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The extraordinary life of Karapiru | Expert network | Future Planet


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Karapiru (which means falcon), of the Awá indigenous people, lived most of his life in the community of Tiracambu, in the Caru Indigenous Land, in the Brazilian Amazon. On July 16, he died of covid-19 at the hospital in the town of Santa Inés. He was a man whose extraordinary warmth and kindness were especially striking, considering the heartbreaking life that “our” society offered him.

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His endurance and strength were pushed to the limit after armed rancher invaders brutally massacred his family in the mid-1970s, near the town of Amarante, in the Awá jungle now known as Caru, Alto Turiaçu, in the indigenous territories of Alto Turiaçu and Arariboia. As the sole survivor, Karapiru lived alone in the jungle for ten years. But at the end of this cruel journey, an unexpected joy awaited him.

The discovery of the largest iron deposit on the planet in the jungle of his people in Serra de Carajás, to the west of the Awá territories, at the end of the sixties, was the starting point of the destruction of their ancestral land (Alto Turiaçu, Caru and Arariboia, and intermediate lands).

Soon a huge mine about the jungle that was his home, in the State of Maranhão. To transport the mineral, a 900-kilometer railway line was built through the jungle – from the Carajás mine to Parauapebas, in the Carajás hills, to the port of the city of São Luís (Maranhão), and thousands of foreigners arrived to the area. For the settlers, the Awá were an obstacle, a nuisance that had to be gotten rid of. And so the murders and massacres began. Many died after eating flour mixed with ant poison: a gift from a local farmer. Others, as Karapiru witnessed, were shot in their homes, in front of their families.

Karapiru believed that he was the only member of his family who had survived to the massacre of his community between the mid to late 1970s, according to his story. The murderers killed his wife, son, daughter, mother, brothers and sisters. Another of his sons was wounded and captured.

Deeply traumatized, Karapiru escaped through the jungle with a lead bullet embedded in his back. “He had no way to heal the wound. I couldn’t put medicine on my back and I suffered a lot ”, told the Survival researcher Fiona Watson. “The lead burned me, I bled. I don’t know how it didn’t fill me with insects. But I managed to escape from the whites, ”he said, referring to his flight from violent settlers.

Karapiru believed that he was the only member of his family to have survived the massacre. Deeply traumatized, he escaped through the jungle and spent the next ten years on the run

Karapiru spent the next ten years on the run. He walked almost 700 kilometers through forested hills and plains, crossing dunes and rivers from the State of Maranhão to that of Bahia. He was terrified, hungry, and alone. “It was very tough,” he told Watson. “I had no family to help me and no one to talk to.”

And when the pain and loneliness got too strong, he would talk quietly to himself or hum as he walked. “Sometimes I don’t like to remember everything that happened to me.” More than a decade after witnessing the murder of his family, Karapiru was spotted by a farmer on the outskirts of a city in neighboring Bahia state.

After several unsuccessful attempts to communicate with him and find out what language he spoke, some workers at the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) They made one last effort: they brought in a young Awá named Xiramukû to meet him.

The encounter with Xiramukû was something that Karapiru could never have imagined during all the time he spent alone. Not only could the young man understand their language, but he used an Awá word that instantly transformed Karapiru’s life: he called him “father”. The man in front of her, speaking to her in her mother tongue, was her son. The young man who had survived the violent attack and had been captured by the farmers (farmers), he learned a little Portuguese, and when FUNAI found him, they took him to the Guajá Indigenous Post. In 1992, after more than 10 years apart, father and son met again.

Karapiru Awá photographed next to a river.
Karapiru Awá photographed next to a river.Survival International

Xiramukû convinced his father to go with him to the Awá community of Tiracambu, where Karapiru eventually settled and even remarried. Loved and appreciated, he became a central figure in the community. He was a father, grandfather, excellent hunter and teacher with unique forestry skills and incredible wisdom about the life he shared with everyone.

Driven by trauma, deep respect for the jungle and concern for the well-being of your uncontacted relatives, Karapiru was always ready to raise his voice alongside other indigenous peoples and demand the expulsion of illegal loggers and ranchers from the Awá territories, and more recently to protest against the genocidal policies of the Bolsonaro government.

He joined these protests with his bow and arrows, with vulture and toucan feathers decorating his arms, and wasting energy and affection with those around him and the life for which they fought.

Attentive and curious, Karapiru made a clear analysis of the people he knew and the difference between the invaders and the non-indigenous allies of the Awá. He always greeted visitors with affection, a contagious smile on his face, a confident pat on the chest and the greeting: “¿¿Carp, floor, floor? ” (I am Karapiru, all good, how are you?).

After presenting symptoms of covid-19, Karapiru was taken from the village to the hospital, where he was admitted in serious condition. He died on the night of July 16.

Priscilla Schwarzenholz works at Survival International, a global movement for the rights of indigenous peoples.

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