The Suruí Aikewara are an Indigenous people of the Tupi linguistic group, within the Tupi-Guarani linguistic family. They inhabit the Sororó Indigenous Land in southeastern Pará along highway BR-153. It is located in parts of the municipalities of Brejo Grande do Araguaia, Marabá, São Domingos do Araguaia and São Geraldo do Araguaia. The Indigenous Land lies 110 kilometers from the urban center of Marabá.
The current Suruí Aikewara population is around 523 people. In 2015 they had two villages (Sororó and Itahy), but that year they added five more (Awussehé, Yetá, Ipirahy, Tukapehy and Akamassyron). The Sororó Indigenous Land was demarcated in 1977 with a total of only 26 thousand hectares. The Tuwa Apekuokawera Indigenous Land is in the process of being demarcated. The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) delimited it in January of 2012, with 12 thousand hectares. It is now in the contestation stage of the process. It lies in the municipalities of Marabá and São Geraldo do Araguaia. Today, it is the only forested area in a region of intense desertification. This is the result of a process of deforestation and destruction of water sources, which has intensified during the last three decades.
In the 1970s, the Suruí were reduced to a group of around 40 Indigenous people. Until then, they had been assisted by Friar Gil Gomes Leitão, a Dominican from the Marabá parish. He had established contact with the Suruí people in 1957. Later, [during the military dictatorship] he was driven out of the region by threats from government security forces due to his connections with “paulistas”, as guerilla fighters who hid out in the region were known. In 1971, during the dry season, the Suruí Aikewara were preparing to celebrate the Karuwara ritual, when they were surprised by the invasion of the army, which set up an encampment just one hundred meters from their village. Almost all of the men in the village, many of them youths, were recruited by the staff of a National Indian Foundation outpost, to be human shields and guide troops in the forest to hunt down “terrorists”.
Few of the Indigenous people spoke Portuguese and, without understanding what was going on, were victims of various forms of violence. These included: loss of liberty; humiliation; being forced to walk for hours in the forest consumed with fear, hunger and thirst; sleeping in the open, under the rain without being allowed to start a fire; and being compelled to carry heavy loads on their backs for the marehai (soldiers). They were even forced to carry dead bodies wrapped in plastic bags from the base at São Raimundo (a settlement near the village) to the military helicopters.
Four adult men and all the women and children who stayed in the village were practically treated as if they were prisoners of war. They were watched day and night and barred from any subsistence activities, such as going to the fields, hunting, gathering or fishing. They lived under extreme fear and constant threats, and were dependent upon the meagre industrialized food provided by the head of the National Indian Foundation outpost or the soldiers. Some pregnant women miscarried due to the stress generated from the frequent low-flying airplanes and helicopters, as well as from bursts of machine gun fire. Even maintaining personal hygiene was difficult, due to the constant watchful observation of the invaders.
In 1972, the army opened a roadway for troop movement where there had been a trail in the forest. These “operational” routes leading from the Trans-Amazonian highway severely impacted the Aikewara territory. At the end of the 1980s, the Sororó Indigenous Land suffered one of its worst impacts with the construction of state highway PA-153, which was paved and became a federal highway at the end of the 1990s.
Highway BR-153 connects the Trans-Amazonian highway to São Geraldo do Araguaia. It has heavy traffic, with a lot of trucks, which has made the Indigenous Land even more vulnerable. In addition to giving rise to a many farms in the area, it has intensified the amount of illegal burnings, the hunting of wild animals, and roadway accidents with people and, more often, game. Dead animals, contaminated waste, and dead bodies are often discarded along the roadside. The roadway has also become a frequent hiding place for criminals.
The presence of the highway is one of the main complaints of the Suruí Aikewara people. Its construction was not subject to any kind of compensation for the community, or mitigation of the impacts upon it. There has been a reduction in the quantity of game and an increase in the amount of illegal burnings, which directly impacts one of the main sources of income for the community: the collection and selling of Brazil nuts. Since highway BR-153 is the main route to south-eastern Pará from southern Brazil, it carries an enormous flow of large vehicles. It exposes the Aikewara to the indirect effects of Vale S.A.’s mining operation in Carajás, since the equipment and some of the raw materials used there are transported along BR-153.
In 2020, the Suruí Aikewara suffered greatly from the impact of Covid-19; not only in terms of the community’s health, but also from social and economic effects, such as the closing of schools and the suspension of other village activities, like work in the fields and cultural practices.
The Suruí Aikewara’s vulnerability to the new coronavirus has been accentuated by the lack of infrastructure and by the heavy traffic on BR-153. The alarming number of infected people caused the community to make several appeals and complaints, using videos produced with the help of volunteers and some media outlets. These included: local newspapers, magazines, television stations, radio broadcasts and websites.
A collective of volunteers called the Indigenous Mutual Support Network of South-eastern Pará was formed as a result of these activities. It is made up of researchers, Indigenists, missionaries, and militants connected to the Federal University of Southern and South-eastern Pará (Unifesspa), Pará State University (Uepa) and the Federal Institute of Pará (IFPA), as well as social movements, the Indigenist Missionary Council (Cimi), the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesiastical Network (Repam), the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) and local residents.
By late July 2020, the Suruí already had 134 confirmed Covid-19 cases, out of a total of 211 administered tests. Five Indigenous people died. All were elders, which represented an immeasurable loss to the entire community. During the isolation period, campaigns were conducted to alert the communities to the situation and establish a solidarity network, which donated basic food packages and medicines. These activities involved several institutions, including the Federal University of Southern and South-eastern Pará and Pará State University, which sought donations from teachers and students, and also family farmers from the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement. It was in the wake of this mobilization that the federal and state governments, through the National Indian Foundation and Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health, began to offer assistance to the Indigenous population.
- FERRAZ, Iara. 2019. Os Suruí-Aikewara e a guerrilha do Araguaia: um caso de reparação pendente. In: Campos, v. 20, n. 2, jul.-dez. Available at: https://revistas.ufpr.br/campos/article/view/70051/pdf. Accessed on: 28 Aug. 2020.