'What I know'

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A train line brings workers - and COVID-19 - to the Awa Guajá community, threatening their survival. Part 2 of 2.

If we were stealing in the city, don’t you think they would kill us?

In the Awa language the way you say territory is the same as the way you say “what I know”. It’s the same word.

It is by walking over the territory that they know, that they get to know each other and communicate and establish relationships among themselves and with the other feathered beings and mammals that inhabit the forest.

This story was originally published in SUMAÚMA - a trilingual, rainforest-based news platform that puts nature at the heart of the storyline by amplifying forest voices. Read Part 1 of this report

 On top of that, they experience a concept of impermanence that does not have the same linearity as we, the Karaí, do.


Since the first invaders entered in the 1970’s, the past and the present are plotted between the living jungle and the dead jungle.

The violence that their grandparents and parents suffered returns to the present every time that they point to the destruction, when they mention the invaders and the mining company.

The horror is happening now. But also, when they return to the living jungle, to those journeys, the experience of the present brings them to the possibilities that their relatives laid out for them.

Something curious also happens with the future. According to Awa beliefs, the dead do not completely leave the earth: their ancestors go to a heaven but come down to eat in the forest, to which they will also descend when they die.

The future then swirls around in that timeless time of their babies and their old people, with their fragility and their need for care and relief.

“The people who attacked my grandmother also attacked my mother. The Karaí shot them from behind. They attack from behind, killing many people’s parents. The Karaí kill us.“

When Tatuxa’a finishes, Itaxĩa speaks.

“Someone discovered our relatives and forced them into contact. And then they brought the relatives here, forced them to stay still, to live in villages." 


That street, this road, everything was thick forest, as Tatuxa’a said. Some relatives got lost, they did not come with us. Then with those Karaí came the work mules.

Even tractors were used to clear the land. The Indians could do nothing. All they could do was watch the land being cleared. And when they finished, the train began to run.

The relatives then decided to go and see and it was all open space, there was nothing left. Then the train began to run, and brought the workers and many of our relatives ended up dying.

A lot of them died of sadness because it is very sad to think about it and see how it was and what it’s like now. All that is left is this little piece where we are, which we are fighting for.

If we were stealing in the city, don’t you think they would kill us?

But the destruction is increasing. They double the tracks, send more trains and say that this is progress. But what is the progress in having the jungle collapse? Nothing.”

Another train goes past. Once again we all fall silent. Now I feel the noise reverberating in my throat. The 16 indigenous people look to the front where I am but they see nothing.

What exists shakes behind their backs. All that life that I and those who are like me do not even know, and which somehow, just by maintaining our way of living, we violate.

A place where we could neither eat nor sleep, that we would need 200 lives to understand, although our whole life depends on it.


The Brazilian indigenous leader and philosopher Ailton Krenak says we live in times of ontological violence. In other words, in a time when everything is in place to destroy our capacity to live in poetry, in myth, in a creative and sacred uncertainty.

In the Awa villages, the end of the world has been snapping at their heels for 50 years: the old people are dying, the rituals are being neglected, false solutions are being brought in, even from the same demons who make their life this desperate.

Such as the mining company Vale which on one day gives them courses, and then on another day gives them less money than it is supposed to or builds them tiny little houses.

“We cannot put up our nets to sleep in these houses, we do not go in with our families, if we swing around we hit against the walls,” says Itaxĩa and some of them start laughing in a refreshing and knowing way.

“Those people from Vale don’t understand anything at all. They also built a mud-brick house with a dome in the middle, but it rains inside.

"They told us that it would be cool and that we wouldn’t need a fan, but it’s not cool and in winter it’s very dangerous. They built this construction without consulting us as if it were for a generic Indigenous person, not for the Awa, without even knowing how we live or how we want to live.”


Vale was consulted as part of this research. With regard to their relationship with this territory that they use as a passageway and with those who live there, they stated:

“We operate with a focus on constructive and mutually beneficial relationships, based on respect for cultural diversity and the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities.

The company’s relationship with indigenous peoples is carried out by professionals who are experts in this matter, distributed throughout the territories that interact with these populations.”

