From Povos Indígenas no Brasil
Photo: Gilton Mendes, 2006

Arara do Rio Branco

Self-denomination Where they are How many Linguistic family
Arara do Aripuanã MT
249 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)

The  Arara of Rio Branco suffered intensely from the consequences of rubber extractivism in the Amazon.   After living for decades under the yoke of the  bosses of the rubber plantations, when this activity declined and landgrabbing by new colonizing companies intensified, the Arara found themselves unemployed and without their land.  The recognition of their land rights and their indigenous identity only happened about a decade  ago, after many years of struggle.

Localization and population

Crianças Arara no rio Guariba. Foto: Gilton Mendes, 2006
Crianças Arara no rio Guariba. Foto: Gilton Mendes, 2006

The Arara territory lies between the Branco and Guariba rivers.  The Arara of Rio Branco Indigenous Area  was ratified on  26th December 1996 and registered on 1st April 1977 with a  total area of 114.842 hectares, in the municipalities of Colniza and Aripuana, 1050 kms from the Mato Grosso capital, Cuiabá.

The predominant vegetation in the Indigenous Area is ombrophile forest, associated with formations which arise from the contact with the estacional forest and the savannah. It is a very rich area in biodiversity, with a great diversity of vegetation typologies (ombrophile forest, estacional forest, meeting  of ombrophile and estacional forests, forested savannah and wooded savannah) besides ecotonal areas of transition between forest and savannah. There are also unique ecological aspects, like fields of rocks, with great biological potential.

In 2005 the Arara population consisted of 290 persons (CIMI,2005) distributed in 20 villages. Of this total, 57 lived in Aripuana and many families had houses in this town, alternating between town and village.

The preferred places for the installation of a village are those where the river is most navegable, there are many natural resources, access to roads and to the town of Aripuana. Villages differ in size and population, from those with  just one family to those with five, six or more families. Most of them are located in the southern part of the Indigenous Area, forming a complex of nine villages: Ponte Nova, Carlito, Tres Tombos, Canapum, Mamae vem ai, 26 de julho, Volta Grande, Gaucho, Icatu and Nova Esperanca.  In the southwest of the reserve are the villages of Taboca and Pista do Leao.

The villages are almost all reached by roads, principally the road that links the town of Aripuana to the Conselvan Settlement  about 80 kms away, cutting through the south of Arara territory, with a bridge over the Branco river. In this place a barrier has been installed by the indians, where they charge tolls, and  control the passing of vehicles through the reserve.  Other small winding roads cut through the interior of the indigenous area, sometimes used by non-indians for illegal logging. The condition of these roads, however, is very precarious, and they are only usable durng the dry season, or when they are maintained by loggers.

Besides the houses, which mostly combine the traditional style with modern material (walls of paxiúba or planks covered with roofs of straw, woodchips or asbestos, floors on platforms, etc)  each village has the minimum community infrastructure: a small school, a health post, a radio post, an artesian well, piped water, latrines with septic tanks.

Historical aspects

Crianças na Terra Indígena Arara do Rio Branco. Foto: Gilton Mendes, 2006
Crianças na Terra Indígena Arara do Rio Branco. Foto: Gilton Mendes, 2006

The Arara of Rio Branco are also identified as Yugapkatã, the Arara of Beiradao, the Arara of Aripuana or simply as the Arara; in historical literature they have also been called Vela or Necades indians.

To understand the history and the way of life of the Arara it is essential to consider the context of rubber exploitation in the Amazon. The commerce began in the second half of the 19th century, and was marked by the use of the barter system, with the exchange of industrialized goods for forest products. At one end ther were the big exporting companies, and at the other, the rubbertapper, who also supplied other products like gum, Brazil nuts, animal skins, etc. The links between these two poles were the rubber plantation boss and the trader who supplied the merchandise. The first acted as a sort of manager of various rubber plantations, was directly subsidised by a company and was responsible for the maintenance of the traders,  who distributed merchandise to the tappers and collected their rubber. The tappers were also known as customers.   

The barter system was marked by an asymmetrical power relationship, in which the tappers were clearly exploited. This system of rubber exploration - at a time when rubber was  Brazil's main export product  - grew ever more robust and powerful in the Amazon, overcoming  every obstacle in its path, above all the resistance of indigenous peoples. Spreading from the Amazon river and its main tributaries, the extractivist fronts soon reached the valleys of the Madeira and Aripuana rivers and continued up the Roosevelt (Castanho) and Guariba rivers, their tributaries and streams. 

