The Brazilian government has just issued a Temporary Measure (Medida Provisória) (MP) which will allow a group of Indians 15 days to sell diamonds which have been mined on their lands.
Basically, the government is creating an amnesty – diamond mining on Indian reservations is illegal in Brazil so the diamonds are really not supposed to exist.
The MP is thus an attempt at a quick fix for a tense, complicated situation which has frequently spiralled into violence between the Indians and diamond prospectors in the past.
The group of Indians in question, known as the Cinta Larga, live in the Roosevelt Reservation located in northwestern Brazil and seem to be sitting on top of the world’s biggest diamond reserves.
It is estimated that there could be as much as 15 times more diamonds in the Roosevelt Reservation than there are in the world’s biggest known diamond mine, which is located in Africa.
Diamond mining in the Roosevelt Reservation could be worth as much as US$ 3.5 billion annually.
The Indians who live there are known as Wide Belt (Cinta Larga) because they usually wear a kind of wide belt made from the bark of a tree around their waist.
Their first contact with white men, who were Indian Foundation (Funai) frontiersmen, occurred in the 1960s. At that time it was estimated that the Cinta Largas numbered around 5,000. Today they number 1,300. The reservation they occupy covers 2.7 million hectares – more or less the size of Belguim.
Diamond prospectors have worked (always illegally) in the reservation for decades. But the area is far away, remote and very difficult to reach, so the prospectors have worried little about the long arm of the white man’s law (which is very short in this case, anyway).
But they don’t worry about the Indians at their own risk. The Cinta Larga have risen up and attacked prospectors many times over the years. The most recent occurrence was the massacre of 29 miners in April of this year that shocked the nation and spurred the government to take action.
Today’s MP is part of that action. The measure does not legalize mining, but sends a strong signal of government interest in finding a solution for the problem (legalizing mining in Indian reservations would require a constitutional amendment).
Cinta Larga Indians are already reportedly turning in raw diamonds in their possession to government authorities.
Pursuant to the terms of the MP, revenue from the sale of the diamonds will revert back to the Indians. Funai also reports that mining equipment is being removed from inside the reservation.
However, the president of Funai, Mercio Pereira, warns that there is a downside to this because legalized mining on the Indian lands could cause social, cultural and even political problems.
He points out that the Indians could be overwhelmed by a sudden influx of money. Pereira says the problem has to be studied carefully by Funai, anthropologists and the Indians themselves.
Translator: Allen Bennett
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