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Montage of images from the film, Jewel of the Amazon

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Video Length: 20:56

On an uncharted dirt road, FRONTLINE/World reporter Mariana van Zeller drives into Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, past land that has been cleared for timber and cattle grazing. “It’s sad to see this,” says Mauro Sposito, the federal police chief for special operations in the Amazon, who is taking her along on a sensitive mission. But this time, it’s not loggers or ranchers who have brought a special task force of the federal police deep into the jungle. It’s a fight over the Amazon’s latest treasure: diamonds.

“In the last few years, more than a billion dollars in diamonds has been extracted from this forest,” reports van Zeller, “and if the big mining companies are allowed in, many believe this could become the richest diamond mine in the world.”

The complicating factor is that the diamonds are on the reservation of one of Brazil’s indigenous tribes, the Cinta Larga, and mining is illegal on all of Brazil’s Indian lands. But after the discovery of the diamonds in the late 1990s, a black market developed. Indians and wildcat miners sell the precious gems to middlemen who resell them in the big cities, São Paulo and Rio -- sometimes for $250,000 or more. The black market trade has led to rising violence. This time the federal police have been called in to investigate charges that the Cinta Larga massacred 29 miners.

The Cinta Larga was a Stone Age tribe living in isolation until the 1960s when the Brazilian government established contact with them. “White men are still not allowed on the reserve without an invitation,” notes van Zeller as she arrives with police chief Sposito to investigate the massacre. “We’re surprised to find the Cinta Larga in full warrior dress.”

In an extraordinary exchange, Sposito and the Cinta Larga warrior chief, Joao Bravo, exchange views. Sposito tries to reassure the Indians that the government has no intention of seizing their land, at the same time insisting that the diamonds belong to Brazil. Chief Bravo argues that the diamonds belong to his tribe. “I’m in charge here,” shouts Bravo, “I have my rights here.” He fears that without money from the diamond sales, the Cinta Larga will not be able to obtain the food and medicine they need to survive.

Initially, Chief Bravo’s tone is menacing. “For a long time, I strangled people,” he tells the federal police. “For a long time, I killed white men.” But then he turns conciliatory. “Today we are friendly. So you have to respect us.”

The standoff finally ends with an agreement to shut down the mine temporarily while the government decides who will control the diamonds. The deal is sealed with ceremonial music, the drinking of fermented cassava root, and the slaughtering of a cow with bows and arrows.

A few days later, the Indians allow van Zeller and her cameraman, Darren Foster, to film the disputed diamond mine and to explain their case. “I didn’t even know what a diamond was,” admits Chief Bravo. “I couldn’t believe how much they were worth.” At first the Indians did not want anyone coming onto their reserve to mine. But then they decided to charge miners $5,000 a person for the right to mine on Indian land. Ultimately, some of the Cinta Larga themselves learned how to mine.

“But then some of the miners snuck upriver,” reports van Zeller. “They cleared a new mine and began taking diamonds without paying anything to the Cinta Larga.” Confronted by the Indians and told to stop, the miners refused and kept coming. Then, in April 2004, the Indians ambushed hundreds of miners who were working at what they thought was a secret site. Police later discovered 29 badly mutilated bodies. “A vision from hell,” is how Sposito describes it.

Van Zeller manages to track down a survivor of the massacre who is willing to describe what happened that day, as long as she does not reveal his identity. He says he’s fearful of Indian reprisals. This miner claims that as many as 100 miners may have been killed in the massacre.

Twenty-two Cinta Larga have been indicted in the massacre, including Chief Bravo, but they are unlikely to be convicted because Brazil’s constitution states that isolated indigenous communities can be considered unaware of -- and therefore not bound by -- the country’s laws, even when it comes to murder.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the miners turned to vigilante reprisals. Van Zeller obtains an amateur video of local police preventing the lynching of a Cinta Larga man accused of taking part in the massacre. He had been beaten by enraged miners and tied to a tree in a town square. Not long after that, miners shot and killed a 14-year-old Indian boy. “Now few Indians dare mix with the white population in town,” says van Zeller.

The Indians feel besieged. When they were first discovered in the rain forest in the 1960s, the Cinta Larga numbered around 5,000. Today only 1,300 remain. Another Cinta Larga leader, Chief Pio, worries that his people are caught between two cultures and will not survive without revenue from diamond mining. He says that if the government turns their diamond fields over to a mining company, the tribe will fight back.

Anthropologist Izanoel Sodre describes the Cinta Larga as a traditional warrior culture who saw their killing of the wildcat miners for encroaching on their land as an act of self-defense. He quotes a Cinta Larga’s explanation: “If you pass close to a beehive, the bees won’t do anything, but if you try to take something from inside it, they will attack you.”

At the moment, the federal police have shut down the mine and are keeping the disgruntled miners at bay. To appease the Indians, the government has allowed the Cinta Larga a limited period of amnesty during which they can sell their illegally mined diamonds to Caixa, Brazil’s federal bank. Most of the Indians are skeptical, but one man decides to sell his 28-carat diamond. If he were to sell it on the black market, he’d be lucky to get a few thousand dollars, but in this case, his diamond brings him $112,000 at an auction in Rio de Janeiro.

“The government called the diamond buyback program a success,” says van Zeller. “But the big question has not been solved. Who should control what may be the biggest diamond mine in the world?”

Sposito says the conflict between the Indians and the wildcat miners is “a war of the miserable.” Both sides are just trying to survive in the wilderness. The real showdown will come when the diamond cartels make their move to control the mine. That’s a fight that could determine the future of the Amazon.

Read the full transcript

JEWEL OF THE AMAZON

Producer and Camera

DARREN FOSTER

Reporter

MARIANA VAN ZELLER

Senior Producer

KEN DORNSTEIN

Editors

COB CARLSON

WILLIAM A. ANDERSON

Music

ASSOCIATED PRODUCTION MUSIC, LLC

Archival Footage

  • ANTONIO GAUDERIO
  • FAUSTO MONTEIRO
  • JESCO VON PUTTKAMER, ACERVO DO MUSEU DO ÍNDIO/FUNAI - BRASIL

Special thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

FOR FRONTLINE/WORLD

Coordinating Producer

DAVID RITSHER

Senior Associate Producer

SACHI CUNNINGHAM

Associate Producers

  • MARJORIE MCAFEE
  • JOELLE JAFFE
  • TIMOTHY WHEELER
  • SAMANTHA GRANT WIESER
  • SINGELI AGNEW

Senior Interactive Producer/Editor

JACKIE BENNION

Interactive Designer/Developer

KEI GOWDA

Copyeditor

JOAN SAUNDERS

Series Editor

STEPHEN TALBOT

Series Executive Director

SHARON TILLER

Executive Producer

DAVID FANNING

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