Too Many Chiefs, Not Enough Indians

A disastrous military project in the northern Amazon will destroy some of the most pristine forests on earth.

By George Monbiot. Published in Elle magazine.

The captain had been drinking for three days. Now he was stuck in his wheelhouse, too fat and too intoxicated to leave his chair. We had stopped at a riverside village for some of the passengers to disembark, and several men had left the boat to roister with the villagers. As the captain waited for them to return he finished a bottle of rum. A storm broke over us and the sixty Tukano Indians on board crowded below decks.

When the other drunkards returned to the boat, Captain Siqueira started the motor and reversed downriver to get clear of the rocks, weaving jaggedly. There was a thud and the boat stopped. The people below decks fell silent. I heard only the rain, which poured like gravel onto the roof. Then a groan shuddered through the hull and the boat settled into the water, like a bull dropping to its knees. “We’re sinking”, someone shouted, and for the third time in six months I prepared to make my peace with God in the Brazilian Amazon.

I had travelled up the River Uaupes into the middle of the lands of the Tukano Indians, to see the project which threatens to become one of the greatest causes of the Amazon’s destruction. The Brazilian armed forces are attempting to open the entire northern border of Brazil to development, bringing roads, mines, sawmills and settlements to the 20% of the rainforests which have hitherto been least disturbed.

Until the Calha Norte – or northern channel – project began, nearly all of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon had taken place along the southern frontier. North of the River Amazon destruction had scarcely begun. To the defenders of the forests the northern wildernesses were the heartlands in which their hopes of saving much of the Amazon were vested. To the armed forces they were an obstacle impeding the development of what they considered to be a civilised society.

In 1985, in total secrecy, the government agreed to the military plan to build a highway 6500 kilometres long, around the entire northern border of Brazil. The road was to be accompanied by settlements of ranchers and peasants. Businessmen were to be invited to invest in the extraction of timber and minerals. These developments, the armed forces claimed, would help to secure the northern border against invasion and integrate a region which had few physical or cultural connections with the remainder of Brazil. The Calha Norte project appeared destined to bring to the northern forests a catastrophe of the sort inflicted on the lands to the South of the River Amazon. Then it met an obstacle: the Tukano people of the north-western Amazon.

Unlike some of the other Indians of the northern frontier, the 18,000 Tukano in Brazil have been in contact with outsiders for more than one hundred years. They have suffered in the past from the attentions of slavers forcing them to extract rubber from their forests and missionaries attempting to destroy their traditions, replacing them with the customs of the whiteman. They have learnt, as a result, what the strengths and weaknesses of outsiders are, and how, by craft and confrontation, they can exploit them.

The Tukano Indians emerged from the horrors of fundamentalism and slavery significantly changed. They wear clothes, live in individual houses, drink too much alcohol, and are in most cases literate, numerate and fluent in Portuguese. They have lost their traditional music and dancing, but they still fish and hunt and gather from the forests as their ancestors did; take care not to damage their resources; and maintain much of the communality which means that no one in their territory stays hungry or lonely for long.

When the soldiers administering the Calha Norte project arrived in the forests of the Tukano, they had intended to drive their perimeter road straight through the 4.8 million hectares of their traditional territory. They took 60% of the Tukano’s lands – describing them as “National Forest”, in which approved development could take place – and they planned the installation of barracks, ranches and mines. They did not know what they were dealing with.

I first met the Tukano leaders in March 1990, in the town of Sao Gabriel de Cachoeira on the banks of the upper Rio Negro, just outside their territory. Sixty-four of them had just emerged from a meeting with some civil servants sent by the federal government in Brasilia. The chiefs had, by all accounts, confounded them.

The Tukano leaders had learnt by heart the relevant passages of the Brazilian Constitution and a series of presidential decrees. They had outwitted the civil servants at every turn, proving that the armed forces’ plans for the region were illegal. The officials had returned to Brasilia in a hurry, promising to review their case.

Elated by their triumph, the chiefs were now returning to their families upriver. They had hired a boat from the most drunken and salacious of all the villainous captains on the waterfront in Sao Gabriel. They invited me to join them and I accepted immediately. Entry into the Calha Norte zone was illegal for foreigners without permission: among the sixty-four chiefs on the boat I was confident that I could slip past the army sentries.

