Illegal diamonds are the prize. But death in the Amazon rainforest is the price, as Indians, Brazilian miners, and a mysterious third party fight over the richest deposit in South America.
Night falls early in the Amazon. Through the darkness, the headlights of my little white rental car trace the outline of elaborate marble tombs. Close in front of me, the beams illuminate a solitary row of wooden crosses, the names stencilled on in black. Fifteen of the graves have only numbers.
This is the last earthly resting place of twenty-nine diamond miners, killed on April 7, 2004, by warriors of the Cinta Larga Indian tribe. Nearby, I see a wooden plaque on which someone has inscribed a miner’s epitaph:
In the game of life we all place wagers.
Of all that I had, I bet the most
important — life — and lost . . . .
I won the most valuable of all rewards —
the kingdom of God.
“Did you know them?” I ask our guide.
He nods. “Some of them were my friends. They were killed brutally.”
“Do you blame the Indians?”
“No. Not the Indians. They’ve been manipulated by some third. Someone who wants the diamonds to himself.”
He pauses. “For myself, I want to know who this third is.”
As do I. I had come to Rondônia in the wake of this deadly clash to investigate the conflict between diamond miners and the Cinta Larga Indians. The miners’ brutal massacre had been front-page news in every paper in Brazil. As reported, the storyline seemed straightforward: greedy miners, angry natives, incredible wealth on reserve lands, and the forces of law and order — as so often is the case on the Amazon frontier — too weak to intervene. That the violence could have been orchestrated by a third party had never crossed my mind. Not until this night, in the presence of the dead, in a graveyard in the midst of what had once been rainforest.
Flying from Rio de Janeiro, it takes about seven hours to reach the rainforest state of Rondônia, located next to Bolivia on Brazil’s far western border. Twenty years ago this was the front line of deforestation. Settlers poured in to fill the forest and subdue it. Sting and Greenpeace came and sang songs and waved banners — eco-green Canutes trying to whip back the human tide. A generation later, much of the forest has been cut, dried, and shipped abroad, or else burned to make room for cows. The eroding edge of the frontier has swept further north, leaving those in the backwash scrabbling over the scraps of treasure that remain.
In 1999, a lone prospector emerged from the jungle, his back a wriggling mass of fly larvae, his hands grasping a diamond the size of an ice cube. The stone had come from the Roosevelt Indian Reserve, two-hundred-and-thirty-thousand hectares of Amazon rainforest, intact only because, legally, it belongs to the one-thousand-three-hundred members of the Cinta Larga Indian tribe.
Named for the wide fibre belts they traditionally wore (cinta larga means “broad belt” in Portuguese), the tribe first came into sustained contact with the Western world sometime in the late 1950s. At the time, their population was about five thousand. Over the next two decades, disease, displacement, massacres by rubber tappers, and encroaching settlers reduced their numbers to just over one thousand. The tribe finally obtained recognized title to their ancestral lands in 1979: four reserves totalling 2.7 million hectares, which include the Roosevelt Reserve. In the 1980s, the demand for black-market mahogany reached Cinta Larga lands. Some $45 million in tropical hardwood was cut from their territory each year for the better part of a decade, according to figures from Brazil’s environmental protection agency, ibama. The Cinta Larga received but a fraction of the wealth.
With the discovery of diamonds, miners of every kind have poured across the Roosevelt River into Cinta Larga territory. International mining companies have been vying to set up operations with large-scale extraction machines and underground pipes. But the diamonds are so plentiful close to the surface that Indians and miners operating independently merely use their hands or high-pressure hoses to loosen the surface kimberlite.
Mining is illegal on Indian land in Brazil, by Indians and non-Indians both. But laws in Brazil are more often honoured in their breach. The Indians, at first, attempted to profit from the boom, charging miners a $5,000 entrance fee, plus 10 percent of their take. By 2002, the Roosevelt Reserve was home to a mining colony five thousand strong, complete with bars, brothels, Wild West-style gunfights, and miners with little inclination for paying fees or commissions to Indians.
The Indians asked the Brazilian Indian Agency, funai, to remove the miners from their land. funai complied, and by January 2003 most had been removed. The Indians then took up mining on their own, churning out an estimated $30 million worth of gems each month, sold illegally into the international black market. Lured by the easy riches, miners began filtering back into the reserve. The Indians removed them again. The miners went back in. Tempers began to fray. In early April 2004, miners fled the reserve, speaking of an attack by the Cinta Larga, of dozens, maybe hundreds, dead.
