By the end of June, members of the Brazilian National Truth Commission will be arriving at the Waimiri-Atroari indigenous reserve in the state of Amazonas. They will begin investigations into what potentially is one of the biggest genocides in Brazil in the last 40 years: the massacre of the Waimiri-Atroari. According to a report recently issued by the State of Amazonas Truth Commission, at least 2,000 Waimiri-Atroari Indians disappeared during the right-wing military dictatorship, killed by agents of the state.
The military dictatorship in Brazil lasted 21 years (1964-1985). As in other countries in Latin America, Congress was closed, civil and political rights were suspended and government opponents were persecuted, arrested, tortured and killed. Before the publication of the report about the massacre of the Waimiri-Atroari, it was thought that about 400 people were killed and 160 disappeared in Brazil as a whole during the dictatorship (although these figures are also being reviewed today). If the massacre is confirmed, the number of victims of Brazil’s military dictatorship will increase fivefold.
In 2011, despite the outcry from conservatives and the military, the Brazilian government, led by President Dilma Rousseff (a left-wing militant during the military dictatorship, who was herself tortured), set up a commission to investigate serious human rights violations committed during the dictatorship. The commission is divided into groups in charge of investigating violations in different sectors of Brazilian society.
The Waimiri-Atroari is an indigenous population that originally occupied a huge area that covered part of the states of both Amazonas and Roraima. According to the report issued by the Truth Commission of the State of Amazonas, there were approximately 3,000 Indians in the area in 1968. By 1983, their number had fallen to 332, a disastrous decrease of 89%. More recently, they have been given greater protection and in 2011 their population had recovered to 1,515, which is still only half of their original population from 1968.
The report pointing to the disappearance of 2,000 Waimiri-Atroari indigenous people was submitted to the National Truth Commission in 2012.The report says that the Waimiri-Atroari were killed by the military in charge of “cleaning” the area for the construction of the BR-174 highway, a road, built between 1967-77, that links Manaus with Boa Vista and has become Brazil’s main road link to the Caribbean. According to the document, the military used machine guns, electrified wire, bombs and, even perhaps, chemical weapons to kill the Indians who were opposed to the building of the road. They were absolutely determined that the road would be built by Brazilian soldiers. Several indigenous villages are believed to have been wiped out during this period and at least one entire community, the Piurititi, vanished. “What was that thing that the civilizados threw from the airplane that burnt our bodies from inside?” asked one of the Indians in an interview. In another part of the report, the military are accused of having set fire to villages in response to an indigenous attack.
The first evidence of the disappearance of Waimiri-Atroari appeared in the early 1980s. The missionaries Egydio and Doroti Schawde started a project to teach Portuguese to the Indians in the area. Following Paulo Freire’s literacy methods, the Schawdes asked them to draw scenes from their daily lives and what they depicted were conflicts between them and the military. A few years later, Funai, the Brazilian governmental agency in charge of indigenous affairs, expelled the couple from the area.
The report, based on documents gathered by the Schawdes and other indigenous specialists and NGOs, such as CIMI (Indigenist Missionary Council), says that BR-174 cut through the territory inhabited by the Indians. A few years later, a mining company, Paranapanema, opened a cassiterite mine and built a small hydroelectric power station, along with a road linking the mine to Manaus. The report says that the company employed militias formed of former soldiers to repress the indigenous resistance.
Finally, in 1981, the Brazilian government started building the Balbina hydroelectric dam, a huge and controversial project designed to provide the north of Brazil with electricity. The dam, which involved the flooding of 2,360 square kilometres, an area one and half times the size of London, is believed today to be one of the world’s most inefficient dams.
Maria Rita Kehl, a well-known analyst and writer, who heads the group in charge of investigating human rights violations against indigenous people during the military rule, told LAB that the National Truth Commission would interview indigenous leaders at the end of June, when the Waimiri-Atroari will be holding a traditional celebration. “It would be difficult to visit all the villages because of the distance and the geography so we will take advantage of the fact that all of them will be together for this celebration to gather more information”, said Kehl.
She said it was difficult to investigate human rights violations committed more than 30 years ago, but said it was necessary all the same. “To hold a Truth Commission 30 years after the end of the military regime is terrible, given the difficulties of finding evidence and the bodies that went missing. But to not have a Truth Commission would be even worse. We spent 30 shameful years pretending to the world and to ourselves that everything was ok”, she said.
Maria Rita also said she doesn’t know what the practical impact of their findings will be since she does not know how Brazilian society will react to them. “We don’t know if Brazilian society is still sensitive to what happened during the military dictatorship. Everything happened such a long time ago. But, at least, we will be creating the basis of a symbolic justice”, she said.
Federal prosecutors have also launched an official inquiry to investigate human rights violations against two other indigenous people: the Jiahuy and the Tenharin. According to the indigenous leaders, they also suffered huge population declines during the building of another road — the BR-230 road, known as the Transamazônica. The building of this road began in the early 1970s and crossed the territory of several indigenous people.
The toll on the indigenous population was dreadful during the years of military rule in the state of Amazonas. “Even if the number of disappeared Waimiri-Atroari is not as high as 2,000, it is already possible to assert that, numerically, the indigenous were the biggest victims of the military dictatorship in Brazil,” she said, “They were massacred.”