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Brazil’s Indians—Threatened With Extinction?

Brazil’s Indians—Threatened With Extinction?

 Brazil’s Indians​—Threatened With Extinction?


THE Xingu National Park is located in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. It covers some 10,500 square miles [27,000 km2]​—an area almost the size of Belgium. Home to some 3,600 Indians belonging to 14 ethnic groups, the park is a verdant island in the midst of what in satellite photos looks like “a gigantic billiard table.” Surrounding forests have either been burned down to provide loggers with access to commercially viable trees or transformed into pasture for huge herds of cattle.

In the 1960’s, the Brazilian government began to establish reservations for the Indians. Mainly located in the Amazon region, at present the reservations cover about 12 percent of Brazil’s territory. The formation of reservations has contributed to a surprising turnabout: The Indian population in Brazil is growing​—for the first time in the past 500 years! It is thought to number some three hundred thousand. That, however, represents only a tiny fraction of the Indian population in 1500, which is estimated to have been anywhere between two million and six million.

In the past 500 years, as one writer put it, “an appalling demographic tragedy of great magnitude has occurred.” What led to such a drastic reduction in the Indian population? Does growth in recent years mean that Brazil’s Indians are finally safe from extinction?

How Colonization Began

During the first 30 years after Portugal laid claim to Brazil in 1500, colonial interests centered on brazilwood​—a hardwood that produces a red dye. Brazil got its name from this tree. The wood was highly valued in Europe, and Europeans bartered trinkets for it.

However, it was soon discovered that sugarcane flourished in the Brazilian climate. But there was a drawback. Sugar cultivation was labor-intensive. Demand for slave labor began to increase. And the settlers did not have to look far! An abundant supply of native labor was available.

How Did Slavery Come About?

Indians were accustomed to practicing a type of subsistence agriculture. Men were basically hunters and fishers. They undertook the heavy labor of clearing forest land. The women did the planting, harvesting, and preparing of food. In European intellectual circles, the Indians’ seeming indifference to wealth and their lack of greed were eulogized. On the other hand, many settlers viewed the Indians as just plain lazy.

Friendly Indians were encouraged to move close to Portuguese settlements to provide labor and protection for the settlers. The Jesuits and other religious orders were often instrumental in this process. Little did they realize how detrimental this contact would be to the Indians. Although the Indians’ land and freedom were guaranteed by law, in practice, Indians were virtually forced to work as slaves for the settlers. Rarely were they paid or allowed to cultivate their own land.

Attempts by the Portuguese Crown to ban  slavery met with limited success. Settlers usually managed to circumvent antislavery laws. Generally speaking, it was considered morally acceptable to enslave or sell as slaves Indians, supposedly enemies, captured in “just wars.” Indians held captive by other tribes could also be purchased, or “ransomed,” and kept as slaves.

In the final analysis, it was the sugar industry that made the colony a viable venture. And the sugar industry back then depended on slave labor. Hence, the Portuguese Crown was often forced to reconcile its conscience with its treasury receipts.

Colonial Rivalry​—Portugal Versus France and Holland

The Indians were the principal victims of conflicts between the colonial powers. The French and the Dutch sought to take Brazil from Portugal. They competed with the Portuguese for Indian support. The Indians did not perceive that the real intent of the foreign powers was to take over their land. Rather, they saw these conflicts as an opportunity to avenge themselves on their own enemies​—other Indian tribes—​and thus willingly got embroiled in foreign-power disputes.

For example, on November 10, 1555, Nicholas de Villegaignon, a French nobleman, landed at Guanabara Bay (modern Rio de Janeiro) and built a fort. He allied himself with the local Tamoio Indians. The Portuguese brought Tupinamba Indians from Bahia and, in March 1560, finally attacked what had seemed to be an impregnable fort. The French fled but continued to trade with the Tamoio and to incite them to attack the Portuguese. After a number of battles, the Tamoio were finally crushed. Reportedly, in just one battle, 10,000 were killed and 20,000 enslaved.

Loathsome Diseases From Europe

The natives first contacted by the Portuguese seemed remarkably healthy. Early explorers believed that many of the older Indians were centenarians. But the Indians had no immunity to European and African diseases. Probably this factor more than any other led them to the brink of extinction.