The journey up the River Uaupes bore testimony to the presence of too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Beset by contradictory instructions, we stopped and started, unloaded cargo which should have stayed on board, and returned the possessions of departing passengers to the hold. Befuddled by all this, Captain Siqueira simply sat in his wheelhouse and drank. By the time he crashed the boat he was so pissed that he found the incident amusing.

By good fortune everyone reached the shore without loss of life. The captain had to be dragged, and when he reached the riverbank he sat on the edge of the forest in the thunderstorm, laughing. We spent a terrible night – wet, shocked and sleepless – in some broken down huts on the outskirts of the village.

The boat stuck to the rock on which it had foundered, and in the morning some of the men managed to pull it to shore, patch the holes and mend the engine. We resumed the journey and the captain kept drinking. I travelled upriver until we reached the village of Taracua.

Taracua, as I saw from the river, lies in the shadow of the Church. A chapel the size of a cathedral and two church schools overhung the thicket of mud huts thatched with palmleaves. The church seemed designed to intimidate rather than enrapture. It loomed in white above the soft darkness of the jungle, the black figure of Christ between the belltowers holding out his arms as if about to swoop upon the village.

The Salesian missionaries who built these monuments have now lost control of their flock. In 1980 the Tukano leaders, determined to stop the destruction of their culture and the imposition of foreign beliefs, took their case to the Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas in the Netherlands and won. Now the missionaries stay in their territory on sufferance. Partly in response to the Tukano’s demands, partly by means of internal reforms, most of them are now fighting for the Indians against the institutions – the army, the government and the orthodox Church – they once defended.

I stayed in the house of one of the best-known leaders in the region, Manoel Moura, who has since become president of the principal indigenous association in the Brazilian Amazon. He and the other villagers explained the traditions they had retained, and the significance of the threats to their way of life.

Manoel Moura told me that his people take pains never to cut the forests which flood when the rivers rise. The Tukano eat more fish than any other indigenous group in the Amazon. During the wet season the fish feed in the flooded forest, where the Indians stalk them with harpoons and baited lines. If the forests were removed the fisheries would fail.

On the tumps of high ground amid the flooded forests, by contrast, and on the plateaus of the interior, the people grew manioc in forest clearings. Manioc – or cassava – is a plant developed by the Amazonian Indians. Not only has it adapted to thrive on soils on which no other staple crop can grow well, but the Indians have bred it to weed itself and to produce its own pesticide. Ants, attracted by sugar glands on the stem, cut off strangling vines, and the tubers are suffused with cyanide. The Indians can wash it out, but it kills pests immediately.

When a birth or a wedding is to be celebrated, the hosts harvest their manioc, catch one of the migratory catfish which shoal in the River Uaupes, and gather fruits, frogs, turtle eggs and other delicacies from the forest. In a clay urn they brew a mild beer, and they bake a special manioc bread, flavoured with the seeds of the umari palm. A bamboo horn is used to summon neighbours from along the river, and the feast can last for days.

The armed forces’ Calha Norte project had been encouraging both the Indians and outsiders to cut down the flooded forest and replace it with cattle pastures. The land could support cattle for two to three years, after which the grass would fail and the stock would die. The forest might never be able to return. To the irritation of the government’s Indian protection agency, which could not understand why the Indians should turn down the opportunity to become cattle farmers, the Tukano had refused. They had, so far, managed to keep outsiders from starting ranches in their territory.

The greater battle, however, was being fought over the uplands, on which they grew their manioc. Most of this territory had been taken by the army, and nineteen Brazilian mining companies, some of them simply operating fronts for foreign capital, had applied to prospect for minerals. Already substantial reserves of niobium, gold, tin, aluminium and a radioactive mineral whose deadly properties had long before been recognised by the Indians had been found, and the Tukano were now fighting to keep the companies out. In the west the ParanaPanema company, famed for its disregard of Indian rights, had been granted some of their territory and was mining gold. The Indians who lived there had to ask permission to enter the forest to hunt and fish.

The Tukano explained to me that if the mining companies annex the uplands they will starve. Their population is as high as the land can support. If there were less forest they would be forced to exhaust their resources.

Calha Norte was also trying to reverse the advances the Tukano had achieved in health and education. The Indians had persuaded the missionaries to upgrade the surgeries they ran, and to allow the villagers to start teaching the Tukano view of the world in the mission schools, to complement the orthodox subjects. They had introduced classes in story telling, dancing, singing, crafts and the Tukano language.

