Saturday, October 28, 2017 by Frances Bloomfield
An ancient Amazonian tribe has sworn to fight against the international mining companies intent on destroying their home for gold and other precious metals.
Known as the Waiapi, the members of this group are easily distinguished by their red loincloths, and the red and black dye streaking the skin of the tribesmen. Although modern Brazil is just a few hours away by car, they adhere to their own laws and to a way of life that has remained largely unchanged. What the Waiapi call home is an area close to the eastern end of the Amazon, an indigenous reserve part of the massive conservation zone Renca.
It’s this enormous plot of land that the center-right government is pushing to open to mining corporations. Brazilian President Michel Temer had announced a decree last August to end mining restrictions and abolish the Renca reserve. The announcement sparked outrage from conservation groups and environmentalists. Temer has since backtracked on his decree, but the Waiapi remain wary. (Related: Amazing discovery resembling Stonehenge found in Amazon rain forest)
Their first chance meeting with outsiders very nearly wiped them out. Following an encounter with “the white man” in the early 1970s, the Waiapi were exposed to disease that brought their numbers down to a record low of 151 people in 1973.
“We’re fighting for this never to happen again,” said 80-year-old chief Tzako Waiapi. “That’s what I tell my children, my grandchildren, my people. We’re ready for war now. We’ll never retreat.”
“We’ll keep fighting,” echoed Tapayona Waiapi, a 36-year-old tribesman from the Pinoty settlement, where an illegal mine was discovered in May and shut down. “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.”
Wielding poisoned arrows and a six-foot bow, he added: “If Temer comes here, anywhere near me, this is what he’ll get.”
In addition to opening up the reserve for mining operations, a few of the Waiapi suspect that the government also has intentions of continuing the Northern Perimetral. The highway, which was originally constructed as a means to link Brazil to Venezuela, was abandoned after funding ran out. The Northern Perimetral cuts through the Waiapi’s territory and stops 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) short of its goal, yet remains an ominous presence to this day.
“There’d be cars, trucks, violence, drugs, robberies. The culture would change. The young would want the cellphones, the clothes, the computers,” said 57-year-old Calibi Waiapi of the changes the finished Northern Perimetral would bring. “If a lot of white men came, it would be the end.”
Although the Waiapi have access to shotguns, they prefer to use bows and arrows. “These are our weapons so that we are not dependent on non-Indian weapons,” explained Aka’upotye Waiapi, 43, as he carved a new bow.
While many of the Waiapi are prepared to die protecting their home, other members believe that the solution lies in politics. Jawaruwa Waiapi, 31, is one of those people. As the first Waiapi to hold a political post in the Brazilian government, he has said that politics is the key to the tribe’s survival.
“Today we don’t have to fight with arrows or clubs. We have to fight through knowledge, through politics. This is our new weapon,” he said.
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