02 OCTOBER 2002:

From the
New York Times

October 1, 2002

A New Intrusion Threatens
a Tribe in Amazon: Soldiers


SURUCUCU, Brazil ˜ The Yanomami
Indians have lived precariously in the most remote reaches of the jungle
here for thousands of years, hunting with bows and arrows, and warring
among themselves and with the few white intruders who have appeared in
recent years.

    But now
they are facing a threat to their very existence as a people: the Brazilian

    As part
of a program to strengthen the military’s presence along Brazil’s vast
and largely undefended northern Amazon border, the Brazilian Armed Forces
are building new bases and expanding old ones in territories set aside
for the Yanomami and other tribes. As their numbers expand, soldiers are
increasingly getting Yanomami women pregnant, spreading venereal disease
and disrupting patterns of village life that have endured largely unchanged
since the Stone Age.

destruction has already begun,” Roberto Angametery, the village chief here,
lamented in an interview in the lodge where members of his community live
together. “The soldiers say they are here to protect us, but they have
brought diseases and taken our land without asking us. Soon there will
be more, and then what will we do? Where will we go?”

in the mid-1980’s, the military’s Northern Channel program was shelved
during a budget crisis more than a decade ago. But with the United States’
decision two years ago to provide more than $1.5 billion in military and
other assistance to neighboring Colombia, Brazilians fear that the conflict
there will spill over into their territory.

advocates, however, argue that the logic of the military expansion is dubious
here in Roraima State, which borders instead on Venezuela and Guyana.

armed forces are just seizing an opportunity to revive a program that has
long been desired but long lain dormant,” Egon Heck, executive secretary
of the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Roman Catholic church group, said
in an interview in Brasília, the capital. “There is nothing to justify
the construction of military bases in Roraima, because no concrete guerrilla
threat exists there.”

officials in the border region, at the headquarters of the Amazon Military
Command in Manaus and at the Army Chief of Staff office in Brasília
declined to discuss the issues that Yanomami leaders have raised, failing
to respond to two weeks of telephone calls, faxes and e-mail messages seeking

    In a
letter, however, the minister of defense, Geraldo Quintão, blamed
the tense situation here on what he called “a systematic and reiterated
campaign” on the part of Indians and advocacy groups “against the army,
which historically has always conferred a cordial treatment on the Indians.”

    He acknowledged
the existence of sexual relationships between soldiers and Indian women
but said he saw no need to intervene because they were “consenting relations”
between adults.

    “A relationship
that lasts two or three years is not sexual abuse,” Mr. Quintão
maintained. “It is natural that these relationships occur,” and “to block
them is to impede the fruit of human nature.”

    As perhaps
the most primitive of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, the Yanomami,
who number about 15,000 in Brazil and another 12,000 just across the border
in Venezuela, are especially vulnerable to the military effort. In his
recent book, “Darkness in El Dorado,” Patrick Tierney describes the Yanomami
as having been victimized repeatedly by miners, missionaries and anthropologists
since sustained contact with the outside world began in the 1960’s.

    The impact
of the increased military presence in Yanomami territory appears to have
been similar. According to Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman who serves
as a tribal spokesman, at least 18 children have already been born of sexual
liaisons between soldiers and Yanomami women: 5 here and 13 in Maturacá,
a Yanomami village about 250 miles southwest of here.

soldiers have women of their own, so why don’t they bring them along?”
he asked. “They should stop messing with our wives and daughters, and respect
our rights instead of abusing us.”

leaders here refused to allow interviews with the women involved, to avoid
further humiliation, they said. But in a videotaped deposition to the Human
Rights Commission of the Brazilian Congress last year, one woman about
18 years old said she had agreed to have sexual relations with a soldier
after he gave her thread and food as gifts.

    The couple
had sex in the barracks at the base here, the woman testified. “The sergeant
knew what was going on, but he did nothing,” she said through an interpreter.

    “It is
illegal under federal law for government employees to have sex at their
workplace, but that is what these soldiers are doing,” said Martinho Alves
da Silva, regional delegate for the National Indian Foundation, the government
agency in charge of indigenous affairs. “They are having sex with Yanomami
girls in the barracks, on top of cars, in the jungle, at waterfalls.”

