Amazon Journal

By Darren Foster

The Indians

A rude awakening to the modern world

Cinta Larga tribesmen in full warrior dress. Cinta Larga tribesmen in full warrior dress.

One of the most fascinating things about traveling to the Amazon to report this story was the idea that until just a few decades ago, the Cinta Larga were Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Think about that. For Americans, 1969 was the Summer of Love. For the Cinta Larga, it was a time warp. Talk about a trip.

Those who first stumbled upon the tribe found them wearing little more than a strip of bark around their waist (the Portuguese words cinta larga mean “wide belt”). Before the official contact, the Cinta Larga had crossed paths with frontiersmen, and there were sometimes violent conflicts. The most brutal of these happened in 1963 when a whole Cinta Larga village was wiped out on the orders of rubber plantation owners. The incident, which came to be known as the 11th Parallel Massacre, drew international condemnation.

As Brazil began expanding westward in the 1960s, FUNAI set out to contact lost tribes in the Amazon to try to both protect and pacify them. For the Cinta Larga, outside contact brought little good. As settlers arrived, the tribe, which once numbered around 5,000, was exposed to diseases that killed many. Today, the 1,300 remaining Cinta Larga live on their ancestral lands, a 2.7 million-hectare reserve that was granted to the tribe in 1979. Safe to say, no one imagined then that it contained a mother lode of diamonds.

The tribe’s reserve takes its name from U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, who explored the region in 1914. Roosevelt’s guide was Candido Rondon, a famous Brazilian explorer and founder of the FUNAI. It was Rondon who coined the agency’s famous motto for contacting tribes: “Die if necessary, but never kill.” Together, Roosevelt and Rondon chartered the River of Doubt, which is now called the Roosevelt River. The river marks the border of the Cinta Larga’s land.

First Contact

It was near the banks of the Roosevelt River that we had our first contact with the Cinta Larga. We were staying at the jungle outpost of the federal police, and preparations were under way for the government’s 15-day amnesty plan. The day before the amnesty was set to begin, a number of the tribe’s chiefs had come off the reserve to work out the final details.

The bad news was that many Brazilians, particularly the poor, resented such special treatment. In their eyes, Cinta Larga tribesmen were literally getting away with murder.

They arrived in pickup trucks and were dressed in modern clothes. Chief Pio was immediately recognizable from photographs we had seen, a rotund little man with glasses and a waddle. Because of their diamond wealth and the massacre, the Cinta Larga -- and Chief Pio in particular, as tribe spokesman -- had reached a sort of celebrity status in Brazil. For almost everyone there, it was the first encounter with the tribe.

Despite the amnesty, these were tough times for the Cinta Larga. Twenty-two members of the tribe had just been indicted for the massacre of the 29 miners. In reality, the murder charge was more of an image problem than a legal one. Under Brazil’s constitution, Indians from isolated communities such as the Cinta Larga can be deemed ignorant of the country’s laws and therefore cannot be held accountable for breaking them. So there was little chance that any of them would be prosecuted for the massacre. But the bad news was that many Brazilians, particularly the poor, resented such special treatment. In their eyes, Cinta Larga tribesmen were literally getting away with murder. On top of this, the government was now rewarding the tribe with a plan to purchase its contraband diamonds. In short, popular opinion was not on the side of the Indians, and the last thing they needed right now was more attention.

Still, after nearly two weeks of negotiations, we started to make a little headway. We were guests of Sposito, stationed on the perimeter of the reserve. Whenever we pressed the police chief for action, he always responded by saying, “Tranquilo” (“Relax”). Then one evening, out of the blue, Sposito announced we would go onto the reserve with him the next morning for a meeting he’d arranged with the tribal chiefs.

As part of the amnesty plan, the Cinta Larga had to agree to shut down the mine. And to ensure their cooperation, all mining machines had to be taken off the reserve. Sposito was in charge of making sure the tribe kept its end of the bargain. So off we went.

Chief Pio in adamant conversation with Chief Sposito

A Right Royal Welcome

We drove for a couple hours along the muddy roads that wind through the ranch land bordering the reserve. After crossing a rickety bridge over the Roosevelt River, we arrived in the village of Chief Joao Bravo.

What awaited us was both impressive and imposing: dozens of Cinta Larga lined up in warrior dress, carrying spears and bows and arrows. They had painted their faces and bodies black using the nectar from the local genipapo fruit. We were told this is how the Cinta Larga tribesmen were dressed when they took part in the massacre.

Tensions were high, as a rumor had been circulating that the government was here to remove the Cinta Larga from their land and seize their mine. Sposito immediately tried to assure the tribe that no one was going to move them anywhere. But he also told them that the mine had to close. This could be one of the largest diamond mines in the world, he said. And the government needs to figure out what to do with it.

