He survived a massacre that killed most of his family in the Brazilian Amazon and lived for 10 years alone in the forest, but Karapiru Awá Guajá was unable to escape the pandemic.
Karapiru, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer Awá in the state of Maranhão, died of Covid-19 earlier this month. With only 300 Awá believed to remain, they have been called “the most threatened tribe on earth.”
In the 1970s, Karapiru lost almost everyone he knew in a genocidal attack on his tribe by settlers. His wife, daughter, brothers and other family members were killed and he was shot in the back. But her resilience became a source of inspiration for activists working to protect indigenous and uncontacted peoples.
The images capture his broad smile, but not the scale of problems he had in life.
Survival International, a group that works for the rights of indigenous peoples, describes the “extraordinary warmth of Karapiru and goodness ”.Awá villagers on a road built illegally by loggers through indigenous lands in Maranhão state. Photographer: AP
The Awá lands have been under attack since the discovery of iron ore in the late 1960s. The 2 km long trains on a 900 km railway built through the woods in the 1980s They pass a few meters from Awá territory on their way to one of the largest iron ore mines in the world. The scale of mining development extracted from the Amazon is such that it can be seen from space.
Skilled archers, the Awá live dispersed in family groups over a large area and travel at night using torches made from tree resin. Many have had no contact with the outside world.
Karapiru was estimated to be 75 years old when he died. The Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a Catholic NGO that works with indigenous peoples, reported his death as a “Covid-19 victim”, despite having received the Covid vaccine.
He died in a Santa Inês hospital in Maranhão and was buried in the municipality of Zé Doca, against the wishes of his friends, who wanted to bury him in Awá land.
I spent a lot of time in the forest. I was always on the run, on my own. I had no family to help me, to talk to
Karapiru Awá Guajá
Marina Magalhães, a linguist who studies the Awá language, became friends with Karapiru after meeting in 2001.
Magalhães says that Karapiru’s relatives told her that she had gone to another village in the months before her death to visit her son, Tamata. When he returned to Tiracambú, the people were protesting against a government bill that limited the demarcation of new indigenous lands. Villagers believed it was safe to meet during protests, even with people of other ethnicities, because they had been vaccinated. In Tiracambu alone, at least 12 Awás tested positive for Covid after the protests.
“He was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He liked to hug people, which is not a common Awá attitude towards non-indigenous people, and he often watched my work with other Awá from a distance, always smiling when I looked at it, ”says Magalhães.
“Karapiru, in my opinion, represents the best that a human being can be, due to his kindness and calm. Also, an example of how resistant we can be in the most extreme situations. “
The Awá depend on the forest. Their survival has been threatened by logging, mining and a 900 km railway that runs close to their land. Photographer: Bonnie Jo Mount / The Washington Post / Getty
Fiona Watson, Survival International’s research director, met Karapiru in 1992.
“I thought I couldn’t believe this man survived for 10 years alone, without talking to anyone,” he says. “He spoke so softly, he whispered, that it really shocked me because I thought, of course, that he had to become invisible in order to survive.
I hope that the same thing that happened to me does not happen to my daughter. I hope it is not like in my time
Karapiru Awá Guajá
“He started talking and smiling, and I thought, how is he not more traumatized? He knew that I was not [an enemy], he had no grudge, no bitterness. That amazed me. That magnanimity. What an extraordinary human being, to be able to forgive people in some way and to be able to get on with your life. “
Karapiru’s life was the subject of a 2006 award-winning documentary by Italian-born director Andrea Tonacci, called Serras da Desordem.
Madalena Borges from CIMI also knew him well. “Karapiru was peaceful, without malice, smiling, very friendly, receptive to everyone, soft-spoken. A great sage of the ancestral knowledge about Awá. Very skilled in the art of hunting and fishing, he went out every day in search of food for his family ”, he says.
Karapiru spent 10 years alone in the forest after a massacre that killed most of his family. Finally, she was reunited with her son and returned to an Awá community. Photographer: Fiona Watson / Survival International
Since the iron ore infrastructure opened the forests to loggers and farmers, the Awá people have seen their forests shrink as land is cleared for livestock. The noise of chainsaws and trucks has emptied the forest of monkeys, peccaries and tapirs.
“For the settlers, the Awá were an obstacle, a primitive nuisance, and they killed the Awá in large numbers,” according to Survival International. On one occasion, poisoned flour was left for the Awá to eat.
After the massacre, Karapiru spent 10 years alone, eating honey, baby birds, and sleeping in the branches of copaiba trees and among orchids.
“I hid in the forest and escaped from the whites. They killed my mother, my brothers and sisters and my wife, ”he told Survival International.
Forest fires in 2015 in Arariboia, Maranhão state. Arariboia is home to some 80 Awá and 12,000 Guajajaras, another indigenous people. Photographer: Marizilda Cruppe / AFP / Getty
“When they shot me during the massacre, I suffered a lot because I couldn’t put any medicine on my back. I couldn’t see the wound: it was incredible that I escaped, it was through the Your dad [spirit]. I spent a lot of time in the forest, hungry and chased by ranchers. I was always on the run, on my own. I had no family to help me, to talk to. So I went deeper and deeper into the forest. “
He walked 400 miles to the state of Bahia, where a farmer gave him shelter despite not being able to communicate with him.
Karapiru with his wife Marimia and their baby in 2000. Photographer: Fiona Watson / Survival International
Living on the farm, he tasted cassava, rice, flour and coffee for the first time. “It was tasty. It had more and more, it’s good,” he said later.
The authorities and anthropologists tried various ways to talk to him, but to no avail. However, when a young Awá named Xiramuku was brought in to see if he could communicate with him, it turned out that he was the son of Karapiru, who had also survived the massacre.
The couple moved to Tiracambu, a mountain town in Maranhão, home to an Awá community.
Karapiru remarried and began to fight for the rights of his people, opposing the anti-indigenous policies of the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, appearing in demonstrations with his bow and arrows, vulture and toucan feathers.
In an interview, Karapiru said: “There are times when I don’t like to remember everything that happened to me. I hope that the same thing that happened to me does not happen to my daughter. I hope he eats a lot of game, a lot of fish, and grows up healthy. I hope it is not like in my time. “
Watson took a photo of him and his new wife, Marimia, with their young daughter in 2000.
“I thought she was hopeful, she had this incredible positivity, she had a lot of charisma. I thought it was wonderful that he was planning his future, that he was getting married again and not only survived, but wanted to live well, “he says.
In 2014, the Brazilian government sent helicopters and police squads to drive out illegal settlers. But farmers and loggers have returned, emboldened by Bolsonaro’s policies.