Within days, the Brazilian government had called in the army and federal police, who encircled the reserve and put the Cinta Larga under a state of siege. The head of funai said the Cinta Larga were simply defending themselves. But Rondônia Governor Ivo Cassol put the blame squarely on funai. The Indians said little, making themselves scarce and shutting down their own mining operations. When the federal police finally found the bodies of all the miners, the final count came to twenty-nine. The corpses, in various states of decay, were shipped north to Pôrto Velho, Rondônia’s capital.
Two months later, I am at the coroner’s office poring over a stack of autopsy reports.
“Most of the victims were like this one,” the coroner says, pointing to a photo of a man with the side of his face caved in. The weapon was likely an Indian club, what they call a tacapé or bodurna: a long wooden stick with a thick bit at one end.
“Is one blow enough to kill a man? ” I ask. “Oh, yes,” he says, surprised that anyone should consider death a difficult thing to achieve. “Swelling inside the cranial cavity cuts off the oxygen supply to the brain. The victim never regains consciousness.”
He opens more folders. Some of the victims had had their hands tied behind their backs. Four or five had been killed with bullets. Thirty-eight calibre. Also twenty-two. The coroner takes a bullet from a plastic evidence bag and places it in my hand. It’s cool to the touch, like a grape. Six were killed with piercing wounds, probably lances or arrows. Two were burned after death. Part of a ritual, maybe. Or to send a message.
Before I go, the coroner adds one final detail: most of the victims were eviscerated, their stomachs and intestines slit open from top to bottom. Miners, he explains, are accustomed to transporting diamonds in the digestive tract. “Someone must have been searching,” he says.
That afternoon, I climb up a set of rusty stairs to the office of cimi, the indigenous mission of Brazil’s Catholic Church. cimi doesn’t work directly with the Cinta Larga, but they do maintain a substantial file on the tribe, one that provides interesting insight into Rondônian politics.
Their files contain clippings from Rondônia’s two main newspapers, the Folha de Rondônia and the Diário da Amazônia. Both read like rainforest versions of the ussr’s old Pravda — practically every move, thought, twitch, and wiggle of Rondônia’s governor, Ivo Cassol, is the subject of laudatory headlines.
cimi’s legal counsellor, Maria Filipini, tells me there aren’t a lot of readers to support the press in Rondônia, so the newspapers’ financial survival depends on advertising from government agencies. In return, the governor demands positive coverage. Many of the stories, I notice, concern the governor’s strong interest in the Roosevelt diamonds.
It’s dark by the time I return to my hotel. I’m travelling with a colleague, a journalist for Radio Netherlands, Marjon van Royen. Out by the pool, I find her sitting with two older gentlemen. Their table is covered with silver ice buckets and half-empty bottles of Beefeater and Johnny Walker Red. One of them is wearing a shirt that reads “Polar Bear Diamonds.”
“Some fellow Canadians for you,” Marjon calls out. “This is Jeffrey. That’s Roger.” Introductions, apparently, are to be kept to first names. “Over there is Roger’s son, Jan.” She points to a younger man at a nearby table.
Roger, the one with the T-shirt, is from Calgary. Jeffrey speaks with the plummy vowels of British private schooling. They’re diamond prospectors, Marjon has discovered. They’ve just come back from the field. And what’s more, they’re celebrating — but what, we can’t discover. Every time we make a pass at the topic, they glance away. Marjon finally asks, straight out, what they’ve found.
Jeffrey sets his voice to extra plummy. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he says, “but we’re in a business where you really don’t talk about things.”
“Like prostitution,” says Marjon.
Jeffrey barks. It’s unclear whether he’s laughing or choking. “Yes,” he finally says. “How witty of you.”
I decide it’s a good time to seek out Jan, who seems oddly keen to impress.
“Jeffrey? ” he says when I ask about his father’s friend. “He was the head of DeBeers in Brazil for years. He knows everyone in Brasilia.” Jan leans in. “He writes Brazil’s mining legislation.”
The next day, Marjon and I head south on Rondônia’s one paved highway, the BR-364. Punched through the rainforest in the 1960s, it brought progress and settlers and the end of a million-year-old forest. Nowadays it’s a sea of potholes. A five-hundred kilometre drive takes nine hours of bobbing and weaving through a string of frontier cities with Indian names: Ariquemes, Jaru, Ji-Paraná, and finally Cacoal, our destination. At the office of the Indian Agency, funai, we are met by Orlando Castro Silveira, a bluff, friendly man with grey around his temples. He has spent the last thirty years in Rondônia, about half of that time working with the Cinta Larga.
