Deep in Brazil’s Amazon basin, indigenous peoples vie with gold prospectors and settlers for control of a rich and beautiful land.

The last minutes of 1999 are ticking away, and a crowd of thousands has gathered on the waterfront of the city of Macapá, capital of the northern Brazilian state of Amapá. To many, this is an almost mystical place: the precise spot where the Equator, the Amazon river and the Atlantic Ocean converge. Its original inhabitants called it “land where the rains begin,” but tonight the sky is clear and star-filled.

A large space has been kept clear in the plaza, and at one hour to midnight, a low chanting begins, accompanied by the haunting melody of a single flute. A group of 20 indigenous people in their traditional dress dance in formation around the square, stamping their feet in time to the music. They are dancing the turé, a traditional ritual of renewal. Tonight, they dance to welcome the new year and a new millennium according to the Christian calendar.

The men and women hail from Native communities in the interior of Amapá: Galibi and Palikur people from the region of Oiapoque; Waiãpi people from the border with Pará state; and Aparai and Wayana people from the Tumucumaque reserve. For many of the Natives and non-Natives at this gathering, this is a first-time encounter with people of the other culture.

For Native people, this is a chance to demonstrate the vibrancy and strength of their traditional ways. Five hundred years since the arrival of the Portuguese on these shores, indigenous societies are still caught between conflicting pressures of contact with outside society, the preservation of their ways of life and negotiation of a respectful, lasting relationship with the rest of Brazil.


Oiapoque is the country’s northernmost point -“the place where Brazil begins.” It’s a rich, beautiful land. Numerous rivers spring to life here, fed by tropical rains that in the wet season can last for days on end. To the east, in the direction of the Cassiporé river and the Atlantic Ocean, the landscape is typically savannah-like grasslands, dotted with swampy forest areas. The west is characterized by the dense tropical rainforest – terra firme — that makes up most of the Amazon basin.

Nearly 4,000 people of four main ethnic groups -Galibi, Karipuna, Palikur and Galibi-Marwono -are spread out in small villages throughout region, with a significant population in and around the city of Oiapoque, a settlement located at the frontier between Brazil and French Guyana. For decades now, the four groups have cooperated politically and meet every year to discuss common problems, make joint decisions and plan strategies to deal with the various authorities.

Over the years, the state and federal governments have demarcated three reserves for Oiapoque’s Indigenous peoples that together form a large

contiguous protected area. As with other Native groups around the country, the First Nations of Oiapoque have had to fight long and hard for official recognition of their traditional territories. “Land is everything to the Indian,” says Vitoria : Santos dos Santos, leader of Oiapoquc’s Native people. “The land is there to cultivate, for us to tread upon. Land is our daily existence. Land is liberty.”

Vitoria’s people coexist peacefully with the smaller non-Native urban population of Oiapoque. “There’s been a high level of aculturaçao (integration),” she explains. “We’re used to living with non-Indians, and they with us.”

That does not seem to be a matter of much concern to Vitoria. While the Aboriginal people of Oiapoque usually walk around in t-shirts, shorts and colourful cotton dresses, they still retain a strong link with their traditional culture. “We’re succeeding to live our way, without depending on anybody,” Vitoria says. She describes how they live off the land, much as they have always done, and survive off the fruits of the forest that have become the staple diet of many forest peoples — fresh-water fish; manioc, from which they make the ubiquitous farinha flour; tropical fruits like cupuaçu and acerola, which has more vitamin-C than the orange. Their diet also includes birds and small animals they hunt in the forest. Anything in excess of their own needs, they exchange in the city for goods they can’t produce themselves.

The Natives also participate actively in the public life of the region. In the ‘60s, a Karipuna became the first Native to be elected to municipal office; the current mayor of the municipality of Oiapoque is a Galibi-Marwono.