Harassed, on one side, by the feared Cinta-Larga, Zoró (Dried Head) and Rikbaktsa (Wooden Ears) indians, and on the other side by the voracious extractivist advance, the Arara were left with no option but to join the rubber tapping system. Constantly threatened by indian enemies who were superior  in warfare and who killed many of them, the Arara saw in the rubbertappers' advance a new, but different enemy, and reckoned that a strategic alliance with them, turning them into allies,  would allow their survival. 

It was in this context of tension that the Arara established contacts with the rubber tappers. According to documentary sources and references from oral history, the first "contacts" dated from the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. At the time, the Arara indians inhabited the region between the lower part of the Branco river up unto the Dardanellos waterfall, on the Aripuana river.

Everything indicates that the first peaceful contacts took  place on the banks of the river Branco, between the plantation manager Olegário Vela and a group of indians. There are no precise references about the population at the time of the first contact, or about the socio-cultural life of the Arara. Based on the memory of her Arara collaborators in 1987, the anthropologist Vera dos Santos listed some aspects:

they live in huts made of babacu straw, with a small entrance, extensive families, some of them near the Poraque stream.  They made hammocks of cotton and tucum palm, used bows and arrows for hunting, painted themselves with genipapo (with various designs) and urucum, also using an arara feather in their earlobes and in the lower lip. They made pots and chicha (a fermented drink, made from maize), and caicuma (made from manioc), which were drunk during rituals. Until the time of contact, they lived from hunting, fishing and collecting, planting small gardens of manioc, maize, etc."

The missionary Vitor Hugo described them like this at the end of the 1950s:

In earlier times they used to pierce their ears and lower lips: the older ones, however said they had never used ear ornaments, or other adornments on their lips. Of their old adornments we know about the pretina, a waistband made of vegetable fibre.  They did not use tattoos, but only painted themselves with urucum (a vegetable dye)."

What is certain is that, after contact, the Arara gradually began to settle along the margins of the Branco and Aripuana rivers and were introduced to the work of collecting gum and rubber. So they found themselves sharing the same barter system that dominated the rubber plantations, supplying forest products (rubber, gum, Brazil nuts, manioc flour and others) in exchange for industrialized goods like coffee, sugar, salt, tobacco, kerosene, cloth, rifles, gunpowder, shot, knives, axes, etc.  The manager Olegário Vela, a Peruvian, who worked for his fellow Peruvian rubber boss Alejandro Lopes, lived and ran a store opposite the mouth of the Veadinho igarapé, on the righthand bank of the Branco river. His store, they say, was called Sambaluá, because it was so busy and lively.   Held in high esteem by the indians, Olegário Vela was also known as "the inspector " - and today he is remembered metaphorically as "our Funai  (indian affairs agency) of those days". Olegário became a virtual  godfather to the Arara: from then on they adopted his surname to designate themselves,  as  the literature shows. "It was he who tamed us", the old Arara like to say.

As contact intensified, the Arara population fell victim to epidemics of flu and chicken pox. The outbreak of chicken pox which occurred at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s is still vividly remembered by the older ones, both Araras and rubber tappers, who lived along the Branco river. They talk about the state of sickness and suffering which people went through: the unsupportable sores all over their bodies and the bad smell they gave off inside the houses. Those who were dying were placed on the leaves of banana trees. Many died. Some of the sick were taken to Samauma and Manaus for treatment. Others preferred the banks of the Aripuana river.

With the population reduced and divided between the Branco and Aripuana rivers, the Arara found themselves concentrated in two or three villages. As a survival strategy they intermarried with rubber tappers. From the 1960s the Arara were no longer concentrated exclusively in villages, but dispersed in the rubber plantations along the Branco river, where they lived in isolated houses, with yards, vegetable gardens, rubber trees, Brazil nut trees and hunting and collecting areas. There are reports that of the 25 plantations which existed at the time, on both sides of the river, nine were occupied by Arara families.

Conditions in the rubber areas deteriorated badly, and the 1970s marked the definite decadence of the rubber cycle throughout the Amazon. The price of rubber fell steeply and the companies abandoned the product, investing instead in other areas. The rubber tappers and the indians found themselves completely abandoned, without anyone to buy their rubber or supply the goods they needed. The place of the old managers and suppliers was now taken by travelling salesmen who plied boats up and down the rivers, selling goods at exorbitant prices in exchange for the products that interested them, to sell in the towns, especially the capital, Manaus. 

During this period only a few rubber plantations were left along the Branco river. Almost all the population had moved to other rivers, other jobs or to the towns. The Arara in their turn, scattered: some went to Manaus, others to the banks of the Aripuana river, some went to the mouth of the Branco river and others to the village of Dardanellos, which acquired the status of a town, attracting a mass of ex-tappers in search of work.