Portuguese records are filled with terrible reports of epidemics that drastically reduced the Indian population. In 1561, a smallpox plague struck Portugal and spread across the Atlantic. The effect was devastating. Jesuit Leonardo do Vale wrote a letter on May 12, 1563, that described the horrors of the epidemic in Brazil: “This was a form of smallpox or pox so loathsome and evil-smelling that none could stand the great stench that emerged from [the victims]. For this reason many died untended, consumed by the worms that grew in the wounds of the pox and were engendered in their bodies in such abundance and of such great size that they caused horror and shock to any who saw them.”

Interracial Unions Shock Jesuits

Mixed racial unions also led to the disappearance of many tribes. “Neither the Portuguese nor the native Brazilians were repelled by interracial unions,” states the book Red Gold​—The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians. The Indians considered it an act of hospitality to offer women, often their own daughters, to strangers. When the first Jesuits arrived in Brazil in 1549, they were scandalized by what they saw. “They [the clergy] publicly tell the men that it is lawful for them to live in sin with their coloured  women,” complained Jesuit Manoel da Nóbrega, adding: “The settlers use all their Indian women [slaves] as concubines.” The king of Portugal was informed that one Portuguese settler ‘had so many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and descendants that [the speaker said] I would not dare to tell Your Majesty how many.’

By the mid-17th century, the Indians of the once populous coastal plains of Brazil had either been killed off, reduced to slavery, or assimilated by interracial unions. The same could soon be said of tribes of the Amazon region.

The arrival of the Portuguese in the Amazon was followed by an almost unrestrained “open season” on the inhabitants of the lower Amazon. According to the vicar-general of Maranhão, Manoel Teixeira, in a matter of decades, the Portuguese killed almost two million Indians in Maranhão and Pará! This figure was probably exaggerated, but the destruction and suffering were real enough. The upper Amazon later suffered similar devastation. By the mid-18th century, the Amazon region, with the exception of remote areas, had lost almost its entire native Indian population.

The development of many of the remote areas in the Amazon region during the late 19th and the 20th centuries gradually brought the white man into contact with surviving isolated Indian tribes. Charles Goodyear’s discovery of the process of rubber vulcanization in 1839 and the subsequent invention of rubber tires led to a “rubber rush.” Traders swarmed to the Amazon region, which was the sole supplier of crude rubber. The period is noted for the violent exploitation of the native population, which resulted in a further serious decrease in their numbers.

How Has the 20th Century Affected Indians?

In 1970 the Brazilian government decided on a plan of integration that involved the construction of highways to link remote parts of the Amazon. Many of these cut through Indian land and exposed the Indians not only to attacks from prospectors but also to the onslaught of fatal diseases.

For example, consider what happened to the Panarás people. This tribe was decimated by war and slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries. A small remnant fled in a northwesterly direction, deep into the forest of northern Mato Grosso. Then the Cuiabá-Santarém highway was built right through their land.

Contact with the white man proved to be fatal for many. In 1975, only 80 members of the once populous tribe remained. The Panarás were relocated to the Xingu National Park. They tried unsuccessfully to find an environment within the park that was similar to their native forest. Then the Panarás decided to return to their homeland. On November 1, 1996, the Brazilian minister of justice declared an area of 1,900 square miles [495,000 ha] to be a “permanent indigenous possession.” The Panarás have apparently been saved from extinction.

Will Their Future Be Any Better?

Can reservations save the remaining Indian tribes from extinction? At present, the physical extinction of Brazil’s Indians seems remote. However, their lands often contain valuable natural resources. It is calculated that minerals worth about a trillion dollars​—including gold, platinum, diamonds, iron, and lead—​lie hidden in the subsoil of what is known as Legal Amazonia, which covers nine states in the north and central western regions of Brazil. About 98 percent of the Indian lands lie within this region. Illegal  prospecting is already a reality in some Indian lands.

History shows that the Indians have consistently lost out in their dealings with white men. They bartered gold for mirrors and brazilwood logs for trinkets, and they had to flee to remote areas of the forests to avoid becoming slaves. Will history repeat itself?

Many Indians have learned to use the tools of our technological age​—airplanes, motorized boats, and cell phones. But only time will tell whether they will be equal to the other challenges of the 21st century.

[Map on page 15]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

■ Xingu National Park

□ Indian reservations



Rio de Janeiro











[Picture on page 15]

Traders exploited the Indian population for slave labor on their rubber plantations

[Credit Line]

© Jacques Jangoux/​Peter Arnold, Inc.

[Picture Credit Line on page 12]

Line drawing and design: From the book Brazil and the Brazilians, 1857