The State is considered another demon, allying itself with non-governmental organizations hired by Vale to “offset the effects” of its business, giving them domestic animals to raise and heavy machinery to till the land.

To their way of thinking, if they grow crops, they do not have time to go hunting – their ancestral way of subsistence.

Moreover, they have a worldview that includes bringing up wild animals, by including in their families very young monkeys and peccaries that wander around lost in the jungle.

The women collect them, take them to their homes, take care of them, raise them and return them to the jungle at a later date. When the men go hunting, women go with them, pointing out the animals so that they will not be killed.

“We don’t eat the ones that were nursed with our children,” says Amiria.


The government came into this village with chicken coops, pigpens, plant nurseries and beehives. It took up their time and forced projects on them, but never provided any sort of continuity for any of them.

Nowadays all of those projects that the Awa Guajá spent their time on and were enthusiastic about have become things, garbage, forgotten remains.

There is also violence in this abandonment. In recent months the State has failed to meet its obligations and commitments. They interrupted the construction of the classrooms and assigned teachers who are not specialized in indigenous education.

The Awa Guajá stopped attending classes and filed official complaints. Something similar has happened with health care: the State has just one doctor available for all the villages that are hundreds of kilometers apart.

Recently the government also changed its official liaison. It removed Daianne Veras Pereira, the coordinator of the Ethno-Environmental Front who was working with them, and in her place, without consulting the Awa Guajá, put in Elton Henrique Sá de Magalhães, a man with no experience with these peoples.

“The government put him in, but he does not know anything about our community and we do not accept him. We don’t want to have him here. He is not a good person.

He was prosecuted and our community does not want him. There is a protocol of consultation and respect that was not met”, Tatuxa’a says.


A month later they told me by WhatsApp message that the new intermediary was forced out of the meeting with their arrows. And a month later they complained that Elton Henrique Sá de Magalhães had come on to their land without asking permission and had set fire to their meeting house.

On November 20th they told me that Covid-19 has come back into their villages again: it is as if the pandemic had ended, or as if what is left of this government wanted to exterminate them with what is left of this pandemic, the Awa Guajá do not have even the most basic protection materials – no masks, no hand sanitizers -, nor any rigorous mechanisms to ensure that infected officials do not enter their territory.

Inês suggests that we take a break for lunch. The women with babies and children come closer. We hand out the fruit and eat in silence.

When they meet each other’s eyes, when they speak in their language, when Inês and I hang back as if we were slightly invisible, we see them being themselves with the strength of what they are fighting for.

During the break Tatuxa’a shows me the handicrafts made by him. I buy a necklace and a wristband of little orange, blue, yellow and green beads. We take a picture together.

I thank him for the trust that he has shown me and for making me feel welcome here. He is shy but I can tell he is happy that this is taking place.


The respite is short-lived. A small boat with a motor goes past in the river and sits in the middle of the water. It only goes off when the younger ones get closer to it.

Then I tell them that I met an invader, not a member of a militia or a rancher, but a poor man who feels that the jungle is also his, that he has the right to enter, and I ask them what they think of them. Tatuxa’a answers:

“The Karaí have their rules, we have ours. You can’t fish here. We don’t go to the city to steal their things. If we did, the Karaí would attack us.

We don’t attack them: we warn them, we tell them that we are doing surveillance, without fighting. This is how our work is being done. Our job is to be the guardians.

Some of them listen to us and show us licenses and say: ‘I can fish anywhere’. They don’t respect anything. They don’t respect us. They cast their nets and don’t let the fish through. And we need fish. They kill the game and they take the fruit from our territory.


And when we come face to face, they tell us ‘if you don’t want us to enter your lands, why do you come into the cities?’ But it is not the same thing. They are here stealing.

We go into the city to buy something. If we were stealing in the city, don’t you think they would kill us? For sure they would. They come in, they hunt, and they don’t understand. White people don’t understand.”

“However, we understand them”, says Itaxĩa. We understand that a lot of them don’t want to kill us. They just don’t have enough to eat. They have no money and in the city you don’t eat unless you have money.

"We understand that there are many poor people who need to feed themselves, with families to support. And they come onto indigenous land in order to do this.

