Interviews: Chief Pio

Cinta Larga tribal leader

Chief Pio
Chief Pio

“In 1968, the Cinta Larga people had contact with the white man. There were more than six or seven thousand Cinta Larga members before the contact. After the contact, many Cinta Larga died. Today we are living with the white man's culture.”
– Chief Pio

Frontline/World Reporter Mariana van Zeller: How was life before the contact with the white man?

Chief Pio: Before it was wonderful too. We never had to worry about diseases, education, health, of being invaded by the white man in the village. Today, we don’t have that peace anymore. Because today, it’s “Ah, in that place there are wood cutters stealing wood. Ah, in that place rubber tree tappers are invading the reserve.” So we have to be constantly running from one place to the other. Things have changed a lot. We ourselves are different. We have worries -- worries about health, worries about our children, worries about women, because now there are shoes, clothes. Before it wasn’t like this. Before, Indians were only worried about hunting in the right season, working at the right time, picking native fruit in the right season. So we didn’t have as many worries then. I didn’t even imagine at that time that there were roads. I didn’t even imagine at that time that there were soccer fields, airstrips, dams. We weren’t prepared for any of that.

And you have all of that now?

Yes, after the contact, we have all that. You can see we have health posts, nurses. The village now has tiled roofs, instead of thatched. So many things have changed after the contact with the white man. I think that we have two cultures: one white and one indigenous, and that’s confusing our youngsters. They don’t know the old culture. And we would like to teach them.

What do the children want?

The kids here just want to know about soccer, about white man’s stuff, so I think the Cinta Larga aren’t living their old lives anymore. Money has changed the lives of the Cinta Larga. The truth is we don’t want that. We want both cultures. We want to have cars and those other things that the white man has brought here. We weren’t the ones who went looking for any of that. It was the white man’s culture that came looking for us. So today we want what’s best for us. Because today we know that if our youngsters study and graduate, we will have someone to defend us. We won’t need to hire lawyers to defend our rights. Today we know we have that right. But how can we get it? That’s what we still don’t know.

What do you want for the future of this mine?

We want to explore this diamond mine. We don’t want to give it to the white man. We can talk to the government, reach an agreement with them. But we need to hear their proposals, and we want them to hear ours. That’s what we’re fighting for with the government. We want to set up our own Indian mining company so that we Indians can explore the mine. Not that we want to explore it till there’s nothing left, but explore it when we need to. That is our proposal to the government. We haven’t seen any proposal from the government yet. We’re waiting for them to send us a proposal. We would like for them to come talk to us.

You mention an Indian mining company, but do the Cinta Larga know how to mine?

Well, we didn’t know, but we are learning. Today we still need help from the white man because we haven’t learned everything. We still need a PC machine operator. That’s what we need in order to be able to mine.

For the mine to be legalized, the Cinta Larga tribe is going to have to give authorization. Will you?

We still haven’t seen the government’s proposal, to see if they are going to legalize it for the Indians or for the mining companies. That’s what we need to know, to talk to the government.

How has life changed in the village during these last years with the presence of all these miners?

On the one hand it improved, on the other it got worse because life has become more stressful. Today, I can see the negative side of the mine -- people lost their marriages, some members are separated, women go to the city. That was the bad side. The positive side and where the mine has benefited the community is in the building of well-built houses, roads, agricultural projects; and it brought cattle. I think the treatment has to be differentiated. We are Indians so we should be treated differently from the white man. So today we have a different health system, different educational system, because not all of us know how to speak Portuguese.

Did you know what diamonds were before miners started coming here?

No. No. We made contact with them here in the river. When I was little, I followed a miner but I didn’t understand why he was working with the gravel. But now we know. At the time we didn’t even know what money was. Today we know what money and diamonds are, so we learned all that.

Do you remember the first time you saw a white man?

Yes.

How was it?

They weren’t very close; I saw them from far away. It was in Tenente Marques. Some miners passed by, and I hid behind a tree looking at them pass. I thought they were weird.

Why did you think they were weird?

They had clothes on, everything was different -- shoes, canoes -- it was all new to me.

Were you scared?

Yes, I was scared. Very. [He laughs.] We knew that they didn’t speak our language and that made things difficult.

Do you think you’re lucky or unlucky to have this diamond mine in the reserve? We’re here with the blessing of God, and if God left it here, it was lucky for us. Maybe it’s not a question of being lucky or unlucky, but God left it here for whoever explores it.

Joao Bravo says that if it’s necessary, we will fight and we won’t hand over the mine easily. So I’m not sure what the government is thinking, and we’ve been living here for a long time, so we won’t let the government do that. We want to wait for the government to legalize this for us. I don’t know if this is the best mine in the world because I’ve never seen diamonds from anywhere else. If the white men say that these are the best diamonds in the world, it’s because they know diamonds from other regions. I don’t. The miners had permission from the Indians to mine here. But then more started to come in and there were more Indians bringing them in, then we just started losing control.

So there was a good relationship between miners and Indians?

Yes.

And you don’t think that exists anymore?

It still exists, but today you see the federal police everywhere, so if the government doesn’t want us to mine, what can we do? We’re not going to fight with the government, so we have to wait. We can’t keep on working clandestinely and fight with the government. We don’t want that. We want to work legally.

Are you hopeful about the future of this mine?

Yes, I’m hopeful, and that’s why I’m cooperating with the FUNAI and with the federal police, so that better things can come to the Cinta Larga people.

And do you think the miners are also going to be able to benefit in some way?

I can’t answer that because I don’t know.

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