The community and their neighbors, the Waimiri-Atraoari

After lunch everybody goes to take a rest, while Cat and I stay for a while in the shade of the big maloca. Isac, Divan and some others pretend to sleep while listening to our chitchat on the two sofas of the maloca.

We talk about the community's work structure, on how the tasks are shared between members. There are a few persons with particular skills or health problems who have a 'fixed' job; Carlito, who fishes for the whole community, Paulinho who is responsible for the kitchen of the eco-tourism facility, Francilaine, the teacher, Artemisia, the nurse. The others work on a rotatory basis, performing all tasks that are necessary for the communities maintenance, including working as guides with the tourists. Between the lines I have the impression that not all members always participate on the same basis, but maybe this is physiological in any society.
Not everything is made on a communitarian basis, each family has it's own income and domestic economy. I ask Cathleen what happens if someone is in need. In these cases the community itself in the person of Amazonia Association helps out.
I get lost with the intricated parental relationships of the members, their life stories, their many children, grandchildren etc. It seems to me that everybody is in some way related to all the others, which isn't really strange in such a small and remote place. And following the pattern of the here too beloved 'novelas' (yes they have TVsets...) many of them have a turbulent sentimental life, with flourishing second and third families in other communities to sustain, with many children.
Some are original inhabitants of the place, some have come back after failed attempts to live in big cities. Many have left the river communities of their birth because of the growing lack of economic opportunities, but ended up engrossing the lines of unemployment or low cost informal labor in the slums of the big cities, often with alcoholism problems. Alcoholism seems to be a recurrent problem in the story of many of the male members of the community.
It's the same story that happens all over the world to displaced 'rural' populations. There is no place for them in 'modern' society, their precious and unique skills and knowledge acquired during a lifetime in the forest and on the rivers are not expendable in the cities. Most of them are illiterate, all the elders are. But they have a wealth of knowledge, different from ours, a rare knowledge on how to live in apparently inhospitable places. But civilization is insidious, and they end up feeling inadequate, as 'lower' human beings confronted to the city people.

The 'people of the forest' have long been forgotten by Brazilian authorities and in a way still are. Like the Indios they have been painted as obstacles to development, as anachronistic actors of a story that has come to an end. In the end of the eighties the tragic story of Chico Mendes brought a lot of international and some national attention to the fate of the rubber-tappers. Before there wasn't even the conscience that beside the mistreated Indians there were other persons populating the vast Amazonian territory. And it was deliberately hidden to public opinion by farmers, cattle raisers, mining companies and corrupt politicians who wanted free room to exploit the riches of the territory and who mercilessly exterminated and evicted those people from their lands, while destroying the forest.
Nowadays there is some attention, there are some public services, but insufficient. Small communities are remembered mostly only before election time,  when politicians visit the communities and distribute goods and promises.
Primary schools have been set up in some communities, but it's not easy to find teachers who are willing to live in such remote places and often those who are sent there are the scum of the category.

In Xixuau they have been trying to change this. The teacher is a member of the community, son of illiterate parents who understood that educating their children would mean better life opportunities for them. The nurse too is a girl from a neighboring community, who has been sent to Manaus to study by Amazonia Association. Now all children and some adults have the opportunity to get an education without having to leave their homes and through tutors that have their same cultural background.
I ask why they ship in most of the food they consume from Manaus, meat, eggs, vegetables etc. and she explains that they have tried to grow all kinds of crops (beside the usual 'mandioca', that transformed into 'farinha' together with fish constitutes the basis diet of the ribeirinhos), without much success, because of the poor soil and all kind of illnessess that befall the crops in the humid tropical climate. Raising animals like cows, chicken or pigs is difficult here too: they attract predators, endangering the community, and easily get ill too. In the end they have to rely on what the forest offers seasonally as fruits.
Life expectancy is low, due to hard life and the poor diet. For men it is around 60-65. Common illnesses are related to the poor diet and the high sugar consumption; anemia, diabetes, bad teeth, almost all grown up men are teeth less.
I don't remember how we come to talk about their neighbors from the Indigenous Reserve of the Waimiri-Atraoari, I think it was related to sustainable behavior and illegal fishing.
The Waimiri-Atraoari got on the 'sad' wall of fame in the mid seventies, during the construction of the Manaus-Boa Vista highway, BR 174, that was built right through their territory. A team of FUNAI that was working in the area to mitigate the devastating impact of the road on the Waimiri-Atraoari was killed. One of them was the renowned indianist Gilberto Pinto. In the sixties another team had been killed. Nowadays the population of the reserve is in steady growth. According to what Cathleen tells me, the Waimiri-Atraoari have learned to interact with international society, which provides them with funds and protection to act against external threats. They have built up a 'westernly' educated group of young people who speak English and are skilled in the use of modern technologies. This elite intercedes with national and international society, the rest of the population of the reserve has no contact with the outside world. Not even researchers are allowed to go into the reserve. They have computers, internet, helicopters (!!) and are very active (and feared) in protecting the environment against illegal fishermen, hunters and loggers.
Their relationship with nearby Xixuau community is good, says Cathleen, the Waimiri are a precious help in the protection of the territory and once in a while a delegation visits to discuss common problems.She tells me that due to the growing population of the reserve the Waimiri have recently tried to move the demarcated borders in open conflict with local and federal authorities. The army was sent to put an end to the problem, in Xixuau they saw the heavily equipped soldiers pass by, ready to scare the shit out of 'the bloody 'indios'', as they said. When they got near the territory of the Waimiri the soldiers must have faced the whole male contingent of the Waimiri on war asset and they fled...
The Waimiri get quite upset when they find strangers entering their territory, especially if they don't behave well. Seu Joao, a man who lives alone not far away from Xixuau, got more than one advice not to throw his cigarette butts and food rests in indigenous territory, the Waimiri left him messages engraved in trees in the forest 'Seu Joao, seu Joao', as to say, we are watching you....

Behind the big maloca Castelo, seu Chico and other men are busy grinding axes and big bush-knives (terçados). Even those who are not coming on the expedition are excited. It looks as if we're going to war...
Isac, taking advantage of the interruption in our conversation asks me if I want to go on another canoe trip.

We leave with Guri and the Danes. We're going to look for a sloth they have seen in the morning in the igapò. I ask Isac to stick to Guri (maybe he is more experienced or just luckier, the fact is that they have seen many more animals than we). He doesn't seem too happy about it...and after 10 minutes he directs the canoe to another part of flooded forest eager to find his 'own' animals.The cries of howler monkeys resound through the forest, very loud. They rise in an impressive crescendo, then suddenly stop. After a while they start again. I have the feeling that they are all around us, but it's just an impression, the sound is carried far by the water and the trees.
Isac enters and exits parts of flooded forest and suddenly we are on a river arm opposite of where Chris's house is, on the other side of Xixuau lake. We canoe through the remnants of some old malocas, rotten wood structures throwing ghostly reflections on the water, partly engulfed by vegetation, living proof of how quick the forest reclaims it's territory. Until some years ago those had been the guests accomodations. They were located in a beautiful spot, but maybe now that the receptive structure has been rebuilt near the community it will be better for locals and guests.
After another strip of flooded forest we make a stop at Chris's house. It is completely surrounded by water. Isac uses the bathroom, leaving me alone on the small wooden veranda that overlooks the lake. Not far away I see trails of river dolphins in the water. Daniel and another guy arrive in a canoe from the community, they are looking for something in the house. There are no closed doors in this part of the world!
After my second day on the rivers I begin to recognize land marks, an extremely tall leafless tree with pink flowers signals the entrance to Xixuau lake.

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