Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dispatches: Amazonas, Brazil

The life-and-death struggle of Indigenous Tenharim to preserve their land and their resources.

Is help really just a call away? A radio in a Tenharim village is used to communicate with the National Foundation of the Indian. Photo: Avener Prado/Folhapress, Poder

 A lot of people would like to know how Ivan Tenharim died. On the afternoon of December 2, 2013, a relative found the chief of the Tenharim people in Brazil’s Amazonas state lying unconscious near his undamaged motorcycle on a long, uninhabited stretch of the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

His neck was broken, and blood was trickling from his ears, nose and mouth.

The 45-year-old leader was a careful driver. The weather was good, and traffic, as usual, had been sparse.1 He had been on his way home after shopping in Santo Antônio do Matupi, a settlement that has been at the center of conflict between the Tenharim and local loggers and cattle ranchers. Known as “180” because of its location 180 kilometers (112 miles) from the larger town of Humaitá, Santo Antônio has a reputation for lawlessness—with a shifting population of arms smugglers, operators of clandestine sawmills and dirt-poor gold prospectors.

Although no autopsy results were released—despite repeated requests from the Tenharim—many from the tribe are convinced that their chief was murdered by someone from 180 angered by Chief Ivan’s campaign against illegal logging on Indigenous land.2

View a slideshow of life in a Tenharim village below.

The latest conflict dates back to August 2008, when the Tenharim erected a thatched-roof tollbooth and put a moveable barrier across the Trans-Amazonian Highway to demand reimbursement from drivers they felt were exploiting the diminishing natural resources of their approximately 2.5 million acres of territory.3 They charged drivers a “compensation fee” of about $8 for cars, and as much as $30 for trucks. The funds were distributed among several Tenharim villages and were used for education, groceries, motorcycles, flatscreen TVs, and other conveniences. Government vehicles, ambulances, and people pleading poverty were exempt.

Even though drivers paid the fees and local officials looked the other way, the tollbooth fueled resentment among the area’s non-Indigenous residents. And, to the frustration of the Tenharim, it did nothing to curtail the illegal logging. In 2011, Chief Ivan asked federal authorities to take action against clandestine loggers. That year, authorities sent in troops, imposed heavy fines, seized equipment, and even arrested some of the loggers—still to no avail.

The chief’s death was only one tragic milestone in a larger struggle taking place across Amazonia between Indigenous peoples and outsiders eager to exploit the area’s dwindling natural resources. As the rainforest has been cut down or burned off, replaced by cattle pastures and soy fields, Indigenous groups like the Tenharim—who need the forest and its plants, fruits and animals to sustain themselves—have been fighting an uphill battle to preserve what’s left.

The conflict is aggravated by a history of ill-conceived attempts to “civilize” the Amazon and by a discriminatory legal system that tribal leaders claim has often ignored Indigenous rights. In the near absence of federal control across almost half of Brazil’s territory, the rule of law appears to have given way to the law of the jungle.

“Every day, we see trucks go past the village, stealing our wood,” says Ivanildo Tenharim, 35, a secretary of Indigenous affairs in Humaitá whose surname is shared by all members of the Tenharim tribe. “The dust covers everything and makes people sick. And there’s nothing we can do.”

Years of Frustration

The Tenharim had little contact with outsiders until the early 1970s, when the Trans-Amazonian Highway, also known as BR-230, came through. Building the road was Brazil’s first step toward settling the Amazon—which makes up almost half of Brazil’s territory—before migrants from other countries moved in.4 The highway also allowed the people of Brazil’s drought-stricken northeast to go west to the interior, instead of south to overgrown urban areas.

“Land without men for men without land” was the government’s slogan at the time. Though there were few known natural resources, the rainforest seemed to offer not only land but an infinite supply of wood.

From the Tenharim’s perspective, however, the highway was a disaster, as bulldozers shoved aside houses, fields and cemeteries. “We’ve suffered many deaths from traffic accidents and diseases we never had before,” claims João Bosco Tenharim, an elder chief of the Tenharim village Mafuí. “We suffered an enormous mortality [rate] from which we have not recovered. We never had these problems when we were isolated.”

The Tenharim nevertheless struggled to assert the rights granted them under Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, which recognized Indigenous peoples’ claims to their traditional lands. Today, the tribe numbers approximately 900 individuals.  Although they continue to adhere to their traditional culture—speaking their own language, Kagwahiva, and harvesting their own food—they have adapted to modern life, living in wood houses, learning Portuguese in school, wearing T-shirts and gym shorts, watching TV, talking on cell phones.  And they have also learned how to assert their constitutional rights by demanding that the government defend their lands.

New Conflict Erupts

On December 16, two weeks after Chief Ivan’s death, three non-Indigenous men from Humaitá disappeared. The townspeople immediately suspected the Tenharim.

