A mother lode of diamonds on tribal land
In March 2004, I received a commission to write a story on Rio de Janeiro. Mariana and I were living in London at the time, but we had the foresight to know that once we arrived in Brazil, it would be difficult to leave. We also thought the move could be good for our careers Mariana, being Portuguese, speaks the language, and Brazil, being Brazil, always seems to generate interesting stories.
We landed in Rio on April 14, just a week after members of an Indian tribe had massacred 29 miners in the southwest region of the Brazilian Amazon. The killings exposed a multimillion-dollar clandestine diamond trade centered around a very large deposit of stones discovered on the tribes land.
The Roosevelt Reserve had been feeding a thriving black market for the past five years. In that time, according to Brazils Mines and Energy Ministry, $2 billion worth of diamonds had been illegally smuggled off the reserve.
Despite Brazilian laws that forbid mining on indigenous territories, even by the Indians themselves, the diamond mine on the Roosevelt Reserve had been feeding a thriving black market for the past five years. In that time, according to Brazils Mines and Energy Ministry, $2 billion worth of diamonds had been illegally smuggled off the reserve. Brazils federal police have a slightly different estimate, though still enormous. The feds believe that 100,000 carats, or $25 million worth of diamonds, were being pulled from the ground each month. Regardless of which figure you believe, the Roosevelt Reserve was producing more than three times as many diamonds as Brazils official total annual production. And it was all illegal.
In mining circles, news of the reserves diamond lode had spread quickly. Thousands of miners flocked to the region, and following them was a shadowy cast of international diamond traders. But in the middle of it all was the Cinta Larga, a tribe whose first official contact with the outside world occurred only 37 years ago, in 1969.
The story was still unfolding in the Brazilian press when we arrived, and we were immediately hooked. Every morning we would run out and grab a copy of O Globo, and Mariana would translate the stories. Indians, miners, diamonds, the Amazon, massacre, international intrigue it was National Geographic meets James Bond.
What convinced us that this was a great subject for a documentary was that on many levels, the story challenged most peoples perception of the Amazon. While the history of the Amazon is filled with stories of white men massacring Indians, in this case it was the Indians who perpetrated the massacre. And the lifestyle of this tribe also appeared to challenge our impressions of Amazonian Indians. The Cinta Larga, we read, were rich. They drove nice cars, lived in large homes outside the reserve, used satellite phones and married outside their tribe. In other words, they werent running around naked in the jungle.
At least this was the line that members of the Brazilian press were following. And it was all we really had to go on. The massacre never made big headlines internationally. The Associated Press had picked it up, though, and it was in this story that I came across a quote from a Cinta Larga tribal chief, Chief Pio, that really struck me.
We are warriors, Chief Pio said, referring to the massacre. Before the white man came, none of the tribes here were friends. We fought and killed each other; that is how we resolved things.
Chief Pios words seemed to be an echo from across the ages. They hinted at an angle for this story that had yet to be explored. Whats it like to travel from the Stone Age to the modern era virtually overnight? And whats it like to suddenly learn that the land that you occupy holds a resource a stone that the rest of the world deems so precious?Back to top Next Entry