UIRAMUTA, Brazil (AP) -- In an era when so many ethnic groups are fighting
for a homeland, a group of Amazon Indians says they don't want theirs.
Four Indian tribes in a remote corner of the northern Amazon have been
fighting for 30 years for recognition of their claim to the land. But just when it
seemed their battle for a reservation was won, some members of the tribe
began speaking out against it.
The debate over the proposed 1.6-million-acre Raposa-Serra do Sol
reservation has split tribes and even families over their relations with white
civilization and the path they should follow into the next century. But the
disagreement, finally, comes down to money.
Mining the land's wealth
On one side are the pro-reservation Indians, who disdain settlers and say
the land is rightfully theirs. On the other side are those who say the area
is loaded with natural resources, including diamonds. They fear a
reservation would make it harder to unearth the land's wealth.
"Having the area declared a reservation means the white people
would have to go, and that you couldn't take out the lumber or even dream
of mining," says Ze Novaes Pereira da Silva, the son of Macuxi chief Jose
Macaranduba. "That's like giving me a house but saying I can't use the
bathroom or the silverware."
It's easy to tell which side Ze Novaes is on. In blue jeans, baseball cap,
checkered shirt and big shiny watch, all bought with his salary as the mayor's
chief of staff, he could almost pass for a prosperous white settler.
But across the river that separates the town of Uiramuta from the Indian
village, his older brother Orlando takes a bleaker view of white culture. For
him, the settlers who arrived in the 1950s searching for diamonds and gold
brought nothing but alcoholism and misery.
'They are invaders'
Orlando sits shirtless in front of his grass-roofed hut and looks
disdainfully at the 50-odd houses that comprise Uiramuta.
"That was our prayer house over there," says Orlando, who inherited
the post of chief from his 102-year-old alcoholic father. "They
say I gave them permission to build. Negative. They are invaders."
The four tribes -- the Ingarico, Macuxi, Taurepang and Wapixana -- have
about 12,000 members. The land those like Orlando claim as their own lies
along Brazil's border with Guyana, 2,250 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.
Last December, it seemed the pro-reservation contingent had won. But
before President Fernando Henrique Cardoso could sign a decree creating
the reservation, local politicians obtained a court order blocking it.
Surprisingly, some of the loudest critics of the reservation were Indians.
Many argued they didn't want as much land as the federal government said
they were entitled to.
Those Indian groups have urged demarcating the reservation in a way that
would keep the road open and allow the settlers to stay.
Claiming to speak for the majority, the Indians say they lived peacefully
alongside the settlers until foreign Catholic missionaries arrived in the early
"No one even cared about demarcation until the Italians (priests) arrived
started all the trouble," said chief Damiao Marques. "Italy and Germany
want the area for the diamonds and gold."
Marques says he is afraid that if the area is designated as native territory,
will somehow cease being part of Brazil and become vulnerable to foreign
And local politicians argue that with 42 percent of Roraima state occupied
by Indian reservations the mineral wealth is needlessly locked up,
discouraging further development.
"Who's going to invest in an indigenous area?" asks Wilson Jordao Mota
Bezerra, Uiramuta's 28-year-old mayor, the son of a white prospector and a
But Jerome Pereira da Silva of the Roraima Indigenous Council, which leads
the pro-reservation forces, says such arguments are nonsense. He says the
Indian groups that oppose demarcation are a small minority, with many --
like Ze Novaes -- on the government payroll in some way.
And Orlando, Ze Novaes' pro-reservation brother, says indigenous
ownership won't necessarily stop development. It will just leave it up to the
Indians to decide.
"Between Indians we can discuss and resolve things. Between Indians and
whites, that's very complicated," he says. "The white man is always looking
to expand his house. We can still do business, just with the white people
over there and us over here."
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.