We first discovered this work after it was submitted to the Visual Storytelling Awards 2014. Although it was not chosen as a finalist by the jury, the editors of LensCulture were impressed and decided to publish this feature article about it. Enjoy!
The Awa, the last nomadic tribe in the “Alto Turiaç u,” a reservation in the state of Maranhão, continue to live much as they have since they fled Europeans in the 1800s (when they adopted a permanently nomadic lifestyle). Yet despite having survived over the course of centuries, the Awa now face pressing man-made threats while even the natural landscape itself is no longer able to sustain to their way of life.
First: the fazendeiros, or ranchers are a major problem as the two groups often come to blows over territorial rights. Second, the threat of infection after contact with outsiders poses a significant threat to the Awa. For example, over the last five years, one in seven Awa died of malaria. The disease was brought to Alto Turiaçu by the thousands “garimpeiros,” or gold seekers, who invaded the Awa lands and later made a fortune on the international market. Elsewhere in Maranhão, trains come from Carajas, the world’s biggest iron mine, and cut through the Awa land multiple times per day. Recently, the Awa have been forced to seek assistance from FUNAI, a local non-profit group. As a result, some have chosen to live in shelters but they struggle to embrace this new lifestyle.
The Alto Turiaç u is only a small part of the Awa’s traditional land. The diminishing natural fauna pushed the nomadic hunters to learn how to plant and grow crops to insure a food supply, as the animals began disappearing. Still some Awa-Guaja persist in living in nomadic groups. In the Alto Turiaç u there is a small community of about 45 people. The FUNAI offers them real, but fragile, protection to continue their way of life.
“The Awa have been continuously threatened by attacks, invasion, and extermination,” the FUNAI said. “The FUNAI doesn’t have extra resources to protect them from the ranchers who are encroaching on their land. Since the forest has been cut back and transformed into farming lands, small towns have sprouted up over the Awa lands. In the face of these changes, the Awa numbers have drastically decreased.”
In a time where a nomadic lifestyle is increasingly difficult to maintain, the Awa struggle for survival. Despite their efforts to keep moving, they face the encroachment of the modern world at every turn.