Colin Firth and Survival International Come Together to Save the Awá Tribe


There exist some stories so tragic, in which brutal events create so much loss, that it would seem impossible to recover from the grief, or summon the will to live another day. And yet they are also inspiring in their when-the-chips-are-down determination; reassuring in their display of how much courage can be pulled from the human spirit when life has become hell. This is one such story.

It comes from the forested western edge of Maranhão state in north-east Brazil, where the Awá tribe lives. One of only two nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes left in Brazil, the Awá have long lived in this area that lies between the equatorial forests of Amazonia to the west and the drier cerrado savannas to the east.

Towards the end of the 1960s, geologists discovered that the richest reserves of iron ore on the planet lay under the soil. The U.S., Japan, the World Bank and the EEC loaned billions of dollars to Brazil to finance the Greater Carajás Programme in return for exports of minerals. One condition of the loan was that the Indians' area should be mapped out and protected.

The Greater Carajás Programme was devastating for the environment and its indigenous peoples. It was a mammoth agro-industrial complex consisting of a dam, tarmac roads, aluminum smelters, cattle ranches, and a long-distance railway that cut through the Awá's territory on its 900 km eastward course to the coast. Its pièce de résistance was an open-air iron-mine so big it could be seen from space. And into this region of precious bio and cultural diversity poured an army of ranchers, settlers and loggers, for there was a fortune to be made from the forest.

But there was a major problem for the prospectors: the Awá were in the way. So the invaders started to massacre them. Some were particularly inventive in their killings: several Awá died after eating flour laced with ant killer; a 'gift' from a local farmer. Others were just shot where they stood -- at home, in front of their families.

Karapiru, a gentle, tall man, thought he was the only one of his family to survive an attack. The killers murdered his wife, daughter, mother, brothers and sisters; his son was wounded and captured. Karapiru escaped and, severely traumatised, fled far into the forest, lead shot embedded in his lower back. "I couldn't put any medicine on my back, and I suffered a great deal," he told Fiona Watson of Survival International. "I don't know how it didn't get full of insects. But I managed to escape from the whites."

For twelve years Karapiru was on the run, fleeing the invaders. He walked for nearly 400 miles across the broad forested hills and plains of Maranhão, crossing the sand dunes of the restingas and the rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean. He was terrified, hungry and alone. "It was very hard," he told Fiona Watson. "I had no family to help me, and no one to talk to." He survived by eating honey and small birds: parakeet, dove and red-bellied thrush. At night, when howler monkeys called from the canopy, he slept high in the boughs of vast copaiba trees, among the orchids and rattan vines. And when the solitude became too much, he would talk quietly to himself, or hum as he walked.

More than a decade later, on the outskirts of a town in the neighbouring state of Bahia, Karapiru was seen by a farmer walking through the black ash of a burnt patch of forest, carrying a machete, arrows, and a chunk of smoked wild pig. The farmer gave him shelter, and alerted FUNAI -- the government body responsible for Indian policy -- which in turn sent a young Awá man called Tiramucum to talk to this 'unknown' Indian, whose language no one could understand. The meeting was one Karapiru could never have imagined during his 12 years on the run: the young man was his son.

Karapiru has since remarried, has a young daughter and lives in the Awá village of Tiracambu. He does not like to dwell on his experiences. "There are times when I don't like to remember all that happened to me," he says. His way of life since his return has been typical of the 360 members of the Awá tribe.

The Awá spend their days hunting for game such as peccary, tapir and monkey with 6-foot long bows made from the irapá tree and gather forest produce such as babaçu nuts and açaí berries. Some foods are considered to have special properties, while others, such as vultures, bats and the three-toed sloth, are forbidden. They nurture orphaned animals as pets, share their hammocks with raccoon-like coatis and split mangoes with green parakeets. Awá women even breast-feed capuchin and howler monkeys and have also been known to suckle small pigs.

At night, the Awá travel with torches made from tree resin, carrying the embers of a fire as they move from one hunting ground to another. And when the moon is full, the Awá men -- their dark hair speckled white with king vulture down -- travel in a chant-induced trance to the realm of the forest spirits, during a sacred ritual that lasts until dawn.

Their existence is one of intimate connection with the forest, which provides their food, shelter and spiritual solace. But Karapiru's life, and that of all Awá members, including the 60-100 who are still uncontacted, is once more in danger; the current situation being so serious that a federal judge has described it as a "real genocide." Today, Survival International launches an urgent campaign to protect their lives and lands, with the backing of actor Colin Firth.

The reason is this: Survival has recently discovered that Awá forests are now disappearing faster than in any other Indian area in the Brazilian Amazon. "Satellite images reveal that over 30 percent of one territory has already been destroyed, despite the land having been legally recognized," says Fiona Watson. Heavily armed ranchers and loggers -- together with the grisly help of hired guns, called pistoleiros -- are shooting the Awá on sight. And the Carajás train -- whose cargo wagons rattle along the boiling tracks for two kms at a time -- passes just metres from the forest where uncontacted Awá live.

It would seem that history is repeating itself. Karapiru's extraordinary story shows just how resilient and adaptable the small Awá tribe is. But despite surviving violence and disease over the past two centuries, they will now not survive if they lose their homeland.

"The loggers are destroying all the land," Pire'i Ma'a, an Awá man told Fiona Watson recently. "Monkeys, peccaries and tapir are all running away. Everything is dying. We are all going to go hungry. This land is mine; it is ours." Karapiru is extremely concerned for his young child. "I hope the same things that happened to me won't happen to my daughter," he says. "I hope it won't be like in my time."

It doesn't need to be; their disappearance is not inevitable. For the solution to the Awá's problems is actually relatively simple: their lands need to be protected and their rights respected. As Stephen Corry, Director of Survival says, "It has been shown time and time again that when left alone on their lands to live in the way they choose and free to determine their own development, most tribes are healthy and strong."

In Survival's campaign film, Colin Firth says, "One man can stop this: Brazil's minister of justice. He can send in the federal police to catch the loggers, and keep them out for good. But we need enough people to message him. This is our chance, right now, to actually do something. And if enough people show they care, it will work."

This must not be the Awá's last stand.

To save Earth's most threatened tribe, please visit:

Joanna Eede is the Editorial Consultant, Survival International and Author of 'We are One -- a celebration of tribal peoples.'