A colonization project had begun in the region,and now the "owners" of the lands wanted to see them "uncluttered " by their old inhabitants. That is why,  when they returned to the Branco river, after leaving the banks of the Aripuana, the family of José Rodrigo and Anita Vela (Arara descendants)  were evicted from their last rubber plantation by a landgrabber called Henrique Faveiro. It was the final end of the Arara on the Branco river, replaced by the projects of the new owners of the land. The Arara couple, like many others, took refuge in the town of Aripuana. Disheartened and sick, for months they relied on  the help of relatives and other residents to survive. 

The struggle for land

The 1980s was an ambiguous period in the life of the Arara. On the one hand, there was the difficulty of surviving in the towns where they had taken refuge or along the banks of the Aripuana, where landgrabbers and their gunmen with the aid of the official police force were putting heavy pressure on them to leave. But on the other hand, CIMI (the Indigenous Missionary Council of the Catholic church), was organising iniatives to bring together the Arara people in order to reconquer their traditional lands around the Branco river. The denunciations of threats and violence began to make an impact in official circles,  religious institutions and in the press. 

Between 1984 and 1985 a CIMI team surveyed the situation of the Arara along the Aripuana river and in the towns of Aripuana, Matá-Matá and Ariquemes (in Rondonia), counting the indian families they found. Their reports, which were sent to Funai, requested the immediate installation of  posts in the region, both to protect the indians who were under threat and to provide medical assistence. They also warned about the situation of landgrabbing and irregular land titles which prevailed in the region, and the constant threats made by the gunmen against the indians. This is how they described the sitation of the indigenous population:

In general the Arara population is found among the poorest sectors of the population, suffering innumerable injustices. They work as rubber tappers, selling their produce at shamefully low prices to itinerant traders in exchange for their merchandise. Recently two families who lived between the mouth of the river Canuma and the Dardenelos were expelled from their homes. The hired guns and the policemen from Aripuana, who carried out the task, burnt down their huts with all their belongings inside. The situation of the indians is dangerous, and they are unable to resist, so they leave for the towns. There, they live in periphery areas like the living dead, victims of illnesses like influenza, malaria, hepatitis, TB, adquiring the vices of the white population, dying in misery without the lands they possess. (Valdez, 1985:5).

Funai then began to recognise the problems of the Arara, which had not previously been on  their agenda, and took the first steps to decide the question of their land. In 1987 the first Working Group was created (Regulation OS 1761/86 and 515/87) under the coordination of anthropologist Vera Lopes dos Santos, from  Funai's 2nd Superintendency, to study the area traditionally inhabited  by the Arara. Two more Working Groups were set up in 1987 and 1991, respectively.

After intense mobilization, with pressure, resistance and constant threats, in 1992 the remaining Arara occupied the area which had been demarcated, concentrating in just one village at the "Capivara runway "on the left bank of the Branco river. Finally, in 1996 the Arara Indigenous Area was definitively decreed. 

Productive activities

Arara  subsistence is basically guaranteed by agriculture, hunting,fishing and collecting. Their money income comes from services rendered (as indigenous health agents or teachers), from pensions and allowances, payments of road tolls and the sale of manioc flour, among others.

Agriculture

Agriculture is slash-and-burn. Each plot is about two hectares in size, an area big enough to maintain a nuclear family (husband, wife and unmarried children) for a year. The plots can  also be worked collectively, involving more than one family from the village, usually in-laws.

Generally cultivated near the villages, the plots are worked in a  consortium system with different types and varieties of crops. Those most cultivated are manioc (both domesticated and wild), maize, yams, potatos,banana, rice, peanuts, pineapple and watermelon. The most important plant is manioc, planted specifically to make flour, the main ingredient of the daily diet.

The plots are planted from  April onwards, when the thin vegetation is cleared, followed by the felling and burning of the bigger trees, in August. Planting is done after the first rains, in October or November. The time of harvest varies according to the cycle of each variety: maize is picked after four months, manioc after one year. 

Hunting

Hunting is an eminently male activity and is normally carried out at night in previously reconnoitred places, under the canopy of a fruit tree where the hunter installs his "hide", a specially prepared place to await the approach of the animal.  Another method used is to paddle slowly and attentively along the river at night,  using a torch to light up the banks of the river, searching for any animal that comes to drink water, bathe or feed. Another hunting method which is used less frequently, is to go into the forest during the day to look for animals.   The weapon most used is  the rifle.  Bows and arrows are used less. Sometimes traps are placed, or dogs are used. The animals most hunted are the wild boar, paca, tapir, deer, armadillo, and monkey. The birds most hunted are the mutum and the jacu. Cayman meat is also eaten.

