Genocide in north-eastern Brazil - when will it end?

| 21st February 2013


Karapiru with his second wife and baby. Image © Fiona Watson/Survival.



'Hawk', a member of the Awá tribe and survivor of unfathomable atrocities, tells of his past losses and his future fears for his people and their beloved forest.
To the prospectors the Awá tribe was nothing more than a primitive nuisance

He tells Survival International, the only organization working for tribal peoples’ rights worldwide, that his name means ‘Hawk’ in his mother tongue. Yet even with the acute eyesight this moniker suggests, Karapiru could not have foreseen the tragedy that befell his people, the Awá tribe of north-eastern Brazil.

He could never have imagined the day that he would have to flee for his life far into the rainforest, a shotgun pellet burning in his back, his family mown down by gunmen.  Nor could he have known that this brutal day would be the first in a decade of solitude and silence. 

Karapiru’s ancestral homeland lies in Maranhão state, between the equatorial forests of Amazonia to the west and the eastern savannas. Yet to the indigenous Awá, the land has only one name: Harakwá or, ‘the place that we know’. 

The 460 members of the Awá tribe live by hunting for peccary, tapir and monkey, travelling through the rainforest with 6-foot long bows, and by gathering forest produce: babaçu nuts, açaí berries and honey.  

Some foods are considered to have special properties - others, such as vultures, bats and the three-toed sloth, are forbidden. The Awá also travel by night, lighting the way with torches made from tree resin.

The tribe nurtures orphaned animals as pets, share their hammocks with raccoon-like coatis and split mangoes with green parakeets.  Awá women even breast-feed capuchin and howler monkeys and have been known to suckle small pigs.

The Awá year is divided into ‘sun’ and ‘rain’; the rains are controlled by celestial beings called ‘maira’ who oversee vast reservoirs in the sky. When the moon is full, Awá men, their dark hair speckled white with king vulture down, commune with the spirits through a chant-induced trance, during a sacred ritual that lasts until dawn.  

For centuries their way of life has been one of peaceful symbiosis with the rainforest. Then, over the course of four decades, they witnessed the destruction of their homeland - more than 30% of one of their territories has now been razed.

To the prospectors the Awá tribe was nothing more than a primitive nuisance

They also endured the murder of their people at the hands of ‘karaí’, or ‘non-Indians’, so that today they are not only one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil, but the most threatened on earth. 

Karapiru’s harrowing story really begins with a chance discovery 45 years ago, when American geologists were carrying out an aerial survey of the region’s mineral resources. The helicopter needed to refuel, so the pilot decided to land on a tree-less summit high in the Carajás Mountains.  

Reputedly, one geologist noticed a scattering of black-grey rocks on the ground, which he recognised as iron ore.  In fact the soil beneath him contained what a geological magazine would later refer to as, ‘a thick layer of jaspilites and lenses of hard hematite.’  

In layman’s terms, the prospectors had just touched down on the planet’s richest iron ore deposit. Their discovery swiftly gave rise to the development of the Great Carajas Project, an agro-industrial scheme financed by the US, Japan, World Bank and EEC.  

It comprised a dam, aluminium smelters, charcoal camps and cattle ranches. To transport workers in and minerals out, tarmacked roads and a long distance railway were built. The roads destroyed swathes of primary rainforest and, on its 900km course to the coast, the railway cut through the Awá tribe’s territory.  

But the project’s industrial show-piece was a chasm gouged from the forest floor - one so vast that it could be seen from space, and which in time would become the world’s largest open-cast mine. 

The Great Carajás Project was devastating for the region’s environment and its tribal peoples, despite the fact that in return for the billion-dollar loan, the financiers had asked the Brazilian government to guarantee that its indigenous territories would be mapped and protected. 

But as a fortune was to be made from the forest, a flood of ranchers, settlers and loggers soon began to pour into the region.  Huge diggers ripped at the land, tearing through layers of soil and rock to reach ore, bauxite and manganese.  

Rivers were contaminated; ancient trees chopped and burned. The black of charcoal ash replaced the deep green of the forest’s foliage - Harakwá became a polluted, scarred, muddy vision of hell.  

To the prospectors, the Awá tribe was nothing more than an obstacle to this treasure trove; a primitive nuisance that needed to be felled together with the trees. The tribe stood between them and the dollars they knew the rocks would release. So they set about killing them. 

Some were inventive in their killings - several Awá died after eating flour laced with ant poison; a ‘gift’ from a local farmer. Others, like Karapiru, were shot where they stood - at home, in front of their families. Karapiru believed that he was the only member of his family to survive one such massacre. The killers murdered his wife, son, daughter, mother, brothers and sisters. Another son was wounded and captured.  

Severely traumatised, Karapiru escaped into the forest, lead shot embedded in his lower back. ‘There was no way of healing the wound. I couldn’t put any medicine on my back, and I suffered a great deal,’ he told Survival’s Fiona Watson. ‘The lead was hot in my back, bleeding; I don’t know how it didn’t become full of insects. But I managed to escape from the whites.’

For the next 10 years Karapiru was on the run. He walked for nearly 400 miles across the forested hills and plains of Maranhão state, crossing the sand dunes of the restingas and the broad rivers that flow into the Atlantic.

