The release of new photographs of an indigenous group living in extreme isolation in the Amazon rain forest has stirred fresh controversy and new concerns over the fate of the region's so-called uncontacted tribes.
Taken last week from a low-flying aircraft in the far western Brazilian state of Acre (AH-cray), the images depict frightened tribal warriors brandishing spears and arrows as they peer up from palm-thatched huts in the middle of the jungle.
Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, has confirmed the presence of 27 indigenous groups living in extreme isolation in Brazil's vast Amazon region, making it the home of the largest number of uncontacted tribes in the world. (It's possible Brazilian forests may shelter as many as 84 such tribes.) After Brazil, Peru has the second largest number: 15. (Read "Last of the Amazon" in National Geographic magazine.)
The exact meaning of "uncontacted" tribe is a matter of debate, but experts agree that such communities have extremely limited contact with the outside world and that they survive in nearly complete isolation from the global industrial economy. Whatever contact may occur often takes the form of violent clashes—a dialogue of flying bullets in one direction and flying arrows in the other.
At least three such tribes live in isolation in the Upper Envira River region where the overflight took place. Officials from FUNAI told National Geographic that the flight was illegal, and an inquiry is under way to determine what crimes may have been committed by those responsible.
"The photographs were made without authorization," said Carlos Travasso, head of FUNAI's Department of Isolated Indians, the unit responsible for monitoring and protecting the country's last remaining uncontacted and isolated indigenous communities. "FUNAI is investigating to determine the motives for the flight and to see if we will take [appropriate] measures."
Reached by cell phone while traveling in the Amazon, Travassos said that the overflight, which was organized by an indigenous rights group sponsored by the Catholic Church, violated several government protocols for conducting aerial surveillance of Indians' lands.
"Walking a Razor's Edge"
But a journalist from the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) who was aboard the flight said it was undertaken at the behest of Ashaninka tribal leaders concerned over possible incursions by organized criminal groups and increasingly violent clashes with the uncontacted tribes that inhabit the region.
"It's like walking a razor's edge," CIMI reporter Renato Santana said, describing an atmosphere of tension and fear in the native communities of the Upper Envira River, along the border with Peru.
Villagers in Ashaninka and Kulina settlements told Santana that raids by uncontacted tribal nomads have been on the rise since FUNAI withdrew ground personnel from the region two years ago. The tribesmen rampage through the communities, making off with industrial goods—clothing, axes, machetes, aluminum pots. Villagers also reported several attempted kidnappings of women and children by the bravos, or "wild" Indians, as they commonly call their uncontacted brethren.
"Women are afraid to go into the forest to tend their gardens for fear of abduction," Santana said. "It's a delicate and complex situation."
Officials have long surmised that a heightened presence of drug traffickers and illegal loggers in Peru is pushing uncontacted tribal nomads across the border into Brazil, where they're launching increasingly desperate and brazen attacks on more acculturated, Westernized indigenous settlements. (See a related map from "Peru's Red Gold" in National Geographic magazine.)
FUNAI continues to monitor the isolated tribes with yearly overflights, Travassos said. Pilots are under strict orders to maintain a prescribed minimum altitude to avoid terrorizing the uncontacted people. In years past, officials also dropped axes, machetes, and pots from airplanes into the forest, hoping to sate the evident appetite for such commodities and head off possible clashes. The supply flights were discontinued in 2009.
A Mere Invention?
The photographs taken last week depict the same tribe that became a global sensation in 2008, when FUNAI officials released images of Indians in brilliant crimson body paint taking aim with their arrows at a circling aircraft. Government agents said they released those photographs at the time to counter assertions from pro-business politicians that uncontacted tribes were a mere invention of activists determined to halt exploitation of the Amazon's riches.
By chance, the CIMI-organized overflight coincided with a meeting between Brazilian and Peruvian officials in Lima, where the two countries agreed to strengthen cross-border monitoring of the volatile region to protect the uncontacted indigenous groups.
Critics say that weak governance on Peru's side of the lawless border region has served as a convenient excuse for Brazil's failure to do more to protect its most vulnerable indigenous populations. "Brazil cannot only blame Peruvian loggers anymore," says Felipe Milanez, a researcher at the Coimbra University's Center for Social Studies in Portugal. "The state oil company Petrobras is prospecting for gas in the state of Acre, and that is increasing pressure on the tribes as well."
