RIO DE JANEIRO — Carlos Reis took photos the day government officials knocked down his house of 20 years and seized his land.
“We lost our things,” said Reis, who now lives in a tent with his wife and two sons. “It is a very sad business.”
Reis and hundreds of other poor farmers in the state of Maranhão in northeast Brazil are among the targets of a government operation to clear a reserve in the Amazon for the Awá, an isolated Indian tribe. Activists say the plan could save the tribe from extinction.
Brazil has long faced international criticism for its failure to protect the Amazon and its threatened tribes. But what should have been a public relations victory for the government is in danger of backfiring as criticism grows over the treatment of farmers who are being evicted from their land.
Hundreds of soldiers, police and government employees began evicting families from a 448-square-mile area late last month.
“If this was a government with heart and a sense of community, it would not have done this,” said Deusiana Oliveira, 39, who was evicted from her small farm. She and her family are staying with her sister in the nearby town of São João do Carú, where Reis and his family also are living.
Oliveira and Reis, who both spoke by phone, are refusing the government’s offer of land in Parnarama, a municipality in a semiarid area 250 miles away that they say lacks infrastructure.
“How can we go there, if there is no house for us, no school for us, no health center, and we can’t work with agriculture?” Oliveira said. “It doesn’t rain there. There are only cascavel snakes” — South American rattlesnakes.
Brazil’s powerful rural lobby, the National Confederation of Agriculture, also has attacked the operation. Its spokeswoman, Sen. Kátia Abreu, has called for the equal treatment of indigenous and non-indigenous Brazilians.
The Awá were nomadic hunter-gatherers in the area when they were first contacted by a government mission in 1973. Since then, loggers, farmers and settlers have decimated the wild forests where they live in small communities or in nomadic groups.
Today, there are about 400 contacted Awá in Brazil, most in three reserves in Maranhão, said Carlos Travassos, general coordinator for isolated and recently contacted Indians at the government’s department of Indian affairs. Four or five uncontacted Awá family groups also roam the area.
Thirty percent of the forest in the reserve had been illegally cut down by loggers capitalizing on valuable hardwoods. “These were criminal organizations that took control of the area. There is a lot of money involved,” Travassos said.
Loggers were within a few miles of some Awá villages when the government operation began, according to Survival, a British organization that campaigns for indigenous people. “The situation had become really critical,” said Sarah Shenker, a campaigner with the group.
Brazil’s Ministry of Justice first declared the reserve the permanent possession of the Awá in 1992. But it was only in December that a judge gave the eviction operation the final go-ahead. “The process is very slow,” Travassos said.
Of the 427 houses in the area, 263 have been cleared or knocked down, and seven of 16 cattle-rearing areas have been cleared. Travassos said he is confident that the government can prevent settlers from returning.
More than half of the families have registered with the government land reform agency Incra, which means they can move to land being offered in Parnarama, said José Rodrigues, the agency’s president in Maranhão. Houses, power, water and roads will be provided, he said.
“Inside the area we are going to create a temporary campsite, a provisional campsite, and guarantee basic food baskets for these families,” Rodrigues said.
In previous eras, migration to some remote Amazon areas was encouraged. Brazil’s military dictatorship, for example, initiated projects such as the Trans-Amazonian, a 2,485-mile highway inaugurated in 1972 that crosses seven Amazon states.
Between 1972 and 1981, the World Bank spent $34.4 million on a project to settle 5,200 families on land just north of the Awá reserve, adjacent to another reserve, the Alto Turiaçu. Some of the settlers have loans organized by the Ministry of Agrarian Development with the Bank of Brazil.
Chigo Miguel, president of the rural workers union Fetaema, said the Indians “have to have possession of their land.”
“We have to preserve the housing and the well-being of everyone who has been there more than 20, 30 years,” he said.
The government seized Arnaldo Lacerda’s farm, which he said his father bought in 1973, at the beginning of the operation.
“We are not invaders, we are not what they think we are. We are proprietors,” he said. Both Reis and Oliveira said their fathers had bought their farms, but neither has ownership documents.
Under the Brazilian constitution of 1988, all land in Indian reserves belongs to the Brazilian state, said Luís Pedrosa, an attorney for the rural workers union. “It is a logic that recognizes that they [the Indians] were there before the Portuguese colonization of Brazil.”
Weverton Rocha, a member of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the legislature’s lower house, said the issue is not the Awá’s right to the reserve but the treatment of the people who are being evicted. “We cannot let the rights of the Indians violate the rights of rural workers,” he said.
Madalena Pinheiro, an expert at the Indigenous Missionary Council, a group in Maranhão, said that if the poor farmers are not resettled properly, “they will certainly return.”