The generals regarded this as subversion, a means by which the Tukano could retain their distinction from the other people of Brazil. They were now trying to persuade the government to expel the missionaries the Tukano had converted. Their attempts to replace the mission hospitals with rival health posts were risible: the post they had built in Taracua was staffed by an illiterate girl with no training. The Indians, trusting only the missionaries, refused to visit it. So the army had applied to the government to shut the hospital.

The Tukano claimed that the armed forces harboured only the worst intentions towards them. While I was in Brazil the army minister announced in parliament that the culture of the Indians “is very low and – I will say it with all courage – not respectable.” A little later the main military training college published a treatise suggesting that the government might have to resort to “the extreme expedient of war” to overcome such obstacles to development as groups campaigning for the environment and Indian rights.

This might go some way towards explaining what the real purpose of the Calha Norte project might be, for it seems to have little to do with its professed concerns about security. The only significant threats with which the armed forces justified the inauguration of their fantastically expensive scheme were Guyana and Suriname, two countries to the north of Brazil. These sleeping giants have a combined population smaller than that of the Brazilian armed forces, and neither can muster a combat aircraft or even a tank.

In truth Calha Norte appears to have less to do with protecting the border than with the maintainance of the armed forces’ power in northern Brazil and the imposition of the sort of developments which make money for developers while obliterating the people being developed. The only security problems on the northern frontier are those which have emerged as a direct result of the Calha Norte project, like the invasion of Venezuela by the Brazilian miners which the armed forces had allowed into the territory of the Yanomami Indians, and the increased traffic of drugs resulting from the establishment of airstrips and settlements close to the border.

After three days in Taracua I was taken upriver to see some of Calha Norte’s installations, by a small man with enormous ears whom the missionaries had christened Geraldo da Silva. On the boat he told me how the Tukano had first arrived in their territory, travelling from the sea in the belly of an enormous snake. We were passed, as he spoke, by a pair of pink river dolphins. I asked Geraldo if the Tukano had any legends about them.

“No, none at all.”

“Because down on the River Solimoes I’ve heard that the people say that the dolphin – the boto – comes out of the water at certain times of the year, disguised as a handsome man in a white suit, and that it’s he who is responsible for pregnancies before marriage.”

“Oh yes,” Geraldo replied, “he does that here as well. Mind you, I don’t believe it is the boto all the time. Sometimes I think it is someone pretending to be the boto.”

When we disembarked Geraldo showed me the road the army had built, in the face of Indian opposition, between two villages. Some of the land beside it had been cleared of forest. When I asked why he said that he was taking me to see a man who could tell me how the Tukano had stopped the construction of a barracks, two ranches and a highway.

In a meeting house in the village of Urubuquara I was introduced to an old chief with a broken up face, surrounded by the other men of the community. He explained that the people’s greatest problem had been the fact that Calha Norte had been planned in total secrecy: the armed forces had refused to let them know what the fate of their lands was to be. At length the Indians had decided to set a trap for them.

The army had left all the fuel for its helicopters in drums in the village of Urubuquara, which it had chosen as its filling point. One night the Indians rolled the barrels into the forest and hid them, covering the tracks they had made. For three days helicopters came down to Urubuquara, landed, failed to find the fuel and took off again. On the fourth day a bigger helicopter arrived, carrying the battalion commander and a detachment of military police. They took hold of the Indians and demanded to know where the fuel was.

“Well, we were pretty calm,” the chief recounted, “as we knew that if they did anything to us our association would make an enormous fuss. So we told them they could have the helicopter fuel, once they had said what they were doing. They were furious! But we made them sit down for five hours and tell us all about Calha Norte.”

The officers told them that a barracks and two ranches were to be installed beside the road between the two villages, and that a new highway was to be built from there to the Colombian frontier. With this knowledge the Indians were able to launch a campaign to stop these developments, and they threatened to take the battalion commander to court. After only a few hectares of the forest beside the road had been cleared, the plans were dropped.

The associations the Tukano have formed are taking advantage of the financial difficulties that Calha Norte, in common with other government-funded projects, is now suffering. They have been lobbying the government and campaigning through the Brazilian media to regain the lands the armed forces have taken from them, and to make them part of an eight million hectare reserve in the north-western Amazon. If they succeed they will not only protect their own forests and livelihoods, but set an invaluable precedent in the fight to defend the other threatened lands of the northern frontier. At the moment it appears that they could win. The money people in Britain are raising to support their cause could do more than any other fund to keep the world’s greatest repository of life off the rocks.