On Christmas Day, a mob of 2,000 people set fire to the local office of the federal Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Foundation of the Indian—FUNAI) in Humaitá. Police were unable to hold them off. The office and another building next door were destroyed, along with FUNAI vehicles and property.5

FUNAI may have been targeted because a former regional coordinator of FUNAI, Ivã Gouvêa Bocchini, suggested that Chief Ivan’s death on December 3 should be investigated as a possible murder. According to FUNAI President Maria Augusta Assirati, Bocchini’s work was “impeccable,” but he was forced to abandon his post due to concerns for his safety.6

Police ordered the Tenharim in town—scores were there for Christmas shopping—to be held under protective custody at Humaitá’s police compound until further notice. Two days later, hundreds of settlers from 180 charged down BR-230 with the apparent intention of massacring the tribe.7 At each village, they fired guns in the air and torched houses near the highway, although police managed to keep the mob out of the villages.
Tenharim armed with nothing more than bows and arrows fled into the forest.
Some got lost and barely survived a week of wandering.8

According to Margarita Tenharim, the wife of a village chief, the tribe was spared a massacre only by not resisting. “If we had done anything to defend ourselves,” she says, “they would have destroyed the village. They were here to kill us all and take our land.”

One of the buildings burned down was the tollbooth—apparently a main target of the attack. The Tenharim have vowed to rebuild it if the government offers no other compensation for their decades of loss.9 For now, however, they have agreed not to inflame tempers further.

The Aftermath

Within days of the violence, federal helicopters, trucks, and troops again swooped in to the region to restore order. After six days in the police compound in Humaitá, 150 Tenharim were allowed to return home under military escort.10

Two weeks later, the Ministério Público Federal (Federal Public Ministry) called on the government to pay the tribe $20 million reais (about $7.8 million) in restitution for the losses the Tenharim suffered from the highway.11 They are still waiting for the money.

In late January, authorities arrested and charged five Tenharim men for the murder of the missing contractors—even though no bodies had yet been found.12 The suspects happened to be tribal leaders, including the late Chief Ivan’s two sons, Giovan, 25, and Gilson, 20. A few weeks later, the bodies of the missing contractors were found on Tenharim land, with the burned remains of their car nearby.

People in Humaitá took the location of the bodies as conclusive evidence that the Tenharim were the murderers. “Some Indians here are teachers, people respect them as human beings, but how can we trust them after what happened?” one public employee, Marlene Souza, said in an interview with Veja.13

But the Tenharim suspects insisted they were innocent, and no evidence other than anonymous testimony was offered for their arrest.14 Antônio Enézio Tenharim, president of the Tenharim People’s Association, an NGO dedicated to improving the lives of the Tenharim people, charged that the arrests were aimed at destabilizing the tribe “to kill our culture.”

The flooding of the Madeira River and the presence of federal troops headed off another clash, but the Tenharim were still afraid to be seen in Humaitá. They had good reason. “If an Indian is seen in this town, he will be lynched,” said a white restaurant worker who asked not to be identified.

Francisco Merkel, bishop of Humaitá, says that these deep-seated prejudices won’t be overcome easily. “An intercultural dialogue needs to happen in schools and the university,” Merkel says. “After all the tension following the events and the return of deep distrust on all sides, the normalization of relations is going to be difficult.”

The federal government now finds itself in a quandary. Brazilian law mandates that the accused cannot be held without solid evidence, and a fair trial would likely result in exoneration. But if the five suspects are released, anger in Humaitá and 180 could again flare into violence.

“The situation is still tense,” says Kennedy Machado Duarte, administrative officer of the municipality of Manicoré, where 180 is located.
“But the accused will not be exonerated. All evidence indicates their guilt. They will have to pay for their barbarous crime.”

Duarte, however, conceded that it was unfair to blame all Tenharim for the actions of a few members of the tribe.

In November, in what some saw as a gesture to relieve pressure, the state justice department agreed to release the five accused Tenharim to a kind of house arrest on the reservation of the remote Hi-Merimã people.15

Sister Laura Manso, coordinator of the regional office of the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples—CIMI), which defends Indigenous peoples in Brazil and expressly refrains from converting them to Christianity, said that each of the 57 Indigenous communities in her region is suffering invasions by loggers, miners and ranchers—and that the federal government does nothing to stop them.

The core of the conflict, she says, is incompatible economic models.

“The Indian model of economic sustainability, based on the preservation of all forms of life, impedes the advance of white values, and so the Indigenous people are hated,” Manso says. “They are seen as obstacles to our economic model.”

Meanwhile, no one can be sure what really happened to Chief Ivan. There was never a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death, which federal police determined to be an accident.16

The five Tenharim accused of murder, however, were scheduled to appear before a judge in mid-December to determine if they will face a trial.

With all four deaths still unexplained, the conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous—and between two economic models—is likely to flare up again.

Slideshow photos courtesy of the author.

View Endnotes

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