By Raymond Colitt
BRASILIA, April 18 (Reuters) - Hundreds of tribal Indians have camped out in front of Brazil’s Congress to protest infrastructure projects that they say threaten the survival of tribes already struggling with disease and land disputes.
From women clad only in grass skirts to youngsters in jeans and T-shirts, the Indians came to Brazil’s capital this week to present their demands to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Many feel that Lula, a leftist former union leader, has let them down. He shelved most of their requests for land in his first term as president and proposes infrastructure projects that threaten their livelihood in his second term, they say.
"This administration is harming not helping us. How would you feel about a gas pipeline or a road through your back yard," said Uilton Tuxa, coordinator of Indian tribes from Brazil’s northeast.
The four-day protest ends on Thursday, when Brazil marks the history of its indigenous people with an official Indians Day.
An economic stimulus package announced by Lula in January foresees 10 dams, eight power lines, seven roads, three gas pipelines and two railroads in the Amazon region alone, according to the environmental think tank ISA.
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Indians fear the projects will bring more loggers, wildcat miners, pollution and disease to the Amazon rainforest. Many tribes are already struggling to survive.
"If they don’t take immediate measures, my people may be decimated in 20 years," said Jorge Marubo from Javari valley in the western Amazon, a vast and isolated refuge for Indians.
Ninety percent of the 4,000 Indians there have malaria and more than half have some form of hepatitis. Nearly 40 died of disease last year.
Similar crises face many of the 170 ethnic groups totaling between 450,000 and 750,000 people in Brazil.
"Malaria and miners are back, my people are dying," said Davi Kopenawa, leader of the Yanomami people in the northern Amazon.
At the camp outside Congress, Indians huddle under streams of black plastic sheets at night and gather in a big circus tent for discussions and performances during the day.
The rhythmic sounds of a fertility dance by the Guajajara tribe were drowned out by heavy traffic and by union and landless protesters vying for attention from politicians.
The Guajajara from northern Maranhao state protested against the planned construction of a dam in their region. "They’re taking our trees and soon our fish," said Ana Celia Guajajara, lip stick and ragged lace dress embellishing her sun-cracked traditional head-to-toe tattoos.
Marcio Meira, who heads the government’s National Indian Foundation but is not an Indian himself, told the crowd he would "fight on the side of the Indians."
But Jecinaldo Cabral, a coordinator of Amazon Indian groups, says he has heard such talk before. "He has good words but he and Lula need to act if they want to say Indians are their friends."