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Rob Sullivan

A Cry for War


Posted from: Altamira

There's a real buzz around town at the moment. One thousand indigenous Indians have just arrived on a fleet of beaten-up buses for a massive protest against a proposed dam on the Xingu River. It's amazing to see all the warriors in full tribal costume hanging around town. Both men and women carry machetes or clubs, and as we discovered on the first day of the protest they are not afraid to use them.

Xingu tribespeople at the protest

An engineer from the national electricity company behind the dam addressed the crowd of protesters and suddenly found himself surrounded by furious Kayapo warriors who had taken offence at his speech. The dam project will dry up rivers and block the paths of migratory fish, a staple diet for thousands of indigenous people.

The Kayapo and other tribes of the Xingu have declared war on the project and have joined forces with riberinhios, caboclos, NGOs, academics and scientists to challenge the government's plans. They claim the electricity generated by the dam will just be used to serve giant aluminium factories in the south and they will see none of the benefits.

As the crowd surged around the engineer, someone lashed out and struck the man's arm with a machete. First blood in the battle for the Xingu had gone to Indians, though it has created a huge stir in the national media here, and their use of violence has been widely condemned.

Bruce addresses the crowd at the protest

The Kayapo and other groups have vowed to protect their land and say they will fight to the death. When a similar dam project was planned in 1988, it was stopped in its tracks by another huge protest in Altamira involving the Kayapo, Sting and Anita Roddick from the Body Shop.

Exactly 20 years on the same battle has resurfaced. The Kayapo are a very strong nation within a nation, and their land is protected by Brazilian law. But in the wider battle for the Amazon, indigenous rights are weighed up against other priorities: those of Brazil's emerging economy, its industries and its urban populations.

Bruce talks to one of the protesters

We are soon to spend a week with the Kayapo in their reserve. They're a formidable tribe: fiercely proud and yet humble at the same time. They look very striking, covered in body paint, with stunning head-dresses made of brightly-coloured macaw feathers. They are wily diplomats, and passionate, skilled orators. Their children learn traditional tribal dances and skills from an early age, but many also learn Portuguese and how to use cameras and computers. But for all their adaptability and pragmatism in the face of the modern world, we discovered a basic truth this week in Altamira: the Kayapo are warriors first and foremost and are not scared of anyone.

The protest in full swing

Find out more about the Kayapo

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  • 1. At 2:07pm on 03 Mar 2009, marques-mortimer wrote:

    As a brazilian, I can say that Bruce report about the Kayapos was sincerely so amazing and got the really powerfull voice of one's most important indian groups of Brazil... Congratulations!

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