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#15 The Decimation of the Amazon Indians

Draft of an  entry on the decimation  of the Amazon Indians for a forthcoming three-volume encyclopedia on genocide and crimes against humanity, to be published by MacMillan, under the general editorship of Diane l. Shelton


The decimation of the Amazon’s native people over the past four centuries illustrates two patterns outlined in Benjamin Whitaker’s l985 report on genocide for the United Nations, which is posted on www.preventgenocide.org :
Paragraph 41 : “a conscious act or acts of advertent omission [or] calculated neglect or negligence may be sufficient to destroy a designated group wholly or partially through, for instance, … disease [and] maybe be as culpable as an act of commission.”
Paragraph 33 : genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide can, and often do,  occur  in concert, as when “the destruction of the rainforest…. threaten[s] the existence of entire populations.”
      The first Europeans to penetrate the Amazon basin was a Spanish expedition led by Francisco de Orellana in 1542. Hoping to find the fabled lands of El Dorado  and La Canela, Orellana and his men set out from Quito, Ecuador, and descended the Napo River to its confluence with the Solimões, the Amazon’s upper section, and continued down the river  for 1500 miles to where it pours into the Atlantic. At that time, several  million people were living in the Amazon Valley.  They belonged to some two hundred tribes and ethnic groups in four  linguistic families— Gê, Tupi, Carib, and Arawak. Starting with the Omagua, an intelligent, orderly people of the Solimões,   who farmed river turtles and wore cotton robes, the expedition passed one  prosperous community after another along the banks of the river. So rich were the resources of the várzea, or floodplain, that some of the close-packed lines of houses went on without interruption for days, and the level of civilization of some of the riverine tribes was on a par with the Incas’, although the materials they built and worked with were perishable, and few artifacts, besides their extraordinarily refined ceramics, survive. 

      Organized campaigns to exterminate the Indians, sponsored by the colonial administration and carried out by Portuguese colonists,  had been taking place in northeastern Brazil, to the east, since 1500, and as colonists began settling the lower Amazon in l620,  campaigns were carried out there.   These “ransoming” expeditions  were in fact slaves raids under the pretext of rescuing captives from tribes that were supposedly planning to eat them (and in some cases actually were). In the absence of gold, the colonists went after “red gold”–  the forced labor of Indians. The “ransomed” Indians were “descended” down the river and kept, packed like sardines,  in riverine pens called caiçaras,  sometimes for months, while the colonists were off capturing more slaves. Many died in battle, or in captivity, from simply losing the will to live and wasting way, and from European diseases that they had no genetic defenses against and that nullified their bravery, fighting skills, and superb physical conditioning. “Contagion,” or smallpox, was the big killer, but influenza, pneumonia, the common cold virus,  measles, chickenpox,  and dysentery from the unhygienic conditions of their captivity also took a devastating toll. Malaria, syphilis, and tuberculosis reached the valley in the 17th century, and many Indians were addicted to and destroyed by cachaça, or rum.  The populous tribes of the lower Amazon were quickly extinguished,  like the Tapajós, the Tocantins, who are only remembered by the tributaries named after them; later, as the ransomers moved up river,  the Manau followed them into oblivion, leaving their name for the largest city in the middle Amazon. By 1750 the native population had been reduced by two-thirds, and the várzea was almost completely depopulated. Those who had not  been killed by “advertent omission” and “calculated neglect,” in Whitaker’s terms,  melted into the forest and fled up  north- and- south-flowing tributaries, above the unnavigable  rapids,  to the Guyana and Brazilian shields, where they regressed into hunters and gatherers and lost the civilization they had developed on the várzea.

      The Indians’ only champions  were the Jesuits, who gathered them into missions that were organized along military lines to keep them from being dragged off into slavery. David Putnam’s film, Mission, portrays the heroic efforts of the Jesuits to protect the Guarani Indians in the Paraná-Paraguay basin, south of the Amazon. The Jesuits in the Amazon were more exploitative, however, and the Indians in their aldeias, or mission villages, on Marajó Island, at the mouth of river, became peons who took care of their vast herds of cattle. Their wards were forcibly baptized and catechized and became detribalized “shirt Indians.” With the colonists taking their most beautiful women, there were almost no pure-blooded Indians on the river by the time the Jesuits were expelled from Latin American in l760, only cablocos, or mestizos.   Miscegenation also played a major role in diluting and breaking down the cultural  identity and physical distinctiveness  of the Amazon’s natives. The offspring with Portuguese were known as mamelucos, and with African slaves as cafuzos. 

