When the first Europeans arrived in Brazil in 1500 it was home to over 10 million Indians. Five centuries of murder, torture, disease and exploitation ravaged this population, and by the 1950s their population had plummeted to an all time low of about 100,000.
Eminent senator and anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro estimated that last century one tribe became extinct every year. He also predicted there would not be a single Indian left by 1980. Almost 1,500 tribes are believed to have become extinct since 1500.
Others are so reduced in size that they number fewer than the 11 people in a football team:
5: Akuntsu tribe (Rondônia state)
4: Juma tribe (Amazonas state)
3: Piripkura tribe (Rondônia state)
2: Indians of the Tapirapé River (Maranhão state). (One may now be dead)
1: ‘The Last of his Tribe’/ ‘The Man in the Hole’ (Rondônia state)
The smallest stadium, in Curitiba (capacity: 41,456), would fit the largest Amazon tribe (the Tikuna: population 40,000) with seats to spare.
The largest capacity stadium is the Maracanã in Rio (capacity: 76,804). The audience will be significantly greater than Brazil’s largest tribe, the Guarani (population: 51,000) some of whom live just 50 km from Rio.
These cities are in states which today have some of the most acute land conflicts. The tribes living in the south of Brazil – the Guarani Mbyá, Guarani Ñandeva, Kaingang, Xokleng and Xetá – live on tiny parcels of land, as colonists have stolen most of their territory.
Threatened tribe: The Xetá were almost entirely wiped out in the 1950s, as their lands were taken from them. By 1999 there were just 8 survivors, three men and five women, all of them related.
Maracanã is an indigenous Tupi word meaning parrot. (It can also refer to maraca-na – a rattle with seeds used by the Guarani in religious ceremonies). Its real name is Estádio Mário Filho.
When rebuilding work started for the World Cup, a group of 70 Indians from 17 different tribes who were occupying an abandoned 19th-century mansion by the stadium were evicted, and their home destroyed, to make way for a giant car park and the construction of a football museum. The Indians wanted the building to be preserved as an Indigenous Cultural Centre.
This colonial mansion was home to the first institute of indigenous cultural research in Brazil in 1910. Soon after, it became the main office for the Indian Protection Service, today FUNAI. Until 1978, it was the headquarters of the Museum of the Indian People in Brazil.
Extinct tribe: the Goitacá tribe who lived along the Rio coast were exterminated in armed conflict with the European colonists.
Tribes who live in this area include the Nambiquara, Umutina and Pareci.
The Umutina were decimated by measles and other diseases. Numbering 400 in 1862, by 1943 just 73 survived. Their numbers are now slowly recovering.
The Nambiquara suffered terribly when the BR-364 highway, funded by the World Bank, was bulldozed through the fertile valley that was their homeland. They numbered 7,000 in 1915, but by 1975 only 530 of them remained.
Today the Nambiquara population is 2,000, but their lands are still being invaded by diamond miners, loggers and ranchers.
‘They faced dogs, chains, Winchesters, machine guns, napalm, arsenic, clothes contaminated with smallpox, false certificates, removal, deportations, highways, fences, fires, weeds, cattle, the decrees of law and the denial of facts.’ Darcy Ribeiro, Brazilian Senator and anthropologist.
Threatened tribe: 1,400 km from Cuiabá (about half way between Manaus and Cuiabá stadiums) live the Kawahiva, one of the most threatened uncontacted tribes in the world.
About 100 km north-east of Belo Horizonte is an indigenous territory called ‘Fazenda Guarani’, inhabited by Krenak and Pataxó Indians. Both suffered huge losses as they tried to resist the expanding colonial frontier.
In the 1960s the Brazilian state established two secret prisons run by military police to punish and reform indigenous peoples who resisted the invasion of their lands. One former inmate called them concentration camps where Indians were forced to work, and beaten and put in solitary confinement if they refused. ‘I was a prisoner here for twelve years. The police beat us Krenak so much that we had to bathe with water and salt afterwards.’ Manelão Pankararu.