He was terrified, hungry and alone. ‘It was very hard,’ he told Fiona Watson. ‘I had no family to help me, and no one to talk to.’ He survived by eating honey and small Amazonian birds - parakeet, dove and the red-bellied thrush.

At night, when howler monkeys called from the canopy, he slept high in the boughs of vast copaiba trees, among the orchids and rattan vines. And when the grief and loneliness became too much - ‘sometimes I don’t like to remember all that happened to me’ - he would talk quietly to himself, or hum as he walked.

More than a decade after he had witnessed the murder of his family, Karapiru was seen by a farmer on the outskirts of a town in the neighbouring state of Bahia. He was walking through a burnt section of forest, carrying a machete, a few arrows, some water containers and a chunk of smoked wild pig.

They greeted each other, and Karapiru followed the farmer back to the village, where he found shelter with a local man in exchange for chopping wood. He was a man who had spent ten years ‘fleeing from everything’ but his sorrow.  ‘It was very sad’, he says.  But just as ‘Hawk’ could not have envisaged his long years of suffering, neither could he have predicted the joy that was soon to come. 

Once news spread that a solitary, ‘unknown’ Indian had emerged from the rainforest, speaking a language no one could understand, an anthropologist visited him. Karapiru tried hard to recount his story, explaining how he had seen his family brutally cut down, that he had spent a decade in silence, and was now the only one of his people left. But there was a problem – the language he spoke couldn’t be understood by the anthropologist.

He believed it to be part of the Tupi language group, and that Karapiru might be a member of the Avá Canoeiro tribe. So officials from FUNAI, the government Indian affairs department, sent Karapiru to Brasilia, where he was introduced to Avá Canoeiro speakers, in the hope they would be able to understand each other; they couldn’t.  So in a final attempt to communicate with Karapiru, FUNAI sent a young Awá man called Xiramukû to talk to the man who had become known as the ‘unknown’ Indian.  

The meeting was one Karapiru could never have imagined during his decade of grief and solitude. Not only could Xiramukû understand Karapiru’s language, but he used one specific Awá word that instantly transformed Karapiru’s life - he called him ‘Father’. The man standing in front of Karapiru, talking to him in his mother tongue, was his son.

Xiramukû persuaded his father to leave the farmer’s house and live with him in an Awá village.  After years of isolation, Karapiru once more led an Awá way of life: eating peccary hunted in the rainforest, sleeping in a hammock and keeping monkeys as pets.

Karapiru has now remarried, has young children and lives near his son in the Awá village of Tiracambu.  ‘I feel good here with the other Awá,’ he says, ‘I found my son after many years. I recognised my son, which made me very happy.’  

Although this extraordinary survival story shows the resilience and adaptability of the Awá tribe, their problems are not confined to the past. Armed ranchers and criminal logging gangs - together with the grisly help of hired guns, called pistoleiros - are once again shooting the Awá on sight.

‘The invasions of white people in Awá territory is not good,’ says Karapiru. ‘We don’t like it. After what happened to me, I try and hide from them.’ Death is the usual price of indigenous resistance to invaders.

Their forests are disappearing faster than in any other indigenous area in the Brazilian Amazon. ‘Satellite images reveal that over 30% of one Awá territory has already been destroyed, despite the land having been legally recognised,’ says Fiona Watson of Survival International.  

The land they call Harakwá - ‘our place’ - is beginning to take on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Ancient trees are burned day and night to sell the wood and clear land for cattle pasture. ‘If you destroy the forest, you destroy the Awá too,’ said one Awá man.  

The Carajás train - whose 2 kms long cargo wagons rattle day and night along the boiling tracks, carrying thousands of tons of iron ore - frightens away the already scarce game on which the Awá survive.  ‘The loggers are destroying our land,’ Pire’i Ma’a, an Awá man, told Fiona Watson recently. ‘Monkeys, peccaries and tapir are all running away.  Everything is dying.  We are all going to go hungry.  We are not finding any game, because the white people use guns and kill all the game.’  

In 2012, Survival launched an urgent campaign to protect the lives and lands of the Awá, with the backing of actor Colin Firth, who said, ‘The Awá’s forest is being illegally cut for timber. When the loggers see them, they kill them. Their bows and arrows are no match for guns.

At any other time in history, that’s where it would end. Another people wiped off the face of the earth, forever.  But we’re going to make sure the world doesn’t let that happen.’ Almost a year on, however, the situation is still so serious that a Brazilian federal judge has described it as a ‘real genocide.’

For Karapiru, memories are still extremely painful. ‘There are times when I don’t like to remember all that happened to me,’ he says. ‘The people who did that to me were very bad men.’  

He is now extremely concerned for his daughter’s future. ‘I hope the same things that happened to me won't happen to my daughter,’ he says. ‘I hope she will eat lots of game, lots of fish, and grow up to be healthy. I hope it won’t be like in my time.’

The Awá are one of only two nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes left in Brazil.  They are also the most threatened tribe on earth. Their future is, at best, precarious; until their lands are protected and their rights respected, it always will be. 

For more information please visit:

"One man has the power to stop the loggers: Brazil's Minister of Justice. But it's just not his priority. Let's push it up his list.'" - Colin Firth.

Joanna Eede is editorial consultant at Survival International and author of ‘We Are One’

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