by outsiders in the 1970s, remain terrified.

The rainforest, says 35-year-old Moi Waiapi, another inhabitant of Pinoty, "is the foundation for our survival".

The dirt road is the only route into Waiapi territory. Pinoty, where a few dozen people sleep in hammocks under roofs with open sides, is the first village - the frontier.

To get here requires several layers of authorisation, then a bumpy two-hour drive from the small town of Pedra Branca. The Amapa state capital Macapa, one of the most remote in Brazil, is several hours further.

By the time you reach Pinoty and a government sign reading "Protected Land", you are already well beyond cellphone reception, the electric grid, the last petrol station, and many Brazilian laws.

But for all the remoteness, the Waiapi have scant protection against the powerful forces that for decades have pushed industry and agribusiness deeper into the Amazon.

The road itself is a monument to those ambitions.

Known as the Northern Perimetral, Highway 210 was started under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship with the aim of linking Brazil to Venezuela.

Funding collapsed and the road was abandoned in the 1970s, literally stopping dead in the deep jungle.

Calibi Waiapi, another tribal villager, suspects that the government hopes one day to resurrect that dream of a thoroughfare through the wilderness.

"There'd be cars, trucks, violence, drugs, robberies. The culture would change. The young would want the cellphones, the clothes, the computers," the 57-year-old says.

"If a lot of white men came, it would be the end." 

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