I met Vitoria Santos in Macapá, where she was accompanying a contingent of 500 Indians from Oiapoque to compete in the 5th annual Indigenous Games. Vitoria is a Karipuna from the aldeia (village) of Santa Isabel. Besides being president

of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Oiapoque (APIO), she is also cacique geral, which can be loosely translated as grand chief of the Oiapoque Indians, elected by the leaders of the various aldeias. “I resolve problems between the leaders and make decisions on behalf of everybody,” she says with a modest shrug. Vitoria has had her hands full for the last few days. This is the first time the games — organized in collaboration with the state government, which also finances the event — are not being held in Oiapoque. At the suggestion of APIO, the Games are being held in the capital, as part of a series of events leading up to this year’s big millennial celebrations. For Vitoria and the other caciques, this is a chance to show off the resilience of their culture and the pride they have in being Indian. They know all too well the stereotypes that persist in much of Brazil — of the uncivilized, drunken indios, constantly at war with each other and they’ hope that this display of athleticism, teamwork and the mixture of traditional skills and modem sports will help change some attitudes. She is heartened that, overall, the experience has been a positive one. Still, she worries about her people, especially the afternoons when they’ve had a few hours to spare between sporting events at the city waterfront, 3nd the contestants wander freely among the stores, open-air bars and restaurants.

Barely six years ago, Macapá was a rough and tumble frontier town, frequented by’ gold prospectors and the crews of the numerous river-boats that ply the rivers. A large proportion of the swiftly-growing city population are immigrants from the arid north-east, where most of the Native populations were wiped out centuries ago. For many of Macapá’s citizens, this is First Contact.

Indeed, most non-Native Brazilians have had little, if any, direct contact with Native people and culture, despite the crucial presence of the Indian in the collective psyche of the nation. Many Brazilians are descendants of the intermingling of the predominantly-male Portuguese settlers, the Native inhabitants, and African slaves. Yet Brazil’s remaining indigenous populations — about 200 distinct groups, most of them sprinkled throughout the vast interior of the country and Amazon forest — are relatively isolated from the rest of society.

Five hundred years later

The gradual exploration and settlement of the Amazon puts more of the remaining Native peoples in extended contact with non-Natives.

Contact often leads to conflict and violence as ever more settlers and commercial enterprises come in search of land, and as an increasing number of indigenous societies become aware of their legal rights and seek to enforce their claims to their traditional territories.

Despite the success of lands claims like the one won by the Natives of Oipaoque, many more Native groups are engaged in long-drawn fights for the recognition of their territorial and human rights.

In fact, the most negative reactions to the Indigenous Games have not been directed at the Natives themselves, but at the state government, for funding the event. A large number of the city’s elite feel bitterness toward the government for responding to Native demands for land, autonomy and a fair share of the state budget.

Joao Alberto Capibenbe is the governor of Amapá. He was first elected in 1994 on a platform of sustainable development, one that favoured the poor forest peoples — fishermen, rubber-tappers,

Native peoples. He believed it was possible to create long-term prosperity for the people of Amapá by drawing on traditional knowledge in forest management, environmentally sustainable production and economic structures that directly benefit the local communities.

Urban legend has it that at the newly-elected governor’s first meeting with Amapá’s indigenous representatives, he raised a glass with the traditional toast, “Saude” ~ “health.” “Health… and education,” replied one of the caciques.

Capiberibe has made good on his promises. His government has financed the construction of 14 bilingual schools throughout Oiapoque’s aldeias, and is building a rural health post on the Native reserves, the first in the region. He provides funding for indigenous projects and economic initiatives but leaves the Native leadership the autonomy to make decisions on how the money is spent. For Vitoria, this autonomy is one of the most important factors in the growing prosperity of her community: “We’ve worked hard for this. Our association is strong and we’re moving forward in our own way.” In Oiapoque, this has meant hiring local labour and using traditional techniques in the construction of the schools and other public buildings. They have also begun exporting farinha flour to neighbouring French Guyana, and have joined other Native groups in Amapá in the commercialization of traditional handicrafts.

But Capiberibe’s support of the Native people has come with a political price — a conservative backlash that is representative of the difficulty indigenous people all over Brazil face in trying to get the dominant society to support Native development. In a country where the politics is dominated by a ruling class with ties to the old military dictatorship, many of the most powerful people in the nation’s capitals portray Native peoples as squatters occupying a wealth of resources that rightfully belong to the whole nation.

It may not be official policy, but many of Brazil’s Native peoples still endure various types of state-sanctioned oppression. It comes in forms like the controversial Bill 1775- Introduced in 1995 by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the law has effectively stalled the settlement of hundreds of outstanding Native land claims.

Unfortunately, that’s not part of the official story being recounted in the hype surrounding the year 2000, which is being hailed as the 500th anniversary of the so-called Discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese mariner Pedro Alvares Cabral. Throughout the nation, events are being organized to commemorate this milestone in history, complete with “authentic” displays of Native imagery and culture to celebrate the nation’s diverse roots.

