A-Ukre 13th July 2007

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Commandante Pereira, owner of PEMA air taxis.To reach the Kayapó village of A-Ukre we had to fly. Our budget for the expedition is very limited and did not include the high cost of chartering aircraft, but we had been introduced to Pereira, who runs PEMA, the air taxi service in Ourilândia which is used by the Indian health service. When we explained the expedition to him, he arranged for Fernando, on of his sons, to fly us in to A-Ukre and wait for a few hours while we held our meeting with the village, and he gave us a discount which made the flight possible.

The small plane took off from Ourilândia, just a few kilometres from Tucumã. We flew over many kilometres of almost total deforestation, where the trees have been felled and burnt, supposedly to provide cattle pasture.

The curious thing was that we saw very few cattle on all this land; so why have all the trees been felled, and for what has the precious Brazilian biodiversity heritage been sacrificed? It seems that the landowners have done this in order to make fast money be re-selling the land which, perversely, is more valuable once it has been stripped of its natural riches, in a binge of deals based on spurious claims of ownership; just 25% of this state’s land is properly registered.

After many kilometres, we reached the boundary of the Kayapó reserve, where the denuded landscape immediately gave way to the richness of the unbroken forests which stretched to the horizon in front of us.

Arriving at A-UkreWe dipped down low over the treetops, aiming for the tiny exclamation mark of an airstrip stretching away from us in the distance. As soon as the plane came to a halt it was surrounded by curious faces, and we were taken immediately into the centre of the village.

This was one of two villages which had been involved with the Body Shop project to commercialise the production of Brazil nut oil. Although the project came to an end two years ago, it had the beneficial effect of diverting the village at an early stage from their involvement with logging companies. As a result, the village avoided the worst effects of contact with the loggers, and we found them keen to re-start nut oil production. This made a refreshing change from the complaints and demands for money we had heard in other Kayapó villages.

The difficulty is that there is a limited market for the oil, and since the Body Shop project ended there has been no buyer prepared to pay enough to justify the high cost of transporting the oil out of the village, which can only be done for most of the year by air. The village today has lost the income from the project, and has not managed to replace it, so they are in a difficult position; they have become used to having a certain level of purchasing power, and to do without that after many years is hard.

A-Ukre Village from the AirBut at least they were not left totally dependent and incapable of managing their own affairs, as were the villages who dealt with the loggers over a longer period. Here, at least, we found just a glimmer of hope for the future, though they will need help to find an alternative source of income, either a buyer for the oil or another product which they can sell for a high enough price to make it worthwhile delivering it to market; with no money and with no means of communication, and little understanding of the commercial world, they are not equipped to start looking for buyers.

A-Ukre is a village Sue visited many times about fifteen years ago. Then, it was full of optimism for the future, a traditional thatch and timber circular village with a lively culture. Today it consists of a square of close-packed identikit wooden houses with corrugated roofs, with a few of the more traditional people still living in houses of adobe and thatch outside the square, where the old circle used to be. The village has a subdued feel to it, and one senses that it has somehow lost its way and isn’t able to find it again without help.

Child with traditional body paint and beadworkThere are people trying to help, but the piece of the jigsaw which is missing is the person who can find markets for their production of Brazil nut oil. Without a viable long-term market, the village will never become self-sufficient, and its people will never learn the skills needed to make the best of their growing relationship with mainstream Brazilian culture.

We left A-Ukre with very mixed feelings. While it was good for Sue to be able to catch up, even briefly, with old friends, we couldn’t help feeling that the progress which the Body Shop project brought was limited and to some extent transitory, capable of being quickly reversed once the project ended. The village was never really able to establish a viable commercial operation, and they never had a chance to learn enough of the skills they need for the future during the life of the project.

As the plane gathered speed along the short landing strip there were tears in both our eyes. Because of the cost of the flight, the visit had been just a couple of hours, and for Sue this was painful. For me, although this was my first visit, I knew so many of the people from their photographs that I felt a mixture of regret for the village I had never known, and sadness for the difficult situation in which I found the village of today.

In the plane with the Caciques of A-UkreOur plane climbed over the riot of green that is the forest which the Indians still protect. What might happen if they were no longer living there was driven home for me as we flew over a huge bite eaten in to the reserve from its northern boundary. Our pilot explained that this area had been invaded by a fazenda (ranch) about ten years ago; it took until two years ago for the Federal authorities to enforce the law by removing the invaders. By then all the trees had been stripped. It will take a generation for the forest to re-colonise the land.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Paquissamba

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