Silveira shows us a satellite map of the Cinta Larga territory. The Roosevelt Reserve appears as a pretty green field of moss, one spot infected by a squirming pink worm — the mining site.
“We have five barriers up,” Silveira says, pointing to dirt access roads leading into the reserve. Each barrier is guarded by five funai agents and three Forest Police officers. “We do weekly patrols through the reserve — two 4•4s with five men each. In addition, there are two Indian families stationed permanently on the mining site.”
It sounds impressive, I tell him. Also expensive.
“There’s money enough in the budget to last to the end of the year,” he says.
“Brasilia will renew the budget.”
“But what, ideally, is your long-term solution?” I ask. “What’s your dream?”
He pauses. “My dream is for the government to do a special pilot project here. Allow the Indians to mine. Only Indians, only in the first two metres of soil. The thing is, they have had contact with the outside world. Not just through funai, but through miners, who have given them stuff. Now that they have cars and air conditioning, they won’t be going back to their traditional way of life. They need something that will let them join the modern world.”
“What’s your nightmare? ” I ask.
“Some big foreign mining company that comes in and gives the Indians royalties.” I tell Silveira about something Jeffrey had proposed back at the poolside in Pôrto Velho, that a foreign company could mine the diamonds without damaging the environment, leaving the Indians to carry on their traditional way of life.
“Indians can’t be like cows in the pasture,” Silveira growls. “They need to work. Give them royalties and no work, and they’ll spend it on alcohol and prostitutes, and never develop anything. If they’re going to remain a people, they need something to do to keep them in the village.”
I tell him I want to go into the reserve and talk to the Indians myself. “Difficult,” he says. You need to ask the chiefs for permission, when and if they come to town. They will have to take your proposal back to the village before they can give you an answer. Then we have to ask Brasilia.
It sounds very much like a “no.”
Leaving, I ask him which he thinks is more likely—his dream or his nightmare?
“There are a lot of foreign companies agitating in Brazil. Canadians,” he says, looking me straight in the eye. “Men who come from abroad with a suitcase full of money that they use to lobby the congress in Brasilia.”
“So which is more likely? ” I ask again.
There is one other route in to the Indians, through a Cinta Larga organization called Paerenã, located in the nearby town of Riozinho. The office administrator is not quite what I was expecting from a warrior tribe. Orlando Karitiana is super polite. He wears extra long, banana-coloured leather shoes, and he doesn’t so much walk as glide, as if he’s skating on a pair of overripe Chiquitas.
We ask about meeting the chief. Most unfortunately, he has gone for lunch. He should be back in just a tiny moment. With kindness, if we wouldn’t mind waiting?
Hours later, with kindness, we’re still waiting. We decide to try again the next day. Jouncing towards the highway, Marjon insists on stopping for cigarettes, so we pull up to a small store, a shack that faces the highway. Alert to accents, the storekeeper asks where we’re from.
“Canada,” I reply.
“Canadá,” he repeats, accent on the last syllable. “In buying diamonds? ”
What odd subset of Canadians has been traipsing through here, I wonder.
Up above the storekeeper’s head a sign is displayed: Sale of Alcohol to Indians Prohibited. Six months prison for offenders.
“Get a lot of Indians in here?” I ask.
“A lot of Indians,” he agrees. “Indians. Miners. Gringos. Lots of diamonds got sold right here on the porch.”
“The buyers. Where were they from?” I ask.
“Everywhere. Brazilians. Canadians. Jews. Japanese. Europeans. The whole world.”
Next day, we meet for lunch with the senior funai official in the area, Valdir de Jesus Gonçalves. In the aftermath of the massacre, a federal prosecutor was appointed to investigate the killings. I ask Valdir if the prosecutor has any hope of laying charges. The question sets him off on a tangent.
“The culture of the Cinta Larga is to kill without discussion,” he says. I must look confused, so Valdir elaborates. “Look, say we’re all Cinta Larga,” Valdir begins. “You, Marjon, tell me that Shawn is angry at me. That he plans to kill me. I won’t go and ask Shawn, ‘Hey, what’s wrong, maybe we can talk it out.’ I’ll go and kill him. No talk. No questions. No discussion. To ask or discuss among the Cinta Larga is a sign of weakness.”