In addition, the Acre state government is reported to have recently built a road straight into the remote region without consulting FUNAI or conducting any prior social or environmental impact assessment. Experts agree that road construction in the Amazon rain forest leads to land speculation, rampant deforestation, and grave risk to indigenous populations.
Pressure is also mounting on another isolated indigenous group far from the border region, in the central Amazonian state of Mato Grosso.
FUNAI officials painted a dire picture of the Kawahiva tribe, an isolated indigenous people whose few dozen surviving members live in a state of constant flight from loggers and land speculators who have invaded their territory.
Last year, officials released dramatic video taken by a FUNAI agent of his own near-encounter with the Kawahiva in the depths of the forest. Glimpsing the official, a woman screams "Enemy!" and takes off running. Officials say the Kawahiva view all non-Indians as mortal enemies, having experienced repeated violence at the hands of white intruders.
"The Kawahiva are gravely threatened," said Elias Bigio, former head of the Department of Isolated Indians, who serves as a technical adviser to FUNAI's Madirinha-Juruena Ethno-Environmental Protection Front in Mato Grosso. "There is enormous pressure from loggers, gold prospectors, land speculators. It's an area of conflict and intense timber exploitation."
FUNAI agents assigned to prevent intrusions are also living under threat of violence, Bigio said. "No one goes out in the field alone. We take precautions appropriate to the situation."
FUNAI agents raced against the clock last year to complete court-ordered anthropological studies required to establish a protected reserve for the Indians. But Minister of Justice José Eduardo Cardozo has yet to sign off on demarcating the indigenous territory, and Bigio fears the Indians could disappear altogether if the protections are not definitively implemented.
Brazil's constitution guarantees indigenous populations the right to the undisturbed use of their traditional lands and obliges the federal government to intervene to protect them. To that end, personnel from the Department of Isolated Indians undertake dangerous missions into the deep jungle to document the presence of uncontacted indigenous groups and seal off their lands from the encroachment of outsiders, who often bring violence and epidemic diseases against which the Indians have no immunological defense.
Business interests opposed to the demarcation of the Kawahiva territory have accused FUNAI of "planting Indians" on the land to keep it off-limits to development, Bigio said.
"There are no villains here," said journalist Renato Santana, referring to the strife between the Ashaninka and the uncontacted groups in Acre's border region. "What you have are different societies trying to coexist in a frontier region that is shrinking by the day."
Santana believes the flight gave Ashaninka elders a greater appreciation for the simplicity in which the isolated groups live, and for the precarious nature of their existence. "I have no doubt that the overflight will help avoid violence between the Ashaninka and the isolated tribesmen," he said.
Last Frontier of Human Resistance
Brazilian photographer Lunaé Parracho, who took the photographs for Reuters news agency, offered a more poetic remembrance of the experience. "I felt like I was witnessing the last frontier of human resistance," he wrote in an email from Brazil. "I believe that the existence of these people, and their choice to live in isolation, forces us to think about what is truly important and how far our own society is willing to go in the name of the dollar." (Related: "Rain Forest Warriors: How Indigenous Tribes Protect the Amazon.")
Both Travassos and Bigio say a lack of resources and trained personnel is further complicating the daunting task of protecting the tribes. "It's precisely at this time, when pressure on Indian lands in the Amazon is at an all-time high, that we need people who are capable of protecting these lands," Bigio said. "Unfortunately, we don't have adequate numbers to guarantee the integrity of these lands."
I grew up the son of missionaries in Africa, I have witnessed first hand what contact with "civilisation" does to isolated people. I was a boy that used to run and play with the indigenous boys, yet I was inadvertently responsible for their demise. By undermining their cultural values through health care, religion, infrastructure and our social values we kill a people who never return to the way they were but integrate into other groups and disappear forever. The murders that are committed by we who call ourselves civilised, the disease that we bring into the areas in the name of "progress" are just a portion of the total genocide committed by our "great" culture. We destroy culture and customs that have been developed over thousands of years in order to maintain these people's continued existence. This is the real genocide, the total assimilation of these peoples into our society. We take them away from their values and standards, then call them lazy and marginalise them because they can not live according to our values and standards, this after we destroyed their own. They are then relegated to slums and poverty where we call them a "problem" turn our backs on them and letting them disappear into obscurity.
