RIO DE JANEIRO – The almost complete extermination of an Amazonian tribe in the 1970s, one of the darkest chapters of Brazil’s military dictatorship, is detailed in a new book.
“The Military dictatorship and the Waimiri-Atroari Genocide,” written by anthropologist Egydio Schwade, brings together accounts from survivors.
The number of Waimiri-Atroaris plummeted from roughly 3,000 in 1972 and to 322 in 1983, according to censuses carried out by the University of Brasilia and the National Indian Foundation.
Recovery did not begin until after the end of the military regime in 1985 and even now, the Waimiri-Atroari population is only 1,689.
The book, which was funded in part by the Amazonas state Truth Commission, drew on contemporaneous official reports about a push to wipe out the Waimiri-Atroaris to make room for a highway through the jungle.
Schwade’s research found that the military razed entire villages, dropping chemicals from aircraft and gunning down the Indians in cold blood.
“Until now we had only suspicions, denunciations of what happened during the construction of (highway) BR-174,” Schwade told Efe. “We now have the story directly from the Indians themselves.”
Schwade and his wife, Doroti, compiled survivors’ accounts over the course of two years while teaching the Indians as a part of a literacy program.
The story begins in 1972 with the junta’s plan to build BR-174, a 750-kilometer (466-mile) highway across pristine jungle between Amazonas’ capital, Manaus, and Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state.
The regime first sent a small expedition that attempted to force the Indians to move to a new settlement, but the Waimiri-Atroaris resisted and killed the advance party, which brought about a harsh response, Schwade said.
“A war of extermination was launched” by the dictatorship’s top leaders and the state governors “who demanded the construction of the road at any cost,” he said.
One of the most shocking incidents described in the book happened in 1974, when Indians from a number of settlements gathered in a village 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the Alalau river for a festival.
A military aircraft flew over the village and sprayed a chemical that killed all but one of those present.
“When Indians from other villages who were late to arrive got there they found everyone dead in a town that should have been celebrating amid plates piled high with food,” the anthropologist said.
Crimes against the Waimiri-Atroaris where mentioned, without much detail, in the final report of the report delivered Wednesday to President Dilma Rousseff by the Truth Commission appointed to document human rights violations under the 1964-1985 military regime.
The report does cites an official document in which Brig. Gen. Gentil Nogueira Paes orders soldiers to “stage small shows of strength” if they spotted Indians close to the highway construction sites, including “bursts of machine-gun fire, grenades and dynamite.”
Schwade said he was initially “quite disappointed” about the treatment the Truth Commission’s report gave to the indigenous peoples’ question, but he praised the decision to continue investigations under a special panel.