But the only witnesses to the massacre are the Cinta Larga themselves, I object. “Won’t the Indians just say, ‘I don’t know who did it. I don’t know what happened’? ”
“No,” says Valdir. “The ones who did it will say, ‘I did it.’ They will say, ‘We killed the miners for a reason, and this is why we did it.’”
Under Brazilian law, Valdir explains, isolated aboriginals with little exposure to Brazilian society cannot be held accountable to Brazilian laws if they were acting in accordance with their own cultural norms. Whether an Indian qualifies as “isolated” is determined through the testimony of an anthropologist.
“The anthropologists can’t say the warriors didn’t have a reason, because they did have a reason,” says Valdir. “Self-defence.”
According to Valdir, there were about two-hundred-and-fifty miners in the reserve before the massacre took place. The Cinta Larga asked them to leave. A hard-core group of about fifty refused. The Cinta Larga warriors came to escort them out, by force if necessary. One of the miners made a com ment, something like, “Let’s get guns and come back and finish these Indians off.” Only two-thirds of the Cinta Larga speak Portuguese. One who did overheard the miner’s comment and told the rest of the warriors. Then the Cinta Larga reacted like Cinta Larga.
“I don’t think they’ll ever go to jail,” Valdir concludes.
That afternoon, Marjon and I drive back down the rutted roads to the Paerenã office. Orlando of the yellow shoes is still there, but this time so is the president of the organization, Chief Raimundo Cinta Larga. He’s a small broad man in his twenties, who speaks Portuguese in awkward, choppy sentences. His aide, Julio Surui, who speaks fluent, elegant Portuguese, does most of the talking.
“We see ourselves as alone,” Surui begins. “We didn’t see it as a massacre. We saw it as self-defence. The same as if Brazil was invaded by another country.”
In 2000, he explains, when the miners first came in, it was good for the tribe. They made money. Some of the Cinta Larga worked with the miners and learned how to mine for diamonds. Then some Indian women were raped. Indian men were attacked and threatened. Between 2002 and 2003, the Cinta Larga held a series of meetings, culminating in a grand tribal council in May 2003. They decided, as a people, to remove the white miners and carry on mining themselves.
“Now the Federal Police want us to turn over our warriors,” says Chief Raimundo. “This we will never do.” Here Raimundo stops, as if there’s nothing more to be said. His aide jumps in again.
“In Brazil, many people are angry at us,” says Surui. “We want Brazilians to understand that this land for us is like our country. The miners coming in was like an invasion. If Brazil was invaded and its soldiers killed the invaders, would this be called a massacre? This is what we want the Brazilian government to understand. We want them to stop searching for our warriors. We want them to stop saying we are killers and bloodthirsty.”
What about bringing in a big foreign company to do the mining, I ask, changing the topic to what might lie ahead for the Cinta Larga.
“We want to exploit minerals to support our people, not to get rich. If there are resources inside our land, we want to develop them,” says Surui. “We want to struggle to make our lives better. We know that if we let them enter, we will lose our country, our identity, our culture. They can’t make us accept something we don’t want.”
The foreigners might at least give you decent prices, I counter. I’ve heard stories of diamonds worth millions being sold for almost nothing.
“We need the support of the government on this,” says Surui. As long as selling their diamonds is illegal, the Indians will not be able to negotiate a fair price for them, he says. “What we want is for the government to make it legal.”
Built atop the remains of an old Indian village near the edge of the Roosevelt Reserve, Espigão d’Oeste is the ultimate outlaw settlement. It’s a town with six sawmills and almost no legal sources of wood. And it is home to thousands of miners with no legal places to mine. Espigão’s central square, however, is a civilized wonder — laid out like a Baroque garden with palm-lined walkways that converge at the centre where there’s a tall sploshing fountain.
On April 10, three days after the massacre, a mob of angry miners dragged an Indian schoolteacher named Márcio Cinta Larga to the centre of the pretty square and lashed him to a tree near the fountain, threatening to lynch him despite his denials of any involvement with the massacre. It took a delegation of police more than twelve hours to talk the miners into cutting him free. A few weeks later, a fourteen-year-old Cinta Larga boy, on his way into Espigão to visit his white girlfriend, was shot dead by a trio of miners bent on revenge.
