By LARRY ROHTER
Published: December 29, 2006
ROOSEVELT INDIGENOUS AREA, Brazil — Some of the world’s most abundant deposits of diamonds are embedded in the reddish soil of the Amazon jungle here. But for the Cinta-Larga Indians who live on this remote reservation, that discovery has brought more misfortune than riches.
In April, the Cinta-Larga tribe and Brazil’s environmental police agreed to close a diamond mining camp in the Roosevelt Indigenous Area.
Outside miners began prospecting in earnest in 1999 and soon overran the Indians’ lands, bringing with them drink, drugs, disease and prostitution. Dazzled by the promise of quick wealth from their dealings with the outsiders, tribal leaders have accumulated debts they cannot pay — especially now that the police have set up roadblocks on the reservation’s borders to prevent illegal diamond trafficking.
Cinta-Larga means Broad Belt in Portuguese, a reference to the tribe’s former habit of wearing bark sashes around the waist. For generations, the Cinta-Largas chose to live in isolation here along the banks of the Roosevelt River, named for Theodore Roosevelt, who led an expedition through this region of the southwestern Amazon some 90 years ago.
“Back then, we had no idea what diamonds were worth,” recalled Roberto Carlos Cinta-Larga, a tribal leader who, following tradition, uses the tribe’s name as his surname. “We didn’t have money in those days and didn’t even really know what money was, because our nature was to stay apart from everyone else and not cultivate friendships.”
But in the 1960s, a highway was built west of here, opening the jungle to exploitation by loggers. The discovery of gold, tin and finally diamonds increased the opportunities for the Cinta-Largas but also their resentment of white encroachments on land that the Brazilian government had set aside for them.
Two years ago, the tensions finally boiled over. In an episode that is still under investigation, and for reasons that remain unclear, the Cinta-Largas killed 29 miners who were working without their permission at the mine on the reservation.
Since then, the Cinta-Largas have become the most notorious of Brazil’s hundreds of Indian tribes, reviled in the press as bloodthirsty savages who want the diamonds for themselves and insulted when they leave their reservation for nearby towns. In hopes of countering those negative portrayals, tribal leaders recently invited this reporter to visit.
“We want it known that, despite what our enemies say, we are not mining diamonds,” Ita Cinta-Larga, another tribal leader, said as he inspected the mining pit and its collection of abandoned hoses and sluices. “We still catch miners trying to sneak in now and then, but it’s pretty calm here now, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”
In return for an $810,000 grant for community development from the Brazilian government, the Cinta-Largas agreed in April to shut down the mine, allow the state environmental police to patrol the site and refrain from killing intruders. But the money is now running out, and Pio Cinta-Larga, a tribal leader, warned that unless more help is forthcoming, “when the year ends, the truce expires with it.”
Mauro Sposito, director of the Brazilian Federal Police’s Amazon task force, said that in view of the tribe’s history, such threats must be taken seriously. “We know that they are violent and that something could occur, which is why the main principles of our activities from the start have been to try to negotiate and avoid the use of brute force,” he said.
Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo works with an environmental and indigenous rights group, Kaninde. She cites another factor that the tribe is reluctant to discuss out of shame and embarrassment. “From what the Cinta-Larga women told me, they were tired of seeing the miners raping girls as young as 14 and bringing in drugs,” she said. “So they pressed their men to take a stand.”
Rômulo Siqueira de Sá, an official of the National Indian Foundation, the government agency that deals with indigenous affairs, said diamond money led many Cinta-Largas to buy cars, houses and other goods on credit through white intermediaries. With the mine shut and government funds running out, he said, they have fallen behind on payments and are facing repossession claims. As a result, the pressure to resume illicit diamond trading and reopen prospecting to outsiders is growing.
“The chiefs want government money so that they can pay private debts derived from illegal activities, and there is no possibility whatsoever that the government is going to do that,” Mr. Sposito said. “Brazilian law does not permit such a thing. What the government can do is support the development of the community and provide orientation, but not more than that.”