Fishing

The limpid waters of the Branco river ensure an abundance of fish, a situation maintained by the  absence of overfishing, due to the fact that the river rises and runs through the interior of the Cinta Larga Indigenous area  before entering Arara territory.     Fishing is an activity which involves men and women of all ages, and is practised almost every day.  Children in small canoes navegating from one bank to another in search of the best place to fish are a common sight.

The most commonly practised methods of fishing are with rod and hook. Timbo, a vegetable poison, is  less used, usually in the medium size  igarapés like Veado Grande and Poraqué during the period when the river is lower, between the months of July and September. 

The species most fished are the pacu, piau, piranha, tucunaré, pescada, pintado, palmito, pirapitinga and pirarara. The best time for fishing is during the drought (April-October) when the shoals concentrate in the river channels. During the rains, the waters spread  into the swampy areas, breaking down and flooding the riverbanks, making any concentration of fish difficult. Bows and arrows or spears are used at this time, because they are more efficient.

Food collecting

Collecting fruit for food is done throughout the rainy season. Fruits include pequi, patuá, açaí, castanha-do-Brasil, buriti, pariri, caju-do-mato, cajá, maracujá-do-mato-, araçá, murici, ingá, breu, bacuri, oxê, jenipapo, ituá, chirana, uvinha etc. Almost all these varieties are comsumed raw or as chicha, a lightly fermented drink.

Brazil nuts are very important. Although the period when they fall is from November to January, the conservation of the ouricos (the hard shell case inside which the individual nuts grow) on the ground takes place all year round. Another factor is the number of Brazil nut trees inside the Arara area. After the gathering of the ouricos the nuts are removed from their shells with a knife, and immediately eaten raw or transformed into milk. This is obtained from grating the nuts, adding a little water to the mass, which is then squeezed into a recipient. This "milk" is commonly used in cooking rice, fish, or meat from the hunt, or simply to "wet" the flour, enriching the food. The women extract  cooking oil from the nuts, essential for food preparation.

Brazil nuts are therefore one of the most accessible  sources of food protein in the daily diet, present in almost all homes. Besides family consumption, the nuts are sold in the local market. In recent years the Arara have managed to trade large quantities of nuts in regional and national markets, with the support of outside agencies, making them an important source of income for the families.  Insects are also on the Arara menu. The most popular of the edible insects are the larva which live inside the trunks of palm trees called coró de coco   and coró de coco. They are known for the noise they make inside the trunk, and eaten fried, with or without oil, especially by children.

Sources of information

  • ARNAUD, Expedito & Cortez, Roberto. “Aripuanã: considerações preliminares”. Acta Amazônica 6(4) Suplemento: 11-31. Manaus, 1976.

 

  • ARQUIVO PÚBLICO DE MATO GROSSO.Tubo 371. Rio Aripuanã. Escala: 1:200.000. Original, 1930.

 

  • CHRIST, Lourdes. “Arara do Rio Branco: Saiu finalmente a demarcação”. Porantim, edição janeiro/março, pg. 5. 1995

 

  • DAL POZ, João. A etnia e a terra. Notas para uma etnologia dos índios Arara (Aripuanã - MT). Série Antropologia, 4. Cuiabá : EdUFMT, 1995.

 

  • MENDES DOS SANTOS, Gilton. Laudo Antropológico. Segunda Vara da Justiça Federal - Seção Judiciária do Estado de Mato Grosso. Processo no 2000.36.00.005298-9. Classe 01400 – Ação Ordinária/Imóveis, 2005.

 

  • Diagnóstico socioambiental das Terras Indígenas do Noroeste de Mato Grosso. Programa das Nações Unidas para o Desenvolvimento (PNUD), Fundação Estadual do Meio Ambiente (FEMA), Convênio PNUD BRA/00/G-31_GEF, 2004.

 

  • SÁ, Sheila M. Guimarães de. Identificação da Terra Indígena Arara do Rio Branco (Aripuanã - MT). Brasília : Funai/Museu do Índio, 1991 .

 

  • SANTOS, Vera Lopes dos. Relatório de identificação da Área Indígena Arara Beiradão. Brasília : Funai/2ª Superintendência Regional, 1987.

 

  • SANTOS, José Augusto Mafra dos. Os órfãos de uma nação. FUNAI/2ª Superintendência Regional, datilo, 1988.

 

  • SILVA, Dêidi Luci da. Relatório de viagem à Área Indígena Arara-Beiradão. Brasília : Funai/2ª Superintendência Regional, 1988.

 

  • VALDEZ, Manuel. Levantamento dos índios Arara no município de Aripuanã - MT. Equipe de Pastoral Indigenista da Diocese de Ji-Paraná, 1984.

 

  • -------. Renovação de pedido de área para os índios Araras das bacias dos rios Aripuanã e Guariba. CIMI - Regional Rondônia, 1985.