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Threatened Amazon tribes fight against the odds

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NEW YORK - Facing land theft and even genocide as modern exploiters rush into the Amazon basin and other Brazilian forests, small, isolated Indian tribes are struggling against overwhelming odds. But they are fighting back with increasing vigor; and as they add lawyers to their arsenal of bows and arrows, have begun to score remarkable successes.

In recent weeks, the Brazilian legislature passed a legal landmark (unpaving the way, one might say) to protect one of the planet's most endangered forest regions: the Atlantic Mata along its southern coast. Separately, the governor of Para in the Amazon basin created a new tropical rainforest preserve covering more than 58,000 square miles. In addition, federal courts have sided with tribal claims in several suits involving powerful economic interests. One court voided the land titles of 44 ranches near the Xingu Indigenous Park, saying the land sales were fraudulent. The land, more than 1.3 million acres, reverts to the National Foundation for the Indian (FUNAI), the Brazilian equivalent of the BIA, and the National Institution for Agrarian Reform.

Some of the suits arose from a wave of occupations by tribal militants, sometimes armed with bows, arrows and sticks. The most recent of these, on Dec. 13, shut down a harbor in the state of Espiritu Santo handling the bulk of the exports of the wood-product company Aracruz Celulose. Members of the Tupiniquim and Guarani tribes accuse the company of occupying 26,000 acres of their land.

The decisions can be appealed and reversed, and the legislation might harbor dangerous loopholes, but they are a welcome contrast to the murder-filled rush to exploit Brazil's interior.

Unlike the countries of the Andes, where the indigenous population is a majority and increasingly powerful politically, Indians in Brazil are a small minority, often isolated in inland reserves surrounded by a ''Wild West'' atmosphere of land-clearing and development. Yet they are standing up to some of the country's largest corporations.

In one of the most notable confrontations, two communities of Xicrin Indians on Oct. 17 occupied the Carajas, Para state, open-pit mines of the Companhia Vale do Rio Dolce, the world's largest producer of iron ore. The CVRD, an $11 billion corporation, has extensive international contacts; its well-known CEO, Roger Agnelli, sits on the board of directors of the construction giant ABB Ltd. and the North Carolina utility Duke Energy Corp.

According to the CVRD account, 200 Xicrin Indians from the communities of Catete and Djudjeko invaded their facility ''armed with bows, arrows and sticks.'' They occupied the rail loop and locomotives and took the keys of the company's commuter buses, holding 600 employees hostage for about two hours. In the two days of the occupation, said the company, it lost 500,000 tons of iron ore production.

The origins of the conflict are murky. In February five other tribes tore up tracks of the CVRD-owned Carajas railroad, interrupting its mineral exports. It appears from the charges and countercharges that the tribes feel the company shortchanged it on promised payments in return for use of indigenous land. But the nature of the agreement, or whether there was one, is in dispute. Even the main newspaper in Sao Paolo admitted that it was confused.

Declaring it would not bow to ''extortion,'' however, the company cancelled its annual contribution of more than $4 million to the Xicrin Indians. The case went to court. On Dec. 4, 2006, a federal judge ordered the company to resume its payments, noting that it had just reported record profits.

Agnelli immediately announced he would appeal. He denounced FUNAI for failing to intervene. He stated that CVRD invested heavily in the environment and health services for Indians but questioned direct payments to the tribes. According to a regional paper, he said, ''If you give money to the Indians, then an NGO [nongovernmental organization] comes and says that Indians are dying of heart attacks because with the money you give him, he's buying french fries and his cholesterol level is going up. So I can't give money to an Indian. Fine. So who do I give the money to?''

At least one tribe, however, is seeking to emerge from the conflict with a sustainable economic model. The Xavante people in the southern Amazon basin blockaded a national highway in Mato Grosso state in July to protest the impact of soybean cultivation on the Rio das Mortes watershed. But one Xavante village is also beginning to earn royalties by licensing its traditional hunting chant as a cell phone ring tone.

Jim Adams is a historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.