Rediscovered Indians
Hein van der Voort

photo: Hein van der Voort

The Kwaza or Koaiá, indians who live near the São Pedro river, southern Rondônia, were considered extinct in scientific journals of the 90s. However, approximately 25 members of this race sill live scattered over the region, highly threatened by the pressure of loggers and local ranchers.

The first mention of the Kwaza appeared in a book written by Marshall Rondon in 1916. When in the late 30s French anthropologist Clause Lévi-Strauss visited the south of Rondônia, he found a young Kwaza among the Kepkiriwat. A few years later a mineralogical expedition visited the State and found the Kwaza in the same site where they still live today. The group was acknowledged by the Indian Protection Service in 1942, and a long 40-year silence about their existence followed.


In 1984, when American linguist Harvey Carlston visited the Indigenous Area Tubarão-Latundê, where the Aikana and Latundê indians live, he met a few Kwaza, the survivors of a series of epidemic outbreaks. Most of them still live there. Since the 40s, they combined tilling the soil with hunting and rubber-tapping. They do not have a demarcated area. But until recently they had no problems with the possession of land and have always lived in peace with the white rubber-tapper.

A few Kwaza still live in the high forests of the São Pedro region, their motherland, 60 km from Indigenous Area Tubarão-Latundê. They are the only indians in the region, which has fertile soils and a great fauna and plant diversity, besides vast rubber-tree plantations, which yield top-quality rubber. However, in the past few years, much mahogany has been stolen by loggers, followed by ranchers who cut the forest to plant fodder, aided by a state representative.


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 them finding
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The ranchers are quite violent and their gunmen regularly threaten dwellers who do not want to sign waivers on their tracts of land for small amounts, between R$300 and R$3,000 per person. Almost all the white rubber-tappers who lived in this region since the 40s have signed waivers and moved to the city of Pimenta Bueno. The indians, for the time being, say they’d rather die in their land rather than to move to the city or to any other region.

They grieve the loss of the forest, the rubber tree plantations and the game. Because of violence, they are constantly stressed. They cannot leave the region as a group because there is a possibility of not being able to return, or to find their huts and fields destroyed by ranchers. The indians have already reduced their agricultural activities because of the uncertainty that all work involved will be vain if, come next year, the ranchers take possession of their lands.

I asked an old Kwaza why didn’t she do as the whites did, accepting the ranchers’ money and fleeing to some other place, and the answered, "If I had to do that, I’d already have done it years back, but I can’t. This is my place, here by kinfolk died and I want to remain here till I die. I’m not afraid of dying."

Until now, the Kwaza from the São Pedro region have explored their original lands in a manner such as to maintain and protect the forest and the waters. This situation is seriously threatened by the greed and violence of invading ranchers and loggers.

Today, the life of the last traditional dwellers of the regions is endangered and only effective protection under Brazilian laws which exist for this purpose can mitigate this risk. The recognition and the demarcation of the original Kwaza land is of the highest urgency.

Hein van der Voort is a linguist and a doctoral candidate at the universities of Amsterdam and Leiden, in Holland.