Brazil’s National Truth Commission is investigating the mistreatment of Indians in the prisons.
Threatened tribe: The Krenak today number 350.
Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, is the only Amazon city to host the World Cup. The stadium is built in the style of an indigenous basket.
Extinct tribe: Manaus is named after the extinct Manáos tribe. They fought Portuguese domination in the area, led by their great leader Ajuricaba who united several tribes in resistance but was eventually defeated.
Manaus grew massively in the late nineteenth century on the riches of the rubber boom. Tens of thousands of indigenous people were enslaved and forced to tap rubber. Appalling atrocities were committed against the Indians – thousands died from torture, disease and malnutrition. Some Indians avoided enslavement by retreating to the remote upper headwaters of Amazon tributaries where today they avoid all contact with national society.
One hundred kilometers from Manaus is the land of the Waimiri Atroari Indians. From the eighteenth century this tribe valiantly resisted invading hunters and rubber tappers, and many died in violent conflicts, but contact was made in the 1970s when the government bulldozed a highway through their land. Hundreds died from diseases and in violent confrontations with army units sent in to quell their resistance to the road. General Gentil Noguera Paes said, ‘The road must be finished, even if we have to open fire on these murderous Indians to do so. They have already greatly defied us and they are getting in the way of construction.’ Brazil’s National Truth Commission is investigating atrocities against the Waimiri Atroari during this period.
Threatened tribe: By 1988 the Waimiri Atroari population had plummeted from 6,000 to just 374. Today they number over 1,500. At least one group of uncontacted Indians is believed to live in the their territory.
Threatened tribe: Just 370 km from Manaus there are two uncontacted tribes. Brazil is home to more uncontacted tribes than any other country: FUNAI estimates there are up to 80 uncontacted groups. Many, such as the Kawahiva and the Awá, are on the run as heavily armed loggers and ranchers destroy their rainforest.
Threatened tribe: Only five hours’ drive from Brasília, tiny groups of Indians have been hiding in the vast thorny scrub land. They are the Avá Canoeiro, who now number just 24 – the last remnants of a proud and strong tribe which has been on the run since 1780, and is now on the verge of extinction. In the early 1980s, hundreds of construction workers moved in to build a hydroelectric dam on the Tocantins river, on Avá Canoeiro land.
The dam’s lake drowned the Indians’ last refuge and hunting grounds. As construction began, FUNAI mounted an urgent mission to contact remaining groups – it soon became clear that very few Avá Canoeiro remained. In 1983, they eventually contacted an Avá Canoeiro couple, Iawi and Tuia, and Tuia’s mother and aunt, Matcha and Naquatcha. The tiny group had survived a vicious massacre in 1962, and had then spent 20 years hiding in caves high up in the mountains.
Iawi and Tuia have had two children, Trumak, and Putdjawa who has a baby son called Paxeo by a Tapirapé Indian.
Another small group of Avá Canoeiro, numbering around a dozen people, were contacted in 1973. Nearly all were scarred from the bullets of gunmen hired by the Camagua ranch, owned by a Brazilian bank. The group was found living hidden in a marsh – their last refuge on what had been their hunting ground, now divided by barbed wire fences – and the Indians were suffering from malnutrition. This group numbers less than 20 people.
Of the 23 tribes of the north-east coast, only the Fulnio retain their language.
This area was one of the earliest to be colonized. Today it is the scene of some of the bitterest land conflicts. The Pataxó Hã Hã Hãe have struggled for land rights for decades, during which they have been subjected to violence and the assassination of their leaders.
Six hours’ drive south of Salvador, the Tupinambá Indians are currently being targeted by police, who have raided their villages to evict them from their land in favour of cattle ranches. In August 2013 four Tupinambá were murdered and their bodies mutilated, and 26 houses destroyed.
