Four hundred and fifty
The Awá possess a complex cultural and symbolic universe; we can't afford to lose them
If you liked the Hollywood movie Avatar, and felt the child's horror at the destruction at the destruction of that leafy, innocent paradise; or even if you thought it was a cheesy exercise in digital effects and sentimentality (I liked it), you ought to know that it falls far short of the truth. Things like this go on every day. Let's look at one particular case.
The Awá are a wandering, hunting-and-gathering people who live in the forest in northeastern Brazil. Near their ancestral lands is the mine of Carajás, with an estimated seven billion tons of iron ore, which is carried off in mile-long trains, some 900 kilometers to the Atlantic coast.
Upon the construction of this railway, which passes through the indigenous lands, large numbers of Awá were "sedentarized" in settlements, with unfortunate results, many of them dying of introduced diseases. At that time a reserve was created: a tract of jungle in which the Awá people might pursue their traditional wandering life.
However, as is naturally the case with such territories, this one is at the end of the world, a remote jungle where the law barely reaches. What does reach this place, thanks to the railway, is mala gente, the lawless element. Cattlemen, and above all, loggers have been burning and cutting down the habitat of these wandering people.
There are only about 450 Awá left, but their territory now contains as many as 4,500 intruders. And the long bows and arrows they possess are of little use against the despoilers' firearms. They are the most threatened tribe on the planet, according to the NGO Survival International, which has taken up the Awá's desperate case to slow, at least, their imminent extinction.
Two months ago they started a campaign with the actor Colin Firth, who says: "There is a man who can stop what is happening: the justice minister of Brazil. But it's just not his priority. Let's push it up his list." They have collected over 31,000 signatures so far - not many, for a case so flagrant. But it does seem to have made an impression on the politicians of the Brazilian government's Indigenous Affairs Department, who have now declared the Awá to be a priority.
But will the Brazilian bureaucracy act quickly and strongly enough? Will they send protection to the territory? Will it arrive soon enough to stop the extinction of a people, a culture, a memory, a past, a vision of life, a system of thought?
A few weeks ago the rainy season ended, and the loggers have since returned. The devastation appears to have reached a critical point where 30 percent of the reserve has been cut down, though it is all legally protected. Sinister columns of smoke are rising from it. August 9, the International Day of Indigenous People, was celebrated while this was going on.
Survival has created an intelligent and beautiful page on the Awá. Instead of presenting a more or less accusatory narrative, as I have done in this article, what it does is show what these people are actually like. We are told of their intimate, harmonious relation with their vegetable and animal environment: for example, how they live with pet animals of a variety of species, which the mothers breast-feed as their own children and which then form part of the family, but also how the Awá hunt and live, what names they have - in short, their reality.
They are an ancient people, and the fact that they live in a preindustrial age does not mean that they are mentally simple. The Awá possess a complex cultural and symbolic universe; like so many other tribes, they are an element of human biodiversity that we cannot afford to lose.
Visit www.survivalinternational.org/awa. As well as seeing the fine videos prepared by Survival, you can add your signature to the letter intended to spur the Brazilian authorities into action. Let's hope we can collect a good deal more than 31,000.