But not everyone is celebrating. Like Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas seven years earlier, Cabral’s arrival heralded five centuries of oppression, enslavement, assimilation and genocide of Brazil’s Native inhabitants. An estimated population of six million divided into 700 diverse nations in 1500 have been reduced to slightly more than 300,000 today with only 200 distinct groups left. They are submerged in a land of over 160 million people.

Around the country, Native people are boycotting the Discovery celebrations and trying to draw attention to the oppression that continues to play out on a smaller scale, especially in the Amazon. “All over Brazil, Indians are suffering,” Vitoria says. “They’re discriminated against and they have no support from the government.”

In the depths of the forest

Like many rivers in the Amazon, the Iratapuru River is bordered by jungle foliage so dense you can hardly see the river-banks for the trees. Most communities in the Amazon are located in narrow clearings along these rivers, where the canoe is the most common form of transportation. The most typical design is the slender, low-hulled dugout that Native peoples have been using for millennia. The solid, yet lightweight one-piece hull and shallow draught make it ideal for negotiating the countless cachoeiras — swift cataracts that break the rivers as they drop down towards sea level.

These rapids were major obstructions to the early Portuguese explorers in their large, heavy caravels and row boats. Entire Native communities fled up rivers like this to escape the slave hunts, using the cachoeiras as natural obstacles to block the advance of the marauding Europeans. They left behind their villages and crops, forced to start life from scratch in less hospitable territories. Along the way they often came into conflict with other Native groups whose traditional lands they had come to occupy.

For the most part, though, the impenetrability of the deepest Amazon has meant that many Native communities have remained isolated from the rest of Brazilian society for the greater part of 500 years. Most of the country’s indigenous peoples have only come into contact with the “white man” in the last two centuries. Even today, there are an estimated 40 groups in the depths of the Brazilian Amazon that have never had any direct contact with non-indigenous society.

As a result, many Native people live much as they have done since pre-European days, despite the proliferation of machetes and other manufactured goods that have long made their way through forest trade networks to even the most isolated communities. But geographical barriers do not stop the more adventurous and hardy sort — like the garimpeiros, or gold seekers — from penetrating ever deeper into the interior.

As we make our way up the river, guided around invisible rocks lurking just beneath the water’s surface by the practiced hand of our boat pilot, we pass one of these solitary garimpeiros heading downstream in his beat-up aluminum boat, which sits dangerously low in the water from the weight of a huge oil drum. His old two-stroke engine belches blue smoke into the otherwise pristine air. I’ve heard a lot about the garimpeiros and their history of contact with the Indians; most of it quite negative, and I’m curious to know if anything has changed.

We are bound for the community of Iratapuru, a cooperative of castanheiros (non-Native Brazil-nut gatherers and traditional forest dwellers), who also happen to be the de facto wardens of the Jari ecological reserve – 815,000 hectares of virgin Amazon forest that has been set aside for activities like castanha gathering and rubber-tapping.

We’ve been told that we would get to meet a six-member Waiãpi delegation scheduled to be paying a visit to this isolated community. The Waiãpi are the proud guardians of a large, recently-demarcated territory, whose southern extension is cut by the headwaters of the Iratapuru. The castanheiros live downstream from the Waiãpi.

If the tributaries of the Amazon are the lifeblood of the forest and its inhabitants, then the two peoples share the same pulsing vein. Yet, they have never met. The distance and numerous rapids make casual travel impractical, and neither group has had much reason to venture so far from home. Even the Waiãpi are expected to make the journey by truck, a hard day’s travel down the unpaved highways of Amapá’s interior.

Upon our arrival in Iratapuru, we learn that the Native delegation had been unable to leave the community as scheduled. Two children have died of chicken pox and more are sick from the highly infectious disease. A quarantine has been imposed by FUNAI, the National Foundation for the Indians.

FUNAI is the government body responsible for the welfare of the nation’s Native peoples, protecting the most isolated groups from contact with non-Natives, and trying to help others cope with the inevitable social upheaval. Despite a history with its share of controversy, FUNAI is now largely in the hands of Native people themselves. For many Indians, the agency is the only thing that lies in the way of conflict with non-Native settlers.

