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Doctor in the Amazon: contact with Europeans has often brought disease and death for the world's indigenous people.

In 1954, an outbreak of measles hit the Indians who lived along the southern reaches of the Xingu river, in the interior of Brazil. 112 people died--one in five of the population of 600.

`The Indians had not known measles before,' says Roberto Baruzzi, Professor of Preventative Medicine at the Federal University of Sao Paulo. `It destroyed their whole way of life. There was no one to plant, no one to hunt.'

Baruzzi has devoted over 30 years to trying to prevent such tragedies. Since 1965 he has visited the Xingu region four times a year, with a party of doctors, nurses, dentists and medical students. The Indians' memories of 1954 have ensured them a warm welcome.

Baruzzi's work is part of a wider initiative to protect Brazil's indigenous peoples, launched by the explorers Orlando and Claudio Villas-Boas. They first encountered the Indians of the Xingu region in 1944, when they took part in a military expedition to open Brazil's interior to exploitation. When they realized how vulnerable the Indians were to European diseases and to attacks from unscrupulous settlers they campaigned for the government to set aside an area where the tribes could live, undisturbed, in `their own civilization'.

The Xingu Indigenous Park--Baruzzi dislikes the term `reservation'--was established in 1961. It now covers an area larger than Belgium and provides a home for 17 tribes. Its population in 1854, when its inhabitants were `discovered' by a young German doctor, was 2,500. By 1975, it had sunk to 1,600. Today it stands at 4,000.

Baruzzi finds this `small increase encouraging. `At one time it was feared that the Indian population of Brazil would vanish,' he says. When Europeans arrived in Brazil, there were between two and five million Indians living there. Today, after four centuries of conflict, epidemics, slavery and massacres, Brazil has an estimated 300,000 Indians belonging to 240 tribes.

It is Baruzzi's `sincere conviction' that genocide has never been Brazilian government policy: the problem has been one of invasion of tribal areas. He cites the north of Roraima, close to the Venezuelan border, as an example. `About five years ago an aerial survey discovered that the region was rich in gold, uranium and other minerals. There were some 20,000 Yanomani Indians living on both sides of the border. Suddenly the area was invaded by thousands of prospectors. The army and airforce pushed the prospectors and miners out, but it's such an enormous area that as soon as their backs were turned, the invasions began again.' He reckons that northern Roraima is the only area today where Indian numbers are declining.

Everywhere else, he says, there is a `slow but definite increase in population'. This is partly due to the government's policy of protecting the Indians: the Xingu is one of several indigenous parks, and only the third largest. A more secure environment also means that Indian families now have more children. `In the past, Indians were hunters and had to defend themselves against enemy tribes. This imposed limits on family size.'

The medical aid given by the Sao Paulo Medical School (EPM) has also helped. In the past, lack of primary health care often meant that Indians died young of simple, curable illnesses. `Those who made contact with Indian tribes in past centuries often observed that there were few old people.'

In the early days Baruzzi's teams visited the Xingu Park to study health conditions, register each patient and give vaccinations. Other medical services have since been provided by the government, but now budget cuts prompted by Brazil's economic problems have led to the withdrawal of government health officers from the indigenous parks. The EPM teams have had to take up the slack.

Every year, the EPM provides intensive training for `indigenous health agents', young people selected by their villages.' They learn how to diagnose and treat simple illnesses, and how to set up a laboratory so that they can detect early signs of malaria, for instance. `This means that there is a constant health presence in the villages,' says Baruzzi.

He sees modern medicine and traditional medicine as parallel disciplines, working together in mutual respect. `When we arrived, we found that the Indians' traditional medicine was highly developed. Our thinking has been to respect their ways, but offer them our medicines--every human being has the right to vaccines and antibiotics when they are needed.'

If one of the EPM teams visits a patient and finds the medicine man already on the job, they ask if they may stay and watch. `Then we offer our skills. Sometimes it works the other way around, with the medicine man arriving while we are giving treatment. There is no conflict.'

Baruzzi was in London on his way to New York to attend a benefit concert given by the rock star Sting in the Carnegie Hall. `Sting came to Brazil and met Raoni, a chief of the Caiapos. The Brazilian government told him that they recognized the Caiapos' right to their lands, but did not have the money to mark out an indigenous park for them. Sting set about raising the money, and the park was established.'

Baruzzi has a high regard for Sting, and believes that international pressure has an important role in the defence of the Amazon and its peoples. `If we work together, we can reduce the destruction.' he says. He sees international aid--such as the X-ray machine donated by Philips for use in the Xingu--as a form of restitution to the Indians from those of European descent.

In 1965 Roberto Baruzzi was a young, ambitious doctor with the world before him. The invitation to work in the Xingu appealed to his sense of adventure. He finds a similar response in the students he involves today. `There's real enthusiasm: to participate is a point of prestige.' And, he adds with pride, the former Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Sao Paulo and several heads of department all started their careers with him in the Xingu.
COPYRIGHT 1996 For A Change
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Author:Laurie Vogel
Publication:For A Change
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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