    Mr. Alves
da Silva said he had complained to the army about such incidents, with
few results. “They tell us they have taken measures to stop that behavior
and opened an internal investigation,” he said. “We would like for federal
prosecutors to supervise that process, but they have been unable to do

    A four-day
visit here revealed few if any restrictions on fraternization between troops
and Indians. Yanomamis were observed playing soccer on the army base, and
soldiers would occasionally swim at a nearby waterfall that is also frequented
by the Yanomamis, including young women wearing only loincloths.

    For the
Yanomami, the sudden appearance of mixed-race children in their midst has
created a cultural quandary. The village here consists of only 143 people,
and has until now been racially homogenous, which is one of the requirements
for an Indian tribe to maintain its status under Brazilian law.

    If tribe
members intermarry with whites and the group becomes excessively acculturated,
its members run the risk of being reclassified as caboclos, as persons
of mixed white and Indian blood are called in Portuguese, and losing the
benefits and protections provided to indigenous peoples. For that reason,
the mixed-race children here are regarded not just as a source of shame
but also as a threat.

these children grow up, no one knows where their loyalties will lie,” explained
Ivanildo Wawanawetery, a Yanomami who works for the National Indian Foundation
as an interpreter. “They may want to follow the path of their fathers and
live with the whites, and then they will no longer be Indians.”

    In at
least one other case, near Maturacá, a soldier has announced his
intention to settle down with the mother of his child and move into the
village and live as a Yanomami. This, too, has caused consternation among
the Yanomami who, while not hostile to occasional visits from strangers,
clearly delineate between themselves and outsiders.

    Mr. Kopenawa
said that one particularly alarming result of sexual contact between soldiers
and Yanomami women was the introduction of venereal diseases, which had
not previously been reported in the tribe. “The soldiers have already brought
gonorrhea and syphilis with them, and we fear that if they continue to
have sex with Yanomami women, they will transmit AIDS,” he said.

Esteves de Oliveira, director of Urihi, a nonprofit group that provides
health care to the Yanomami under a government contract, acknowledged that
doctors have recently treated cases of gonorrhea in Yanomami villages here
and elsewhere.

    But he
said he lacked proof that the disease originated with soldiers, because
the Yanomami may have also had sexual contact with miners and employees
of the government’s Indian affairs agency.

    At the
same time, tribal leaders complain, the army is stepping up efforts to
recruit young Yanomami men as soldiers. Because the Brazilian military
has intensified its presence along the border, guides and scouts who know
the their way through the dense, trackless jungle are in greater demand,
and the Yanomami are clearly the best qualified to fill that crucial role.

elders worry, though, that the young men will return from their one-year
enlistments with the white man’s materialistic values and a sense of cultural
inferiority that will make it difficult for them to fit back into village
life. The few Yanomami who have come back from military service have already
become disruptive forces in their communities, leaders say.

by what they see as the threat the military poses to their identity and
culture, the Yanomami and other Indian groups are now seeking to block
the construction of new bases along the border. The focus of that effort
is Ericó, a Yanomami village north of here where virtually none
of the residents speak Portuguese or have had extended contact with whites.

    The Indians
have also filed a suit seeking the dismantling of a new base at Uiramutã
on the border with Guyana and another older base at Pacaraíma, on
the Venezuelan border. They argue that the military bases are unconstitutional
because they violate provisions granting Indians “exclusive use” of lands
designated for them.

military argues that national security is above Indian rights, but we don’t
think the Supreme Court will agree,” said Joenia Batista de Carvalho, a
Wapixana Indian who is a lawyer for the Roraima Indigenous Council. “But
we are prepared to go all the way to international courts if Brazil does
not respect rights of indigenous peoples that it has already recognized.”

    In the
meantime, the situation here is growing increasingly complicated. Fleeing
a conflict with a group of villages further north that has denied them
access to their traditional hunting grounds, one Yanomami community recently
moved to a site that is about 200 yards from the military base here.

the Yanomami look forward to the whites’ giving them food instead of going
hunting and tilling their fields,” Mr. Kopenawa said. “This is bad, like
a dog you feed every day. Everything is being ruined.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.