ON the forested western edge of Maranhao state in north-east Brazil lives the Awá tribe. One of only two nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes left in Brazil, the Awa have long lived in this area, which lies between the equatorial forests of Amazonia and the drier savannas to the east. They are the most threatened tribe in the world.
The Awá spend their days hunting for game such as peccary, tapir and monkey, with 6ft bows made from the irapa tree and gathering forest produce such as babacu nuts and acai berries. Vultures, bats and the three-toed sloth are forbidden as prey for eating. They nurture orphaned animals as pets, share their hammocks with raccoon-like coatis and split mangoes with green parakeets. Awa women even breast-feed capuchin and howler monkeys and have also been known to suckle small pigs.
At night, the Awa travel with torches made from tree resin, carrying the embers of a fire as they move from one hunting ground to another. And when the moon is full, the men – hair speckled white with king vulture down – in a chant-induced trance – commune with forest spirits, during a sacred ritual lasting till dawn. Their existence is one of intimate connection with the forest, which provides food, shelter and spiritual solace.
Towards the end of the 1960s, geologists discovered that the world’s richest reserves of iron ore lay under the soil, and the US, Japan, World Bank and EEC, as it was then, loaned billions of dollars to Brazil to finance the extraction, in return for exports of minerals. The Greater Carajas Programme was devastating for the environment and its indigenous peoples: a mammoth agro-industrial complex consisting of a dam, tarmac roads, aluminium smelters using timber from the forest, cattle ranches, and a 560-mile long railway that cut through the Awa’s territory on its way to the coast; the Awá blame the railway for bringing thousands of invaders into their lands and scaring off the animals they hunt. And at its heart was an open-air iron mine so big it could be seen from space.
This week, a protest involving the Awá has forced the world’s largest iron ore mine to suspend operations along its main railway line. On Tuesday 4th October 2012, hundreds of Indians including the Awá, took to the tracks of Vale’s Carajás railway to voice their opposition to Brazilian government plans that could weaken their land rights, if legalized.
Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said, ‘This protest shows that for tribes like the Awá, land rights are make or break.’