Brazil's Resurgent Indians

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Brazil's Resurgent Indians


"Tribal Preservation" by John Hemming, in Prospect (Jan. 2005), 2 Bloomsbury Pl., London WC1A 2QA, England.

A half-century ago, Brazil's Indians appeared headed for extinction. Reduced in number to 100,000, they were fast losing their land, their culture, and their will to survive. But they have made a remarkable comeback, reports anthropologist Hemming, former director of Britain's Royal Geographical Society and author of a trilogy on the history of Brazilian Indians.

Improvements in health are part of the story. The deadly toll of measles, influenza, and other alien diseases slowed as indigenous peoples developed immunity and received vaccines. "Traditional practices that kept village numbers low--late marriage, infanticide of babies with any defect, and years of breast-feeding that inhibit new pregnancies--are now discouraged. In many villages there is now a relative baby boom." The Indian population has climbed to more than 350,000.

"The catalyst for these improvements [has been] territorial security," according to Hemming. For decades, many of the 218 tribes retreated before loggers, mining prospectors, ranchers, farmers, and other settlers, particularly along the Atlantic seaboard, in the cattle country of the south and northeast, and along the navigable parts of the Amazon River and its tributaries. It took a crusade for indigenous land rights--often led by white activists in the early days--to turn the tide.

For example, Orlando and Claudio Villas Boas, the sons of a failed Sao Paulo coffee planter, worked for 30 years among the Xinguanos, the inhabitants of an area drained by a southern Amazon tributary, to persuade the various tribes to abandon ancient feuds and unite in common cause. Victory came in 1961, with the creation of the 10,000-square-mile Xingu Indigenous Park, the prototype for a score of huge protected areas in South America. …

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