Brazil’s government has racked up a bill of US$ 791 million to pay for security during the World Cup. A similar sum would pay the annual budget of its cash-strapped Indian Affairs Department at least three times over.
FIFA says: ‘Officially, however, it is Portuguese Pedro Alvares Cabral who is regarded as the discoverer of Brazil. His fleet, in search of the Indias, sailed into the South of modern-day Bahia on 22 April 1500.’
Indian leader Davi Kopenawa Yanomami says: ‘The whites shout out today ‘We discovered the land of Brazil’. This is nothing less than a lie. It existed from the time that Omame, the creator, created us and it. Our ancestors have known this land for ever. She was not discovered by the whites. But the whites continue lying among themselves thinking that they discovered this land! As if it was empty! ‘We discovered this land. We have books and therefore we are important!’ say the whites. But these are lies. The only thing the whites did was to steal the lands from the peoples of the forest and destroy them. I am the son of ancient Yanomami and I live in the forest where my people lived when I was born and I don’t go around telling the whites I discovered it! I don’t say I discovered this land because my eyes fell on it, so therefore I own it. It was always there, before my time. I don’t say ‘I discovered the sky’. Nor do I shout, ‘I discovered the fish and I discovered the animals!’ They have always been there since the beginning of time.’
FIFA says: ‘The Brazilian rainforest is another source of natural riches, including tung oil, rubber, carnauba oil, caroa fibre, medicinal plants, vegetable oils, resins, timber for construction and various woods used in furniture-making. Brazil has also begun mining fairly recently, again taking advantage of its abundant natural resources.’
The reality: The rainforest is not just a ‘source of natural riches’, it is the ancestral home of hundreds of thousands of Indians, and much of it has been stolen from them or destroyed. Mining on Indian land has been going on for decades.
FIFA says:‘Brazil has roughly 190 million inhabitants, making it the fifth most populated country on Earth. Almost 75 per cent of them are Catholics, whilst another 26 million are Protestants. Brazil’s Jewish community is very small by comparison.’
‘The official language is Portuguese, however many Brazilians speak other languages according to their origins. German and Italian, for example, are fairly prevalent in the cities of the South.’
The reality:The overwhelming majority of languages spoken in Brazil are indigenous – more than 200.
Some indigenous peoples in Brazil have their own football-type sports.
The Pareci, for example, who live 100 km from Cuiabá stadium, play xikunahity. The game is played by two teams of 10 men in a rectangle, similar in size to a football pitch, who butt a ball made of mangaba fruit with the head. Usually one Pareci village challenges another to a game. Each player brings objects like fishing hooks and line to the game, and bets are laid.
The Enawene Nawe, 400 km from Cuiabá, also play head football.
Coca Cola uses an image of a smiling Indian drinking Coke in its advertising. But the firm is sourcing sugar from food giant Bunge – which in turn buys sugar cane from land stolen from the Guarani.
A Guarani spokesman has said, ‘Coca-Cola must stop buying sugar from Bunge. While these companies profit, we are forced to endure hunger, misery, and killings’.
Brazil’s Indians need your help. Without outside support, they stand little chance of survival.
Brazil is home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else on the planet. They are the most vulnerable of all the country’s peoples.
They depend completely on their forest for their survival, but much of it is being destroyed for logging, cattle ranching, mega-dams, roads, oil and gas exploration, and more. The government and landowners now plan to open up their lands further, to massive industrial projects.
These projects and the waves of immigrants they attract threaten to wipe out entire uncontacted communities, as has tragically happened to countless tribes in Brazil since it was colonized by the Europeans 500 years ago.
Only with their lands intact and protected for their exclusive use, will uncontacted tribes survive. This is one of the most urgent humanitarian crises of our time.
To learn more about the history of Brazil’s Indians, read Survival’s report ‘Disinherited’, which tells their story from the European invasion until 2000.