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World Cup Detour With Amazonia's Indigenous

Selling World Cup knick-knacks in Manaus.
Selling World Cup knick-knacks in Manaus.
Benoît Hopquin

MANAUS — The “City of God,” a poor neighborhood in the Amazonian city of Manaus, is a place that must be earned. It is a chaos of streets and houses where the inhabitants keep piling up, encouraged more by the illusion of escaping poverty than by poverty itself.

To find the neighborhood, you have to leave the town center, drive to the edge of the forest, search, go around in circles, and search some more. Then, finally, after the Botafogo bar, at the end of a dead-end road, with the ruts still drowned by the previous day’s torrential rain, we find the home of Bernardino Alexandro Perreira.

He belongs to the Ticuna people. He is “indigenous,” a “native,” according to local terminology, which has no negative connotation in Brazil. “Indian,” on the other hand, is considered an insult. When people in the street call him that — and it happens often — Perreira knows what to think about them.

“We suffer the consequences of discrimination,” he says matter-of-factly.

About 100 Ticuna people, among other Brazilians, live in the City of God. Bernardino arrived in Manaus in 1989 to continue his studies, which in the village where he comes from did not go beyond a basic level. Clergymen encouraged him to continue, so he left the forest, traveled five days in a pirogue and then in a boat until he reached Manaus.

But when he got there, he didn’t study. Disoriented by urban life, he just got by before buying this parcel of hillside land with a cousin. There, he used simple bricks and crude concrete to build a small house where he now lives with his wife and their eight children.

Quiet unease

Little by little, other Ticuna came and settled. There are now nine homes made either out of bricks or wood, almost touching one another. On that hillside, they rebuilt a sort of village, with the home of the cacique — the leader — bigger than the others.

His wife has gone back to their home village for a month, a return to the roots that the others also try to make every couple of years. On the parts of land that remain free, Bernardino and his neighbors grow urucu, which they wear during ritual ceremonies, as well as other medicinal plants. They essentially live between two worlds and two cultures.

The World Cup and everything that comes with it should be miles away from the concerns of the City of God. Yet the Ticuna have decorated their streets with Brazilian flags. A 3-year-old girl, with eyes of black jade, is wandering around with a Seleçãojersey. Bernardino and the others couldn’t afford a ticket, but they don’t miss a single televised game.

They even created a soccer team and are doing “more or less well” in a small local league.

Indigenous Amazon people like Perreira, divided in 160 tribes with 200 languages, are following the Copa with as much interest as the rest of Brazil. But soccer is just soccer, and although the braided basket structure of the Arena da Amazonia, the stadium in Manaus, is inspired by local culture, the status of indigenous populations is still uncertain. During the opening ceremony in Sao Paulo, the protest of a young Indian, ignored by the television network, was one symbol of unease that some would like to keep quiet.

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Manaus' Arena de Amazonia — Photo: copa2014

“The Indigenous watch the games in the villages that have television,” explains Joao Neves Silva, director of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and himself a futebol lover. “Most of them only like soccer as a sport. The economic side of it doesn’t interest them.”

Silva explains how his organization tries to unite the 140,000 natives of the Amazonian rainforest. He belongs to the Galibi-Marworno, a small tribe that lives near the border with French Guiana.

“The Constitution of 1988 guarantees rights to the indigenous people,” he says. Since 1991, they have thus benefited from the “demarcation” principle. After a long process, they are allowed to register land as their own. The subsoil still belongs to the state, but they can claim compensation for its exploitation.

Risk of disappearing

“The laws are pro-indigenous, but the state is stripping them away more and more,” says Silva, noting the pressure from mining groups and big land owners.

Amid Brazil’s weak growth in recent years, Amazonia and its six million square kilometers are viewed by some with insatiable lust. “We pass for slackers who have a vast land but produce nothing,” Silva says. “People think they know everything, but they don’t try to understand who we are. Where we live, there are animals, plants, trees. Wherever the non-indigenous settle, all of that disappears.”

Established between the cities of Manaus (the name comes from a tribe slaughtered by Portuguese settlers) and Porto Velho, the Tenharim have to fight to keep land rights, as they’re threatened by urban expansion and the market for real estate. In particular, the natives enjoy a right of passage over a road that crosses their lands and that is a constant source of disputes with transport companies. In December 2013, a tribe leader was found dead. The official version was that he had an accident, but the Tenharim were convinced he was murdered and set public buildings on fire.

In the heart of the forest, the Yanomami are also fighting against white-collar predators, dangers more fatal than snakes, scorpions and venomous spiders because they are less accustomed to protecting themselves from them. The 21,600 members of this tribe live in 291 villages spread over an “unmarked” territory of 91,000 square kilometers, twice the size of Switzerland.

Because the soil is rich in gold, manganese and several precious metals, half of that area is being coveted for mineral exploration projects. The inhabitants, who live off hunting and slash-and-burn cultivation of bananas, manioc and natural beetroot, cannot fight against such economic interests.

Hard to count

"Twenty or 30 years ago, public opinion in Brazil was more favorable to the rights of the natives,” explains Silvio Cavuscens, a naturalized Brazilian originally from Switzerland who leads Secoya, an association created in 1997 to defend the rights of the Yanomami people. “Brazil now claims to be a developed country, but some economic and health indicators of indigenous peoples are worse than those of Africa.”

Cavuscens says that almost half of Yanomami children are undernourished, and many lack basic health and education. Isolated and frail, these populations are victims of illegal gold diggers, traffickers or employers who practically reduce them to slavery without qualm. “The Yanomami can’t count. For them, it goes: 1, 2, 3, a lot,” Cavuscens says.

Still, the city lights keep attracting many natives. Deceived by these false promises and unable to adapt to urban life, they get by thanks to handcrafting and small subsidies, but sometimes sink into alcoholism. Some women travel from the forest to become cleaning ladies. Unable to defend themselves, they are exploited by the employers. When they don’t have any money, some of them turn to prostitution to survive.

Amarn, an association for native women from the Upper Rio Negro region, offers them shelter and helps them when they have nowhere else to go. Claudineia Gama Brito, a woman from the Tariano tribe, found refuge there. “It didn’t work,” she says summing up her urban adventure.

Clarisse Arbella is one of the leaders of Amarn. A former nun and a Tucano, she also had her share of setbacks, and notes the racism she and others have faced from Brazilians, and the way it can sap a sense of self-worth.

But in the end, Clarisse Arbella also speaks about soccer, as a television set broadcast the Switzerland vs. France game in the group phase. She says she’s interested in the competition and follows the games on TV. “I support Brazil," she says, "like every other native."

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