       The Jesuits were replaced by “directorates,” and an imperial  proclamation decreed that the enslavement  and forced labor of Indians was  over, and they were now free. But this only freed the pitiful remnants of once-proud peoples for other forms of exploitation, and unpacified and assimilated groups continued to be rounded up and massacred by the bandeirantes, or pioneers, who forged deep into the interior. Only a few tribes, like  Kayapo in upper Xingu valley and Waimiri Atroari in Roraima,  put up such fierce resistance that they managed to withstand encroachment and invasion of their land until the late twentieth century. 

     Starting in 1850 rubber became a hot new commodity  in the industrializing countries of Europe and North America, and the Amazon’s monopoly on  “black gold” tapped from Hevea brasiliensis trees scattered in the  rainforest spawned what the contemporary Brazilian writer called “the most criminal organization of labor ever devised.” A  Peruvian rubber baron named Julio Arana founded the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company and grew fabulously wealthy by exploiting the Bora, Witoto, Andoke, and Ocaina Indians on the Putumayo River, which forms the border between Peru and Colombia. Reports of  systematic torture, an orgy of sadism, the perverted mutilation of men, women, and children, women being kept as concubines by the Indian and Barbadian muchachos or captains, of the rubber gangs,  reached Roger Casement, who had exposed similar atrocities ten years earlier  in the  Congo. By the time Casement got there, three-quarters of the population on the Putumayo had been wiped out in the previous six years, and there were only 8000-1000 left. Casement was knighted for being main author of the l912 Blue Book on the Putumayo, a precursor of  today’s reports on human rights abuses, but later his journals revealed that he was a pedophile and had participated in the muchachos’ orgies. Today the culturally degraded descendants of Arana’s Bora and Witoto rubber collectors live in villages above Iquitos, Peru, where they dance, usually drunk,  for tourists from cruise ships and jungle-safari outfits. 

       The same year that Casement’s shocking report was published, the rubber boom abruptly collapsed, outcompeted by plantations in Malaya started from seeds smuggled out of  the Amazon by Henry Wickam. But the exploitation of Indians for black gold didn’t end completely. In l948 the newly contacted Kaxinawa in the state of Acre were forced into a brutal rubber-collection systems. A genocidal massacre exterminated 75% to 80% of the group three years later, and by l968 there were only 400-500 Kaxinawa left. 

     On the Amazon’s southern frontier, colonists hired professional Indian killers, or bugreiros, who presented ears instead of scalps for payment, adorned their Winchester carbines with Indians’ teeth, and poisoned the drinking pools in Indian villages with strychnine. By l910 the remaining Indians had been reduced to a pathetic minority on the fringes of a burgeoning postcolonial society. Now that they were no longer a threat, they were embraced and romanticized by Brazilian urban intellectuals. An indianist movement was born, and an extraordinary champion of the country’s native people arose, Colonel Cândido Rondon, who founded the  Indian Protection Service, or SPI, in 1910. Rondon and the SPI’s sertanistas, or field agents, contacted isolated tribes like the Nambikwara in Rondonia (the state named for him) and  tried to protect them from the diseases, culture shock, invasion and massacre their encounter with the national society would expose them to. The SPI’s motto was “die, if necessary, but never kill.”

        But by now the demographic catastrophe of Brazil’s native population was irreversible. It had plummeted from 3.5 million or so in l500 to 2 million by the expulsion of the Jesuits, and was now about a million. By l979 it would be down to 100,000. Of the 230 tribes that existed in l900, the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro could only count 143 in l957, and half of them were  represented by only a few hundred individuals. 
      The SPI’s career was checkered. While it undoubtedly saved the people, culture, and land of many tribes,  it was dissolved in disgrace in l969 after a 7000- page report to Brazilian congress documented the involvement of  hundreds of SPI officials, ministers, governors and generals, in homicide, machine-gunning, presents of strychnine-laced sugar, prostitution and $60 million of other financial exploitation of the people they were charged with protecting. A new agency, the Brazilian National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, was created, and while many of its anthropologists and other employees were dedicated to the Indians’ well-being, atrocities which the government turned a blind eye to or participated in continued to take place in the Amazon.  The Brazilian Air Force bombed uncontacted villages of  uncontacted Waimiri-Atroari; soldiers drove Macuxi out of their villages  on the Brazil-Venezuela border. 
       In the early seventies a network of highways was pushed into the Amazon wilderness. A growing awareness of its untapped mineral wealth brought a new siege on the last remaining isolated Indians, and the innermost recesses of the valley where they were living were finally penetrated, with the usual lethal consequences. One of the saddest stories was that of the Kreenakrore, a semi-nomadic group on the Iriri River, a tributary of the Xingu. For ten years during the l960s  the legendary sertanistas Claudio Villas Boas and Francisco Meirelles had made futile attempts to contact them. An expedition had been attacked and several of its members had been killed. Finally, as the new Cuiabá-Santarem Highway approached to within two kilometers of their village, several Kreenakore, reduced by culture shock to eating dirt and the urucu seeds that they painted their faces with, appeared on the highway, begging food from the road crews. Between 1969-72, forty died of pneumonia contracted from them, and by l974, the tribe was down to 79 individuals.  Villas Boas moved  them to the Xingu National Park, which had been set aside for other tribes. By  l976 they were down to 63, and only ten women could have socially acceptable children. But the Kreenakrore slowly recovered, and are now holding their own. 

