Photographers' Blog

Manhunt for wildcat gold miners

February 17, 2014

Jacareacanga, Para (Brazil)

By Lunaé Parracho

“We’re asking you not to go,” one of the Munduruku Indians said to me while standing in a circle of ten other warriors.

They feared that I would slow them down if I accompanied them on another six-hour hike through the forest to a wildcat gold mine operated by intruders in their territory. This was to be the fifth mine dismantled by the Mundurukus, who live in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest in the western state of Para. This region is rich in natural resources and has been called the country’s new frontier of economic expansion.

Another warrior, sensing my reaction at being considered a drag on the group, approached me and tried to allay my disappointment. “We will photograph for you,” he said, pointing to two young Indians holding compact cameras. “If you want you can give them your camera.”

I thought about telling him that my camera is like the bow and arrow he was holding – I could never give it up. Instead I decided not to say anything and I bowed my head to wish them a good trip. At that moment, they could see the lesions on my feet and my appearance didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had just spent the last ten days hiking with them through the jungle, as they went to dismantle other wildcat mines.

The Munduruku traveled to Brazil’s capital last year to ask the government to expel non-indigenous miners from their territory. But rather than waiting for a legal decision that could take years, they are now taking the situation into their own hands by removing all non-Indians engaged in illegal gold mining themselves. The decision was taken during an assembly in the presence of more than 400 warriors and caciques. They have demanded the support of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, and the bureau granted help in the form of boats and fuel.

In such a large area, an operation like this could take months without the boats and their 40hp engines. In contrast to the Indians’ lack of resources, the miners use single motor planes to transport their equipment and gold in and out of the region.

Often threatening Indian communities or making individual agreements with some of their leaders, the miners have been exploiting Munduruku land for decades. This is obvious from the large clearings in the rainforest and contaminated rivers in the Tapajos river basin. They have even been known to exploit Indians to do the heavy labour.

In addition to expelling the miners, the Mundurukus are also seizing their machines. “The machinery will be idle for a month,” the warriors’ leader Paigomuyatpu Manhuary told me. “After that the people will decide whether we close the mine or work the ones in places where the jungle has already been cleared, for the benefit of the community.”

Paigomuyatpu explained that the vast majority of his people do not want any more mining on Indian land, but the problem of the lack of income must also be faced. He said there are many alternative projects already proposed, such as agro-ecology, beekeeping, and resource extraction, but nearly all of them have remained on paper in the files of FUNAI.

According to their traditions, the Mundurukus take a lot of time to make important decisions; they pursue things one step at a time.

The concept is spelled out in an ancient Munduruku legend, told to me by a young warrior named Buoy Dace. The story is about a tortoise who doggedly pursued and eventually caught his enemy the tapir, even though his opponent was much bigger and faster. The smaller animal was at great disadvantage, but he persevered through persistence and focus.

“That’s the tortoise way of living,” Buoy Dace said at the end. “That’s why our body paint mimics the shell of a tortoise.”

After almost two years of following the Munduruku movement, this is the strongest impression that I have of them; they are a people that don’t give up and are not intimidated.

The Mundurukus continue to oversee their territory in spite of the death threats they receive from the leader of the wildcat miners. Known by the nickname of Tubaina, this mysterious figure is widely feared. The Indians believe he has a group of well-armed gunmen at his command.

The atmosphere is tense in the region. The Mundurukus were told that there is a list of their main leaders marked for death. The cacique (leader) of one village I visited said that he had the local runway blocked with logs and stones out of fear after hearing of the threats against him. In the town of Jacareacanga it was rumored that the miners, outraged by the Indians’ actions, were holding a meeting to attack them.

It’s difficult to know what might actually happen, but I was nervous myself and walked the streets quickly. During one night in Jacareacanga I was followed by two miners who I had photographed being expelled by the Indians from a hollow they had dug along a riverbank. Just in case, I decided to leave the hotel and spend that night in a house where a group of Indian warriors was staying.

When under threat in the towns, the Mundurukus make it a point not to walk alone. One of the warriors recieved death threats. Paigomuyatpu, told me, “Even if I’m alone, the spirits of the warriors accompany me.”

The plan for the next day was to continue the hunt for more mines. Access to them is difficult, even for the Indians who are accustomed to the forest. Narrow creeks, fallen trees blocking rivers, cascades around which the boats have to be carried, dense marshy jungle, and lots of thick mud in areas that were dug up by the miners. Insects are everywhere, including a tiny mosquito that leaves spots of dried blood after it bites.

Eventually, the trek was interrupted by a quick hunt for monkeys which the Mundurukus commonly eat roasted over a fire.

When they found a baby monkey they brought it with them to raise. One of them told me, “We can’t leave a baby in the jungle alone.”

At each village we reached, the warriors stopped to explain their mission to the locals. They spent the evenings dancing to their traditional songs, which they sung collectively. One of them told me, “Atakoi mo kai bo,” which means literally, “In search of the right path.”

Later, it was the warrior Paigomuyatpu who helped me make more sense of the phrase, but he also created other doubts. He repeated “atakoi mo kai bo” slowly and explained that it means, “Let’s go in search of it.” The ‘it’ refers to their goal in a broad, collective sense, but he didn’t specify what that goal is. He did offer a hint by saying, “The thing we seek is also seeking us. It’s seeking us even though we do not know what it is.”

I learned that phrase a year ago when covering the Mundurukus’ protest against the building of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. The wildcat miners aren’t the biggest threat to the Mundurukus’ way of life. They are also endangered by plans to build a series of dams in the Tapajos and Teles Pires river basins. These dams will change the Indians’ world by flooding part of their territory and villages. It seems social change is inevitable with such major projects in the middle of the rainforest.

Comments
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What an amazing people these are, it really was a great read. Would sure love to see more of them!

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