Today, a lazy Sunday afternoon when Brazilians typically sit sipping beer and watching soccer, it takes little time to locate a small outdoor bar with a pair of miners happy to talk about their work.
Antonio is short and black and wiry, and has been mining for twenty-five years, all over Brazil, for everything: rubies, gold, diamonds. He has been two years here in Espigão digging for diamonds. “Indians around here,” he says, “they don’t drive little economy cars, they drive big 4x4s. Bows and arrows, that’s all for show, for the media. They have automatic weapons. They’re rich.”
What’s the biggest diamond he’s seen? “One-hundred-and-twenty karats, wasn’t it, the diamond of Panderé,” Antonio says. “It was sold for three million here in Rondônia.” About $1.3 million Canadian. “That’s the biggest I’ve heard of. But you see lots of thirty carats, fifty carats.”
How is all the buying and selling done? I ask. Are there guys wandering the streets with suitcases stuffed with cash? “In the beginning, yes,” says Antonio. “Nowadays, a miner who has something meets with a buyer.”
“In a house?” I interrupt. “In a bar? Where?”
He looks at me. Pauses. “Somewhere,” he says.
I shut up and he continues. The buyer has a look at the merchandise. A price is agreed upon. The money gets wire-transferred into the miner’s bank account. Then, and only then, are the diamonds turned over.
At the moment, however, with the police barricades up, and the Indians on guard, Antonio is not doing any mining. “I won’t risk it,” he says, “but there are some who do. If they catch you, you lose your life.”
Another younger miner, Paulo, has been listening to the conversation and chooses this moment to jump in. “I went in eight days ago. I got almost as far as the mining site. Then the Indians caught me. They gave me to funai. funai gave me to the Federal Police. The police took my name, made me promise not to go back in. Then they let me go.”
“Will you go in again? ” asks Marjon.
“Of course. It’s the only option I have.” “The government will do something,” adds Antonio. “The governor promised we’d get back in working, like before.”
Ivo Cassol, state governor of Rondônia, has had a lot to say about the Cinta Larga, the miners, and the Roosevelt diamonds. Before the massacre, he was quoted in various newspapers, saying that the diamonds could not be left to the Indians, alone. After the massacre, he had “raised his voice to those who cry for justice” in “solidarity with the mothers, wives, and sons of those who had been massacred.” Opportunistic blather by a local politician, I had thought — until after my next appointment, the one that ended with a visit to the miners’ graveyard.
The meeting takes place at the second-floor office of the Espigão surface miners’ union. Marjon and I troop up the stairs to find the president, Celso Fantim, and the entire union executive waiting for us. These men are darker, grimmer, angrier.
“The system we had before worked fine,” Fantim declares. “It worked fine until someone’s eyes got too big.”
“Who got too greedy? The Indians? ”
“No, not Indians,” he says. “Whites. Indians are like children. This kind of thing is beyond them.” Then the conversation takes an unexpected turn. “They’ve been manipulated by some third party,” he tells us, “someone who wants the diamonds for himself. This third — that’s who is behind the massacres.”
I had heard rumours of a third, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of more than one massacre.
There have been three, Fantim tells us. “One in October. Five miners were killed. Seven more killed in December. Then this one, in April. Twenty-nine dead.”
When I ask who is behind it, Antim guesses. “A multinational, maybe. Or a politician. We don’t know yet.”
Before we leave town, the president insists we visit the graves. It’s well after dark, but a guard swings open the tall iron gates so we can bring our car up close to illuminate the gravesite. The miner who has guided us here speaks once again of a third party who is manipulating events.
His words suddenly cast a different light on everything I’ve seen so far. I had thought this was a straight forward conflict between miners and Indians. But maybe there was a third party, manipulating the miners and Indians both, for his own hidden ends. Maybe the truth was buried deeper.
The next day, we stop by the Paerenã office in Riozinho. I tell Orlando about our visit with the miners, and how they had told us they believed someone else was behind the conflict.
“Of course,” he says. “The governor.”
If the governor really was the third party, I wanted proof.
“I have photos,” says Orlando. He fetches a thick manila folder and pulls out articles from Rondônia’s two governor-backed newspapers. An article in the Folha do Rondônia on September 7, 2003, is headlined, “Without support, Indians starving.” It features a photo of Governor Cassol with three Cinta Larga chiefs, Pio, João Bravo, and Raimundo. According to the article — bylined “Assessoria”— the governor was invited to the reserve and witnessed misery and hunger, despite the vast diamond deposits beneath their land.
