September 2000, the Brazilian government was forced to pay nearly one million Brazilian Real (roughly $550,000) to the Panará, a tribe in the lower Amazon whose name means “big men”. 

This was after their near decimation caused by greatly increased contact with the outside world due to the Rodovia Transamazônica, a highway built directly through their territory in 1973. This contact led to many diseases being introduced into the tribe. They suffered from tuberculosis, malaria, measles and influenza and if that wasn’t enough, their culture was tainted by previously unseen issues such as prostitution and alcoholism.

They were brought down to a population of 79 before being forcibly relocated to Xingu Indigenous Park, where they were met with aggression by the tribes previously located there. The tribe’s members were forced to move seven or eight times in their 20 years there — losing even more people to battles and famine. 

After much suffering, the Panará began their legal battle in 1991 to reclaim their land and make the government pay for their great suffering. In 1994 the tribe began talks with the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio or FUNAI) and the Xingu Park leaders to return to their lands. Their previous lands were destroyed by loggers, cattle farms, crop farms and prospectors. However, there were 4,950 square kilometres of untainted forest along the Iriri River (their traditional lands). After two years they were returned to this land with the help of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and FUNAI.

Their five-year battle finally came to fruition, leading to written protection of their land which is now legally marked as indigenous land — meaning they have recognised ownership of it. However, this wasn’t the end of the court battle. They continued to fight for the government to make their plight right. As their suffering was more recent they had plenty of witnesses and evidence to aid their battle.

The Panará regained more than land and money. After being moved back to their land they saw a return of almost lost tribe traditions. They celebrate their survival and now live in relative peace, using newly returned land for hunting, gathering and farming. No major cases of flu have been witnessed in the community since whose numbers now exceeded 400.

This was the first case of an Amazonian tribe winning a lawsuit for damages, which opened the way for others. Most recent was the Ashaninka tribe [pictured in the headline] winning 20 million Brazilian Real ($3.4 million) from the Cameli family, whose timber company illegally deforested their lands.