But shutting down the mine would cut off the tribe’s main source of income. And Chief Bravo was not happy about the prospect.

Chief Bravo is the yang to Chief Pio’s yin. Whereas Pio is seen as the quiet and pensive diplomat, Bravo, as his name suggests, is the wild one. He’s loud and boisterous, and as the warrior chief, he has a reputation for being the tribe’s muscle.

With his warriors standing behind him, Bravo launched into what appeared to be a blistering tirade, yelling at Sposito in broken Portuguese and gesticulating wildly. I couldn’t follow what he was saying, but he looked very angry. After Bravo finished his piece, Sposito calmly responded. Then Bravo started up again. When he finished, the entire tribe let out a scream, raised their weapons and began walking toward us. I thought we were dead.

“It’s OK,” Mariana assured me. “Just film.”

So I did. As the painted warriors walked past me, I turned around to see that they were heading in the direction of a white cow tethered to a fence. The animal didn’t stand a chance. Within a few seconds, the cow looked like a giant porcupine -- dozens of arrows and spears were sticking out of its body. Blood flowed from the wounds. The tribe let out a cheer and invited us back to a communal hut to celebrate.

Mariana van Zeller backstage, drinking with a Cinta Larga

Backstage for a Drink

Being inside the hut was like being backstage after a play. Everyone was still in costume, but they were more relaxed -- smoking cigarettes, chatting and drinking. The beverage of choice was chicha, a traditional drink of fermented cassava root, which was stored in a big plastic garbage can and scooped out with small pots. Everyone was keen to make sure the gringos got their share. They’d walk up to us, put their arms around our backs and hoist the cup to our mouths, pushing our heads back to make sure we got a big mouthful. It was smoother than Jägermeister, but not quite as refreshing as a beer. Plus, it had bits of fibrous root that stuck in your teeth. But our willingness to consume the chicha apparently ingratiated us to the tribe, for a few days later we were invited back to the reserve for more.

We were less excited about this invitation once we learned how chicha is traditionally made. To begin the fermentation process, we were told, the women in the tribe chew on the root, breaking it up and covering it with saliva before they spit it into a large bucket of water where it sits for some weeks. We were never able to confirm if this was indeed how the Cinta Larga cooked up their brew, but either way, to refuse it when offered would have been rude. We just tried not to take such big mouthfuls.

Getting a glimpse of life on the reserve was important for the story in order to see the whole picture. There are the Cinta Larga who have embraced modern culture and all its trappings and who live or frequently travel outside the reserve. Then there are other members of the tribe who’ve had little contact with the outside world and only speak the tribal language. But the majority of them, it seemed to us, were stuck somewhere in between.

Finding the mother lode

Before a diamond was ever found on the reserve, the outside world had already become acquainted with the tribe and vice versa. For years, the Cinta Larga had been working with loggers and trading in timber cut from the reserve. But the discovery of diamonds on their land in 1999 drew unprecedented numbers of “white men” into their territory. At certain periods, we were told, there were more than twice as many miners on the reserve as there were Indians.

It was difficult for us to imagine the scale of the mining operation. We had flown over the site with the federal police, but by then the machines had all been cleared out. What remained was a mile-long scar of red earth in the deep green jungle. It was impressive that all that forest had been dug up by hand and small machines. And it was more impressive still that anything had been discovered there at all -- it was literally in the middle of the jungle.

Diamond mine in the deep green jungle The diamond mine is a mile-long scar of red earth in the deep green jungle. All of it had been dug up by hand and small machines.

We got a whole different impression of the mine when we were invited to see it from the ground. Our escorts were Izanoel Sodre, the FUNAI representative leading the work with the Cinta Larga, and Carlão Cinta Larga, one of the Indians indicted for the massacre. Carlåo carried a pistol. Another FUNAI agent stationed on the reserve was our driver.

We traveled in a 4x4, a luxury compared with the daylong hike through the jungle that the miners had faced. Measured in miles, it looked like a relatively short journey from Chief Pio’s village. However, in the middle of the Amazon, journeys are not measured in terms of distance, but on the individual merits of each road, particularly on how they handle rain.

Turns out, the road from Chief Pio’s village to the mine could be nominated for the worst road in the world. It is not on a map, it does not have a name, and it is impassable (none of which were reasons for us not to go).

When we arrived at the mine, Chief Bravo was waiting to greet us. We stood near the tree line at one end and looked out over the mounds of red earth that stretched as far as the eye could see.

“All this,” he said with a sweep of his arm, “is mine.”

Bravo recounted rather matter-of-factly how a humble hunter-gatherer had gone on to control what may be one of the world’s largest diamond mines.

It was a surreal moment. Before the stones were discovered on his land, Bravo said he didn’t even know what a diamond was. It was Chief Pio who first showed him.

“I couldn’t believe that a stone so small could be worth so much,” he said.

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