"But that’s where the government has to give them something. Or Vale has to. Vale also destroys their territories. It also invades the villages that it passes through, it could also do some things to improve their lives.”


We say our goodbyes and take a group photo. Tatuxa’a asks what I do, what journalism is, what is the purpose of it.

“My job is to listen to you and tell your story so that more people know what is going on,” I answer. “I don’t know if it will be of any use, but I like to think that it will be.”

“Tell them that we are struggling and we live in hope. And that we, the indigenous Awa Guajá, protect the land to live, to take care of our children, to live longer, isn’t that right, relatives?” says Itaxĩa and everyone nods in agreement saying “that’s it, that’s it”.

“In this land which is ours there is fruit, acai, Brazilian fern trees, honey and water for our children, which is all we need. The trees, the land, our mother.

"If there is no forest, the river will end. The rainforest is what holds it all together. Water is what people drink, but without water people do not breathe. That is what we are protecting, right, relatives?”

“If people destroy the forest, there’s no way for us to live. Neither for them, although they don’t realize it.”

They carry on talking until the very last moment. It is their first experience with a journalist without any intermediaries, and they are eager to talk.


Once again Arapio is chosen to take me back. He drives the boat as if there were no force against it. He crosses the river as if he were talking to it, as if he too were part of the water.

Back in the car I show Maicon the photos of the meeting.

“They liked the chickens I got”, he says, looking at one of the few shots I took: when the families were sharing the food. Although he is used to visiting the territories because of his work with Diogo, the human rights lawyer, he is surprised by the Awa Guajá people.

“The other Indians I know live more like us. You can see that they don’t.”

We stop in Auzilândia, the little town that’s on the other side of the road. There is a train station but there aren’t any hotels or restaurants, just a few stores. The heat is thicker here. Static, crushing. Suddenly I think it would be nice to have an ice-cold coconut.

“I’ll wait for you”, says Maicon, who does not detect here any of the dangers he senses every now and then in Alto Alegre.

I walk down the little streets that border the tracks. People peek out as I go past. I ask if there is anywhere that sells coconuts. They direct me to a corner and I knock on the green door.

A young woman who looks as though she’s just woken up comes out. She tells me to ask at the house next door out of which comes a very tall man whose skin is the color of the river.

I repeat the coconut question and the bewildered look on his face makes me feel ridiculous. “Yes, I think there is one”, he says and invites me in.


Inside is his wife who is sitting in a red velvet armchair. It is a gloomy room full of old family photos: boys and girls of school age. The man goes to the back.

The woman looks about 15 years older, her hair is all grey, her eyes shy between wrinkles. They have lived there since Auzilândia first began. Their children all left for São Luís.

“Life here is quiet, except for the train. The train used to come past from time to time, now it comes past all the time.”

“And what is the worst thing about the train?”

“A lot of things. The noise and the iron dust. There is a lot of sickness here. And there are no doctors. The train has ruined our lives.”

Then her husband comes back with a coconut and a machete. He says the coconut was high up, hands it to me freshly cut from the tree. I try to pay but they don’t accept it. He asks what I am doing in this area, so I tell him about my visit to the Awa Guajá.


“Ah, the Indians”, says the man. I hear the tone of that “ah” and a boundary has been drawn, a distance that’s impossible to cross. The Indians are fierce.

I ask him to cut the coconut open for me and he asks if he can take a picture of me.

“Nobody will believe me otherwise.”

We take a picture: him with his machete and his big hands looking like an old tree, and me with the coconut he gave me.

Night is about to settle over the streets of Auzilândia.

The sky is blue with just a golden light, the grass is long and pale, the cars are old and a skinny horse is resting nearby. Maicon is waiting for me at the end of the block.

I reach for my notebook and write down the only thing I will be able to write for several months: Nothing is true except the jungle that is being killed.

This Author 

Soledad Barruti is a journalist and writer. She specialises in issues related to nutrition and the food industry for the radio, television and the printed press and also gives talks and courses at universities and institutions in Argentina and across the world.

This story was originally published in SUMAÚMA - a trilingual, rainforest-based news platform that puts nature at the heart of the storyline by amplifying forest voices. This study was made possible with support from the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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