Wed, Sep 04, 2019 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Clash of cultures as Amazon cowboys close in on tribes


An Uru-eu-wau-wau woman walks out of a hut in the community’s reserve in Rondonia State, Brazil, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

As evening fell over their Amazon home, the hunter-gatherers of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people extracted bamboo arrows from the flank of a wild pig and began roasting it.

A few kilometers — and a world — away on the opposite side of the rainforest’s delicate existential divide, cowboys on horseback rounded up cattle at the outer reaches of a vast ranch.

“We have no problem with them,” said Awapy Uru-eu-wau-wau, the young chief of the 19-people forest community in central Rondonia State.

It is an uncommon expression of goodwill in an area where the worlds of rich landowners and indigenous tribes collide and jostle over the future of the planet’s largest rainforest.

The tribe’s resource-rich 1.8 million hectare native reserve — an area nearly twice the size of Lebanon — is under constant siege from landlords, timber traders, landowners and miners who rely on deforestation to exploit its bounty.

“I’ve been facing this invasion since I was 19 or 20, and these guys are threatening us, because we’re standing up to them,” said Awapy, 38. “I’m not afraid of risking my life. It’s the only way.”

The few hundred inhabitants of the reserve, divided into seven hamlets, have a long history of resistance.

To help surveil the forest and protect themselves, the self-styled guardians of nature mostly live along the boundaries of their territory, demarcated in the early 1990s.

Awapy’s village comprises half a dozen small dwellings, some of wood with a straw roof, others of cement with roofs of tile.

The five families there live almost entirely off the jungle, where they venture daily to hunt and when necessary, to see off invaders — often organized groups — in confrontations that often turn violent, he said.

In this area south of the town of Porto Velho, fresh clearings and grasslands are evident from the air, signs of ever-advancing deforestation often heralded by the wildfires which have reverberated on a global scale in the past few weeks.

The state’s absence from the ground has made areas like this a breeding ground for gangs and encourages occupation of land, which often ends up being integrated into cattle farms, non-governmental organizations have said.

Prosecutors have filed complaints against rural producers for having occupied, parcelled and sold land on the reserve and in other places.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau have argued that the invaders feel protected since the arrival in power in January of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has supported the opening up of protected lands to agriculture and mining activities.

He said at his inauguration that indigenous people needed to be integrated into society and not live in reserves “as if they were animals in a zoo.”

“It wasn’t like that in the past, but today, they are deforesting everything,” said Awapy, in his oca, or room used for family gatherings, surrounded by villagers lying in hammocks.

An hour-and-a-half away along a forest road, in the small town of Monte Negro, the agribusiness sector showed its muscle at a rodeo, where about 20 cowboys displayed their talent by riding bulls for as many seconds as they can.

Dressed in Stetson hats, blue jeans and cowboy boots, they work at some of the area’s vast cattle ranches that have cut into the forest over decades.

The spectators enjoyed the show and laughed loudly at an interlude sketch in which a clown chased a deer — a veado in Portuguese, which is also a disparaging term for homosexuals.

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