All lies, says Orlando. They didn’t invite him. They weren’t starving. He broke the law by coming.
Technically, that’s true, I think. No one is allowed to visit an Indian reserve without an invitation. But if that is the governor’s only crime, it’s trivial.
Then Orlando hands over a second document, a statement by Chief João Bravo, stating that the governor’s real purpose in coming was to offer a deal. He, the governor, would build health posts for the Indians, and primary schools, and asphalt the roads inside their reserve in return for the right to put twenty mechanized diamond extractors on Indian land, “to recover the state funds expended.”
In other words, Governor Cassol was proposing to use state resources to bribe the Indian leadership to allow him to illegally extract diamonds from Indian land.
If true, it’s explosive. It means Governor Cassol is the third party, a corrupt politician manipulating his own constituents while conspiring to break the law — the self-styled defender of the miners manoeuvring behind the scenes to steal the diamonds for himself. When the Indians turned him down, the governor got very angry, Orlando says. He took away the state Forest Police who had been guarding access points to the reserve.
I check the date of the meeting: September 6, 2003. One month later, five miners were killed, the first of the three massacres mentioned by the mining president the day before. The governor, so-called friend of the miners, has been using them as pawns in his own ruthless game.
I ask Orlando who it was that actually heard the governor make the illegal proposition. The Cinta Larga chiefs, he replies. “Pio. Raimundo. João Bravo.” Coincidentally, João Bravo is at this very moment visiting the funai headquarters in nearby Cacoal.
I race over to funai in the rental car and find Chief João Bravo going out the door. He’s a small man with a sizeable pot belly, but something about him, some gravitas, prevents me from blurting out my questions. Instead, I ask him how old he is, and about the changes he’s seen in his time.
“I am fifty-one years old, thanks be to God. When I was young, I didn’t know white men. We didn’t have cities here. We didn’t have Cacoal. We didn’t have Espigão. We didn’t have anything. Gora, the god of the Indians, said the white man would come. They would bring sickness. White men came by a river. Then a plane came. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a bird. Helicopters came and threw bombs. Killed many Indians. Maybe ten thousand Indians. Nowadays there are few Indians. I don’t know why white men do wrong things.”
I tell him I’ve heard about the meeting with Governor Cassol at his village. “Did the governor offer schools, health posts, and roads in exchange for the right to put extractor machines on the reserve? ”
“The governor proposed to offer schools, roads, and health clinics,” he says. “We didn’t accept to let him go ahead.”
“Did he offer this in return for mining rights?” I ask.
“It’s like this. He wanted to put in his equipment in return for services he said he would do. The people didn’t accept and he got mad and took away the guards from around the reserve.”
“The governor took out the police to escalate the situation, to allow more miners to enter? ”
“He let the miners enter to make the people suffer,” says Chief João.
“How do you feel about white men? ”
“Today, thanks to God, I accept white men,” he says. “Previously I did not like the white men. My father was chief when the white man first came. Many came. My father killed one, sent the rest away.”
He pauses, looks at me.
“My father cooked the leg of that white man,” he says. “I ate some.”
“How did it taste? ” I ask.
“Too salty,” he says.
Ivo Cassol comes from a family that made its money in wood-cutting, sawing, and selling. Since coming to power in 2002, Cassol has run Rondônia as a family enterprise, installing his wife, father, sister, brother, and seven other close relatives in key posts throughout the state government. “I would have hired more,” he told the Folha de São Paulo, “but I ran out of relatives.”
I doubt the governor’s response to the Indians’ allegations will be as glib. Interviewing him, however, means navigating five-hundred kilometres back up the BR-364 to Pôrto Velho. Before beginning the drive, we pick up some local newspapers. Marjon spots a small back-page story in the Folha de Rondônia. Governor Cassol will be a guest of the Folha that very night at something called the Expo-Jipa in Ji-Paraná, only two-hundred kilometres from where we are now.
Four hours later, we’re in the office of the Folha de Rondônia, where we introduce ourselves as journalists covering the economic development of Rondônia, in search of a few quotes from the governor. One of the editors invites us to meet Cassol at the newspaper’s tent around nine p.m. that evening. While we chat, we ask him casually about the stories his paper runs that are bylined “Assessoria.” It’s a package of prepared stories that arrive daily, the editor says, from the governor’s office. The owner of the paper, who also serves as editor-in-chief, chooses which of the government-written stories to run. They go, unedited, straight onto the front pages.
