Andrea Berardi

The Open University, Department of Engineering and Innovation
Milton Keynes, UK

Missão Tirio

Field Report n°1

October 24, 2011

This is a personal account of fieldwork experiences from a COBRA project member, Dr. Andrea Berardi, who took part in an introductory meeting with Amerindian chiefs in October 20-22 2011.

Project Cobra – Creative Commons

Macapa, Brazil, 24 October 2011. (…) We took an early morning flight to Missão Tirio. The flight took much longer than usual as a result of strong headwinds (three hours instead of the usual two), but was actually a pretty smooth ride with spectacular views of the rainforest below. Arrival at Missão Tirio was surprising in many ways. Considering the extreme isolation, the amount of infrastructure was impressive. The presence of the Brazilian Air Force and the Franciscan mission has allowed the construction of concrete houses, including a school, a meeting hall, a clinic, a church, accommodation, and a dining hall, all arranged around a rectangular plan. Further infrastructure included a micro-hydro electric generating station with associated dam, a sawmill, a mechanical workshop, and a brick-making factory (now abandoned). Although the hydroelectric power station was not operating due to low water levels in the reservoir, there was constant electricity supply throughout the infrastructure thanks to a diesel generator. More traditional Amerindian houses were randomly dispersed around this complex. The whole thing seems to be centered around the support of a number of non-indigenous individuals: two ageing Franciscan monks, a nurse, several teachers, a driver, several NGO representatives and a small number of support staff (a cook, etc). There was little evidence of Amerindians taking on management/administrative roles apart from several indigenous teachers in the local school. One complaint from the indigenous leaders, for example, was that even the driver was non-indigenous.

The two days at Missão Tirio were spent participating in the General Assembly. Unfortunately, the first day was significantly disrupted by the non-appearance of the governor of the state of Amapa. There were significant expectations for his arrival, and there was reluctance to start proceedings without his presence.

The General Assembly eventually got started around midday. The majority of the General Assembly was spent with Amerindian chiefs outlining a list of grievances, with a significant focus on education, health, ‘retirement pensions’ and infrastructure. The impression was very much a continuation of the ‘assistentialist culture’. The discourse went along the following lines:

Amerindian chiefs: “we are poor/desperate Amerindians and you (state governments, health institutions, educational establishments etc) are treating us very badly — you need to give us teachers, nurses, medicines, infrastructure, fuel, boats, radios, pensions for old people, etc”;
State apparatus: “we will promise you all sorts of things in the future”;
Amerindian chiefs: “you always make us promises, but it never happens”;
State apparatus: “it’s not true, here is a long list of things that we have actually done for you, but when things don’t work out, it’s never our fault — it’s the fault of another institution”;
Amerindian chiefs and State apparatus together: “okay, from now on we must work in partnership”

I got the impression that few practical action points were identified and that often arguments went around like a stuck record, with constant repetition of the same point by various parties. Although many individuals from both sides recognise the dysfunctional nature of this relationship, everybody was reluctant to raise this explicitly in public. It will certainly be a challenge for the COBRA project to engage with a different discourse — one which will attempt to reveal what the communities are doing for themselves. However, there was plenty of evidence of community owned solutions, even in this highly westernised settlement.

Our component of the General Assembly under the “environment” topic was relegated to the very final afternoon of the event, by which time many chiefs had left for their villages. When it was our turn to introduce both the COBRA and Bio-monitoring project, we gave a brief introduction and then I introduced our project through a simple analogy which I was hoping people would understand. I gave the example of a bird species which one commonly finds in the savannas of Brazil, which when approached near its nest, pretends to have an injured wing. However, as soon as one tries to capture it, it flies into the sky. I suggested that the Tirio-Kashuana tribes may have a similar approach, in that during the General Assembly many grievances were raised, but that our project was not about “whites” providing yet more support. Instead, our objective was to identify and disseminate solutions that the Amerindian populations had devised themselves. What our project could offer was an exchange of viable solutions amongst Amerindian communities, and to make sure that the profile of these Amerindian populations would remain high on the international agenda, so that they would not be forgotten amongst other pressing demands. The response from the Amerindian chiefs was impressive. The bird analogy confused many to begin with, but through various repeated explanations, it must have struck a chord in that a strong debate followed exploring the example — with many chiefs asking for clarifications. Several chiefs stood up to present their interpretation of our objectives in the Tirio language, and further debate ensued (…)



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