      The construction of the Perimetral Norte on the Brazil-Venezuela border had similar results for the Yanomami, who were still living in the Neolithic and are the only tribe, except for the Tukuna on the Solimões, with more than 5,000 members. Gold was discovered and garimpeiros, wildcat prospectors from Brazil’s huge  marginalized poor population, poured into the Yanomami’s homeland and massacred them and raped their women and infected them with diseases. AIDS is the latest on the roster. An epidemic of measles broke out as the Yanomami were made guinea pigs for a vaccine from a virulent strain of the microbe not appropriate for use in a population with no prior exposure to it. 
62% of the tribes tested positive for a new strain of malaria introduced by the garimpeiros. By l993 2000 Yanomami had been killed, but after global outcry over a massacre of 23 of them in the upper Orinoco basin, a measure of protection for the tribe was established. 

      Similar horrors played out in the state of Rondônia (named for Rondon) during the l980s. Some newly-contacted Cintas  Largas were massacred with the alleged complicity of Summer Institute of Linguistics, an American evangelical group that had missionaries in 43 tribes in Brazil and was subsequently expelled because of suspected ties with the CIA and American oil and mineral interests. 

        That decade a monumental, incredibly misguided resettlement program for two million families of landless peasants, sponsored by the Brazilian government and financed by the World Bank,  brought a lethal combination of ecocide, genocide, and ethnocide to Rondônia—massive deforestation and roadbuilding and the construction of agrovilas, and massacres of isolated groups of Cintas Largas and Urueuwauwau. Satellite pictures of thousands of burning fires horrified the European and North American public, which was becoming apprehensive about the rise in world temperatures caused by the relased fo  carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Anthropologists and other western sympathizers rallied behind the Indians, secured intellectual property rights for their knowledge of medicinal plants with possible pharmaceutical applications, and pushed for the demarcation and protection of their lands.

       The last ten years have brought a huge, belated victory for the  remaining native people of Amazonia, even though during the l990s Occidental and other companies drilling for oil brought ecocide and ethnocide to 8,000 U’wa on the Colombia-Venzuela border and to the Huaroni in the Ecuadoran Amazon. In general, the demarcation of Indian lands in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon is proceeding well.  20% of of Brazilian Amazonia is now recognized by the government as indigenous territory. This is the largest area  of protected rainforest in the world; when FUNAI replaced the SPI in l968, only a fraction of their lands were protected. Small remnant groups remain at risk of being driven out their land  or  massacred for individual, political, or racial motives. The Yanomami homeland has been almost completely demarcated, but is still being invaded by garimpeiros. Efforts to complete demarcation for other tribes in  Roraima are meeting with heavy resistance from local politicians.

       But the native population has rebounded to 325,000. A new generation of  young, educated Brazilians realizes that their indigenous cultures and their rainforest represent a  unique and precious heritage. It can be said with some confidence that the tide has finally turned. 

The history up to l910 is so heavily indebted to Hemming’s two book that it is virtually a precise of them. Steven Schwartzmann of Environmental Defense filled in the current picture, and a Google [1] search of  Amazon Indian Genocide [2] turned up dozens of informative sites. 
Cowell, Adrian, (date tk)  Decade of Destruction : the Crusade to Save the Amazon Rain Forest. City and publisher tk. 
 ibid, (date tk) The Tribes That Hides From Man. City and publisher tk. 
Hemming, John, (l987) Amazon Frontier : The Defeat of the Amazon Indians. Cambridge : Harvard University Press.
ibid, (1978) Red Gold : The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians 1500-1760. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Roosevelt, Anna, (date tk) Amazon Indians from Prehistory to the Present. (city and publisher tk)
Tierney, Patrick, (date tk) Darkness in El Dorado. (city and publisher tk.)
Web site of the Brazilian Socio-environmental Institute, www.socioambiental.org [3] has detailed information on most of the tribes.