Expo-Jipa, it turns out, is an agricultural fair. There are stands selling Rodeiro barbed wire, Husqvarna chain saws, Michelin tractor tires, and Salmax: “the ultimate in animal nutrition.” As we are leaving the cattle auction, we spot the governor in his trademark white Stetson, doing an interview at the local TV station’s pavilion. He has the journalist’s microphone in one hand. His other hand is slung chummily around the man’s shoulder. Journalism, Rondônian style.
When the interview ends, Marjon and I introduce ourselves and ask him to state his name for our recorders. “I am Ivo Narciso Cassol, governor of the State of Rondônia, Brazil.”
“We saw in the paper, Governor, that you visited the Cinta Larga Indian Reserve on September 6?”
He replies that he tried to enter the reserve with a film crew “to show to Brazil that there was illegal exploitation of diamonds in our region,” but the Indians didn’t let him in. But in the end, you talked to the chiefs, right?
“Absolutely,” says Cassol, eager to make a speech. “What’s going on is that we’re living in a rich country, our Brazil, but unfortunately we live bowl-in-hand, begging alms from other countries because we don’t have the right to exploit our own riches. As governor, I don’t agree with this. We have the right to exploit our wealth.”
You also said that you saw the Indians suffering hunger and misery?
“No, this is not the truth, I did not say this, no.” His tone becomes sharper. “On the contrary, you created that on your own account.” Except that articles written by his own aides have him saying he saw widespread hunger. Governor’s lie number one.
But in the Folha, it was written as a piece done by the Assessoria, and the Assessoria is yours, right?
Cassol is suspicious of us now, and getting angry. “I think you are trying to create something that you can sell outside to the world, something that doesn’t exist here,” he says. “If you want to hear the truth, that’s one thing; if you want to create facts, that’s another.”
The Assessoria, he says, has nothing to do with him. Governor’s lie number two.
We continue to press: You offered to build schools and medical clinics for the Indians, right?
“All the indigenous areas have to have schools, have to have health clinics. They are civilized people. They live in our society. It’s not just — to be in such a rich country, with an indigenous area that rich, and not be able to exploit that wealth.”
Why did you offer to put twenty mining machines onto Indian land in return for schools and clinics?
Ivo Narciso Cassol, governor of the state of Rondônia, looks hurt. “I would at least like for you to show me respect,” he says. “I would prefer you to not do what you are doing, because you’re not respecting me.”
“You know your proposal was illegal,” I say. It looks like he is getting ready to run. “Why did you take away the Forest Police after the Indians turned down your proposal?” I ask.
As he tries to walk out, I block his way.
“Are you going to let me speak?” he says.
I give him some room.
“You people didn’t have the courage to preserve anything. So, you of all people have no right to come here making demands of us,” he says. “I don’t have machines in the reserve. I never have had. I don’t need them.”
That, at least, is true. But it implies that he never asked to install twenty diamond extractor machines. Governor’s lie number three.
He walks off. We chase after him, but a group of large men interpose themselves. One grabs Marjon’s microphone and rips off the foam cover. Police come, demand to see our identification, and then officially cast us out of Expo-Jipa.
Seven more hours on the pot-holed highway takes us back to Pôrto Velho. Another seven hours in the air takes me back to Rio de Janeiro. As this article was going to press, Raimundo, João Bravo, and twenty other Cinta Larga chiefs made their own long journey to Brasilia, to speak to the Attorney General about the case against their warriors. They also planned to meet with the Minister of Mines and Energy about resuming their diamond mining.
With them, they brought a concrete proposal: the Indians would do all the digging, but to allay the government’s concerns about tax evasion and contraband sales, the Cinta Larga would agree to sell their entire diamond production to the government.
The Ministry of Mines, however, refused to even meet with the chiefs. Chief Raimundo believes the government already has a plan in mind. “They have their own company that they want to put on our land,” he says.
The Attorney General also turned them away.
In Rondônia, Orlando of the yellow shoes had told me the Cinta Larga had laid a formal complaint about the governor’s illegal proposal with the local federal prosecutor, the same one charged with looking into the deaths of the miners. So far nothing has come of it, but then neither have the Cinta Larga allowed the prosecutor to arrest any of their warriors.
On the frontier, laws are more often honoured in their breach. Very soon, legally or not, the Indians are going back to diamond mining.