FUNAI takes its work very seriously, and no one will be allowed in or out of the Waiãpi territory until the crisis is contained. Disease is always a worrying prospect in the Amazon, even more so for the Native people than anyone else. Disease is thought to have been the cause of more deaths among the Native peoples than all other factors combined. The Europeans brought with them tuberculosis, smallpox, syphilis, influenza and even the common cold, for which most Natives have no natural immunity.

This legacy continues. As penetration of the Amazon increases, more Native people are coming into prolonged contact with brancos (“white people” in Portuguese). Wherever white man goes, disease seems to go with him.

Malaria is now one of the principal health concerns of Native people in the Amazon. Many of the gold-seeking garimpeiros bring the bacteria with them from the malaria-ridden northeast of the country and it spreads quickly, carried by the anopheles mosquitoes that swarm at dusk.

Quest for gold

Officially, nobody is allowed in Native territories without FUNAI’s permission. But the miners have little respect for the agency and the Native peoples it must protect.

Gold in the rich alluvial river deposits brings these tough entrepreneurs ever deeper into the forest.

It is estimated that thousands of illegal airstrips dot the Amazon, many in or near aboriginal lands. For many years, the federal government has done little to stop the miners, despite pressure from environmentalists and indigenous-rights advocates. The gold-seeking garimpeiros have a strong lobby in Brasilia, one which portrays them as rugged heroes contributing to the nation’s economic development.

Garimpeiros are not particularly renowned for their subtlety either and violence often accompanies their encroachment onto Native lands. But the 450 Waiãpi Indians of Amapá now have one of the most well-defined and protected territories in Brazil. Having expelled the miners and other invaders, they have staked out 603,000 hectares of their traditional lands, which were “homologized” (officially demarcated by the federal government) in 1996.

The garimpeiros now know enough to stay out of Waiãpi territory. With their lands protected under the law and by frequent boundary patrols, the Wafapi are enforcing their exclusive right to benefit from the resources on their lands. Determined not to go the way of many other Native communities that have suffered social and environmental devastation from the exploitation of the Amazon, the Waiãpi are looking for sustainable ways to tap the natural resources for the benefit of their communities. They are committed to economic development consistent with their traditional social and political organization, which have remained largely intact after only 20 years of significant contact with the outside world.

Ironically, the Wafapi have chosen small-scale gold prospecting as one of their principle economic activities, along with sustainable silviculture. They apply traditional techniques of resource management and continue to follow ages-old cycles of activity and seasonal rhythms.

Under the management of the Council of Communities (APINA), a governing body of the Waiãpi people, a dozen communities are developing their own sustainable commercial enterprises. They are also taking over responsibility of education and health, with funding from the state government.

But the Waiãpi are hardly isolationists. Now that their lands are protected, they are seeking out contact with the other peoples of the forest, like the castanheiros and traditional rubber-tappers. Like the Native people, they have learned to live with nature and realize that their future depends on the survival of the forests and rivers from which they extract their livelihood.

As a gesture of friendship and neighbourliness, the Wafapi have invited local castanheiros on an expedition to the uncharted inner passage of the Iratapuru. Somewhere along the river between their two worlds, they will meet. Both sides are hoping it will be the start of a long, lasting relationship built on mutual respect for the land and each other.

Beyond Brazil

Today, the Waiãpi are one of the Native groups with a fair degree of visibility in Brazil and even beyond. A number of them have become accomplished video directors. The Native Work Centre (Centro de Trabalho Indigenista) has given video equipment and training to the Waiãpi, which has helped them produce works about their lives and communities.

A number of Waiãpi productions were screened last year at the ninth Montreal Film and Video Festival, and Waiâpi directors have been invited to show their works in Europe and North America. It’s one important way that Native people in Brazil are defining themselves amidst a sea of representations from outsiders… this article included.

Natives in Brazil are also communicating and exchanging with each other. “As indigenous people, we feel united,” Vitoria says. “It’s like a big family, like an aldeia. It doesn’t feel any different.” I ask Vitoria if she knows anything about Native people in Canada. “Canada is part of the developed world; the Indians there must be better off than us.”

I wonder for a moment what she would think about Oka, Gustafsen Lake, suicide on Native reserves, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. But that would take more time than we have together, and I wouldn’t know where to begin. How do you even say “golf course” in Portuguese?

Instead, I ask her if she thought it would be good to meet with Canadian Native peoples and what message, if any, she might have for them. “Exchange between peoples is so important. You learn so many things, you evolve. We’re so far apart, but to be able to meet each other… that would be a great honour.”

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).