(Pic on the left) Hakani, who lived in the forest for three years after being abandoned, aged two, by her tribe. She was adopted by Marcia and Edson Suzuki
Babies born into some Indian tribes in the Amazon are being buried alive, a practice that is being covered up by the Brazilian authorities out of respect for tribal culture.The tradition is based on beliefs that babies with any sort of physical defect have no souls and that others, such as twins or triplets, are also “cursed”.Infanticide has claimed the lives of dozens of babies each year, say campaigners fighting to end the practice.Babies who are girls, who have some disability or who have unmarried mothers are all in danger of an early death in a shallow grave in the rainforest. Others are suffocated with leaves, poisoned or simply abandoned in the jungle.According to Dr Marcos Pelegrini, a doctor working in the Yanomami Tribe Health Care District, 98 children were killed by their mothers in 2004 alone.Campaigners say that the true figure is obscured by officials who often record cases of infanticide as simple malnutrition. At the same time, family anguish over infanticide has led to many adult tribal members committing suicide.Attempts to change tribal attitudes and counter official indifference are being led by a Brazilian couple, Marcia and Edson Suzuki. They have worked with one tribe, the Suruwaha, for 20 years.Mr Suzuki, the founder of a campaign group called Atini – Voice for Life – said: “We are fighting against doctors and anthropologists who say we must not interfere with the culture of the people.”Such attitudes are exemplified by Dr Erwin Frank, an anthropology professor at the Federal University of Roraima State in the Amazon. Speaking of the tribes, he said: “This is their way of life and we should not judge them on the basis of our values. The difference between the cultures should be respected.”Like other tribes, the Suruwahá considers that if a child has any deformity or disability, it does not have a soul and so – as an animal – should be killed.Some tribes also believe it is a curse to give birth to more than one baby at a time. In the Suruwahá tribe, a pregnant girl will walk into the jungle by herself to give birth.She then cuts the baby’s umbilical cord, buries the placenta and returns to the village with her child.Sometimes the woman will simply leave the child in the jungle to die if it is a girl or if she is not married.The Suzukis recounted the harrowing story of one girl, Hakani, who they saved from death and adopted.Born in 1995, Hakani – which means Smile – was still unable to walk or talk by the age of two, prompting tribal leaders to conclude she had no soul and to order her parents to kill her.They committed suicide – eating a poison root – rather than obey the order. Hakani’s 15-year-old brother was then told he had to kill her. He dug a hole to bury her next to the village hut, which is where the tribe usually buries animals, and hit her over the head with a machete to knock her out.However, she woke up as she was being placed in the hole and the boy found he could not go through with the killing. Hakani’s grandfather then shot her with an arrow. He was so upset he tried to commit suicide, too.But Hakani survived, although her wound became infected and she was left to live like an animal in the forest for three years.At the age of five she was very undersized, still unable to walk and abused by other Indians. She survived only because a brother smuggled food to her.The Suzukis begged Funasa, the Brazilian government’s health department, to let them take Hakani out of the tribe to get medical help.”Funasa could not help because their official view is to respect the culture of the people and let the children die. If we took Hakani out we could be sued,” said Mrs Suzuki.Warned that they could be responsible for the child’s death, Funasa eventually relented. Under the Suzukis’ care, Hakani was walking and talking within a year. While she suffers from hypothryoidism – an underactivity of the thryroid gland which affects brain development – she is able to attend a mainstream school.Brazilian politicians are currently debating a Bill to outlaw infanticide. It is known as Muwaji’s Law, named after a Suruwahá woman who refused to bury alive her own baby.