People gathered in a circle three-deep to listen. “The loggers have burned our forests,” Xiperendija continued. “All the animals- tortoise, monkeys, peccaries- are dying off. Our fruits have all burned. We need help.”
I said I had some to hear their concerns and share them with readers far and wide. Marco Lima grabbed my pen and held it aloft. “You see this pen?” he shouted for all to hear. “This is scott’s weapon. With this he will tell the world about the Awa!”
“Do you want to see the Awa weapons?” Xiperendija replied. He barked a command to the crowd. People vanished into their huts. Moments later they returned-men an d women alike- brandishing long bows and clutches of arrows with fire-hardened bamboo points. “See?” Xiperendija said. “These are our weapons.”
Many FUNAI officials agree with the Awa: The government seems to be deliberately starving the agency of funds. “FUNAI doesn’t have the resources to do its job,” said one supervisor who asked not to be named. “It’s like a patient in intensive care.”
The cutbacks to FUNAI’s budget have left the lonely hilltop post guarding the main entrance to the 450-square-mile Awa Indigenous Land staffed with a skeleton crew of only three unarmed civilians. This territory is home to roughly a hundred Awa, including a few small bands of uncounted nomads.
Marco and I followed a washed-out road leading down from the guard post. Here and there rusting hulks of bulldozers littered the roadside, left behind in 2014 when army troops expelled loggers and settlers who had invaded the reserve en masse. At the bottom of a long hill, we entered the intended target of those powerful machines, a silent world of deep shadows and dazzling shafts of light split by a canopy of towering trees and thick lianas. Macaws shrieked in the distance, their calls punctuated by the shrill cry of a screaming piha bird.
When I mentioned the abandoned bulldozers, Viana nodded gravely. “They removed 3000 invaders from the territory,” he said, recalling the 2014 expulsions. “Whites had arrived very close to here- it eas very dangerous.” The evictions stirred bitter resentment in nearby towns such as Sao Joao do Caru. For months afterward, Viana couldn’t show his face there. “I was um homem marcado,” he said. A marked man.
He showed us into five-room building that served as his quarters and as an improvised clinic for a pair of government health workers. A stream of Awa patients-young women in flower-print dresses breastfeeding infants, men in loose- fitting T-shirts and flip-flops-wandered out through an open door in the back.
Despite the incursions by outsiders, Viana said, Juriti remained in many ways the most sheltered of the four settled Awa communities. The elder generation among its 89 residents- men and women in their 50s and 60s- were brought here from a succession of FUNAI contact expeditions in the 1980s and 1990s. They’ve spent most of their lives in the bush, and the men especially still feel most at home there.
The men return from their forays with deer, peccaries, and tapirs. On the veranda, before a small crowd, an elder named Takya performed an astonishing imitation of the deep, throaty growls of a howler monkey. The Awa use such calls to lure animals while on the hunt- part of a vast storehouse of knowledge that has ensured the tribes survival for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Perhaps nowhere is that legacy more threatened than in the Arariboia reserve. Not even with support of environmental police have the valiant efforts of TAINAKY Tentehar and the Forest Guardians been able to halt the logging scourge.
Isolated Awa nomads had been spotted dangerously close to a major road, and it was feared that forced contact-a last resort-might be required to save them.
“The idea of no contact continues,” said Bruno de Lima e Silva, the department’s Maranhao coordinator, seeking to dispel rumors that the post signaled a shift in FUNAI policy. He said it was simply part of a contingency plan.
The Awa show no signs that they’re ready to give up living in the wild, Lima said. At least for now they appear to be healthy, and they’re having children, a strong indicator of a sense of security. “If they wanted contact, they would reach out.”
On my last day in Brazil, photographer Charlie Hamilton James and I chartered a bush plane out of Imperatriz to do an overflight of the Arariboia reserve with Bruno Lima. Soon we were passing over undulating ridgelines that receded into the distance in a bluish gray haze. Scorched trees stood alone in smoldering fields.
Up ahead loomed the wooded hills at the center of the reserve. The aircraft banked sharply, and we looked down on the jungle canopy-a fantastically mottled quit of rich greens and muted browns punctuated by brilliant yellow bursts of flowering ipe trees. Somewhere down there were the isolados. Perhaps they stopped at the sound of the droning aircraft and were peering up at us through the trees.
“Look!” Lima said, pointing down into the forest. “A loging road!” at first I didn’t see it, but then there it was, a brown strip snaking along a hillside, disappearing beneath a cluster of trees, then reappearing a short way on. “The loggers are perfecting the crime of timber theft,” Lima said over the roar of the aircraft.
“They make roads under the canopy that are hard to see.” He looked out the window, then continued: “Municipalities all around the indigenous lands depend on timber. All the local power elites are involved, directly or indirectly, in the criminal activity,” (Local politicians take issue with that assessment, arguing that enforcement efforts have already brought the illegal logging business its knees.)
Reaching the northeastern limits of the reserve on our overflight, we caught sight of a white-cabbed truck bouncing along the serpentine trail. Its flatbed was loaded with timber, like some predatory insect hauling prey back to its nest. And as it moved east toward the sawmills beyond the reserve, I could see nothing that stood in its way.