What I have seen here is enough to convince me that these are an "uncontaminated" people. The fact that there is an aluminium pot in the photograph is just human nature and not proof of trade. The pot may have been found or "stolen" from a logging camp or other settlement because it is a more durable and useful tool than clay pots. This just proves to me that they are human and not animals.
First to the IDIOT Americans that keep commenting that these people aren't Indians, they are Indians. If you pea-brained fools had graduated high school you'd know that "Native Americans" are called Indians...
If it's hard - and you're getting east Indians confused with Indians - EAST INDIANS ARE CALLED EAST INDIANS.
They are NOT aboriginals. The term ABORIGINAL applies WIDELY to the natives that can be found in Australia.
Americans don't know squat for aboriginal culture.
Secondly - and this is to the brain deads - AMERICA HAS NEVER support aboriginal / native / indian cultures. EVER
We have alternatively tried to completely eradicate them as a culture / race through genocides.
We have isolated them onto reserves that are A TENTH or even A HUNDREDTH [and for some tribes, A THOUSANDTHS] the land that they once possessed.
We have DESTROYED their culture. For the numbskulls that don't know about residential schools I interviewed over a hundred people for my university project. The SHIT that "God obeying" Christians put aboriginals through would make you sick... and was really NO BETTER THAN THE NAZIs.
Burnt, raped, beaten, hands broken, fingers broken, shoved into a fridge and left there for hours until near hypothermia... forced to ignore your families. Beaten if you bothered speaking in your native language. Burnt. Lashed. Whipped.
Do you college drop outs want me to continue cause the list IS ENDLESS.
What is SO GREAT about modern culture that these people have to be sucked into a society full of worthlessness?
Better health care - man, the idiots that say that. Ever seen some of the documentaries on amazon tribes with the recently found in the 90s? There were plenty of OLDER people in those groups.
Better health care - yes, but these are tribes that have survived fine without ignorant modern society.
And look modern health care has DONE so much GOOD for African cultures.... I almost died laughing at the STUPIDITY of the people I read commenting better health care over and over again.
Just cause you losers can't survive without your internet, TV and cell phones doesn't mean everyone else needs it.
These aboriginal tribes will EXIST long after modern society collapses. After all studies have shown 45% of the dead beats in modern society can't survive and start panicking without their cell phones in a single day.... how utterly pathetic.
I am very concerned about these indiginious tribes in Brazil. They need to be treated gently and with respect. They are ripe for exploitation and are sure to be harmed. While it is so important to study them and their cultures, is this in contradiction to these goals? Who has ultimate authority over how they will be approached and dealt with? What are their motives? This is a very delicate matter that requires advance thought, care and ethics.
I don't understand why people care about how we call our "natives " ¬¬
the therm INDIANS is part of our culture.
Stop correcting something about an unknown culture...We have other things to care about in Brazil, like health, politic , violence...
Don't waste your time pretending to be altruist , if you really care about Brazil you wouldn't be here writing about how we call our indians. All you need to know is that Indian or Native, we love and respect them, cause they are our roots. Please respect us.
And think twice before correct something from other culture.
a floresta esta sendo devastada por madeireiras ilegais e fazendeiros de gado que matam os indigenas e ameaçam os meios de comunicação que tentam mostrar a verdade. o governo não faz nada porque muitos governantes são donos dessas madeireiras e donos dessas fazendas e se beneficiam direta ou indiretamente dessa situação. o brasil é o país da impunidade, as pessoas honestas são consideradas idiotas e os ladrões comandam tudo. essa é a realidade do brasil. e tem mais coisas absurdas que acontecem e o mundo não fica sabendo, estão gastando bilhoes construindo estadios e as escolas são um lixo...
