Amazon Indians become refugees of conflict, loggers

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BRASILIA, Nov 17 (Reuters) Scores of Indians in the Amazon who traditionally roamed freely in the jungle's thicket are seeking refuge in Brazil from advancing guerrilla fighters, loggers and oil companies.

Indians from several tribes in Peru, Colombia and Venezuela have left behind ancestral grounds to live with distant relatives in Brazil. They are often stripped of basic civil rights and face problems with authorities, according to local Indian leaders and Brazilian officials.

On the upper Rio Negro river alone, in the far northeastern corner of Brazil, at least 400 Indians have crossed into the country to escape violence and recruitment by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, officials say.

''The FARC tell them: you either join or we kill your family,'' said Mauro Sposito, head of border controls with Brazil's federal police. ''It's looking pretty grim for them there, so they come over to our side.'' The FARC, Latin America's oldest insurgent group, seeks Indians mostly as guides in the jungle, officials say.

By walking across an often invisible border in the jungle they escape the threat, as the FARC rarely crosses over and risks facing Brazilian army patrols. The refugees live and work on their relatives' communal land -- there is no private property -- but life is not easy.

''They have no documents, so their children can't go to school and they don't get any other benefits -- they are not citizens here nor there,'' said Andre Fernando, director of the Rio Negro Indian Federation.

Others have been arrested by police for carrying Colombian documents without proper entry visas, Fernando says. He expects the number of refugees to increase in coming months because he says FARC forces have recently entered Venezuelan territory and are beginning to drive away Indians from there as well.

ADVANCING OIL AND TIMBER COMPANIES Nearly 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) southwest, other Indians, with little or no contact to the outside world, have taken refuge from advancing oil and timber companies in the Serra do Divisor national park in Brazil's Acre state.

''There may not be a war there but there are refugees whose lives are in danger,'' said Wellington Figuereido at the government's Indian Foundation Funai in Brasilia.

Two groups of isolated Indians from Peru, one with 100 members, ransacked settlements along the upper Envira River for food and clothing, Jose Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, who runs a Funai outpost along the border, said by telephone.

Meirelles fears violent clashes between the displaced nomadic hunters and gatherers with sedentary enemy tribes or rubber tappers on the Brazilian side.

''We are close to a disaster involving dead and injured -- we need to act fast,'' said Meirelles.

Indian Foundation Funai says it has alerted Peruvian officials but received no response.

Peru's President Alan Garcia said in October that oil exploration should not be held up because ''they created this figure of uncontacted Amazon natives -- presumed but unknown.'' Brazil offers refuge but also has its own Indians displaced by farmers, loggers and miners. Some face hired gunmen to reclaim their ancestral lands, others end up in overcrowded reservations or shantytowns.

''It's sad how little space there is in this vast continent for its original inhabitants,'' said Azelene Kaingang, a sociologist and a member of an Indian tribe from southern Brazil.


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