They should be called as the real native "Americans" and not Indians -_- . And because of that, the government and the community should protect these natives because at the first place, they are the real Americans / natives. And, the government should not sell the land of the rainforest for business purposes because they are only balancing the peace and harmony and rule the place and they don't posses it. They are the legitimate heir so that's why they call any alien as enemy.
Just protect them and don't disturb them. Their tribes existed for how many centuries without our technology, in short, they are independent as they should be. Respect their rights in their own motherland and instead of contacting or studying them, protect them only. So, deforestation and illegal loggings should be stopped not within that area but also in the whole rainforest.
Sorry for the bad grammar and redundant sentences. =)
These isolated tribes should not be pushed out of their own land by business people who mistakenly believes, that they have "bought" the land from "the government". These indians have lived in the forest for many decades and it is a big mystery to me, how governments can believe, that they own the land sitting in a city thousand miles away.
People should keep fighting for these isolated tribes, and hopefully one day, when all nature ressources are used, animal species are extinct, the economy is broken and we all got lifestyle diseases, human kind will realise that we should have listen to the tribes. Tribes who have been living in harmony with nature for countless decades.
I just hope that concerned people should just let them continue living in peace and just protect the habitat that cradled their lives until the present ^_^ Just respect their community and do not "invade" their privacy...
Wow! This thread is full of trolls who don't even read the article first! And that behaviour is what is standing so firmly in the way of successfully protecting these people. Wake up, people. Aside from terminologies, these people need your attention. Without it, they will be gone. And Earth will be officially raped.
Please stop referring to indigenous people across the
Americas as "Indians". They are NOT Indians! The term is a
misnomer and CANNOT be interchangeably used with others that are used to denote
people from the region: native, tribal, indigenous, etc. It is ridiculous
to keep referring to these people by a term that has nothing whatsoever to do
with them even though historically they have been called so since the time of Columbus. It is time to
correct that mistake. I would expect better from a writer of Mr. Scott
Wallace's caliber and also from the National Geographic.
Please stop referring to indigenous people
across the Americas as "Indians". THEY ARE NOT INDIANS ! The term is a misnomer and CANNOT be interchangeably
used with others that are used to denote people from the region: native,
tribal, indigenous, etc. It is ridiculous to keep
referring to these people by a term that has nothing whatsoever to do with them even though historically they have been called so. It is time to correct that mistake. I would expect better from a writer of Mr.
Scott Wallace's caliber and also from the National Geographic.
@James Hunter I just wanted to say thank you for your comment. I truly agree with everythign you stated above. As an Anthropologist, it is saddening to read this article and makes me sick to my stomach. Furthermore, some of the comments made, regarding this article, are frustrating to read. In a way it makes want to cry to know that there are narrow-minded people who want nothing more then to the change those not needing to be changed. I am lost with words due to my frustration with the socially constructed ideas that have munipulated many people to think that we can only survive on the modern advancements of technology. Thank you again James, it gives me hope to know that there are others out there that are clear minded.
@Dry D. You retarded or something or just f*cking brain dead?
Cause the AMERICAS has NEVER respected aboriginals / natives / Indians in the 100+ years that we have alternated between trying to completely eradicate them to imprisoning them on reserves that at A TENTH of the land they once possess to destroying their culture.
Yes, we should definitely "listen" to these great people who have been "living in harmony with nature". And dying at 25 years of age, 30 for the lucky few, mostly of their teeth and other easily curable diseases. It's so superior to our way of life to live for a couple of decades in fear and ignorance enjoying none of the advances that the rest of humanity has to endure.
@Travis Merriman Thanks, Travis. The point is not whether we call them "Indians" or something else. The point is the reality on the ground in the Amazon right now, where these dramatic events are unfolding and where these people face imminent peril.
Posts? Or pots? The posts are things we like to call trees where I'm from.... The other things are pots.. Which if you had actually read the article you would know they said that they have dropped supplies down from planes and the tribes have raided more modern areas for goods and supplies.... Read the whole article before you criticize it.
@V S Thanks for your note. I use the same term used by those who are at the forefront of protecting indigenous rights in Brazil -- the Department of Isolated Indians, or CGIIRC. I understand your point. You may choose other terminology, call them Native Americans or Native Brazilians, but I do not see use of the term Indian as a sign of disrespect in any way. You can check with members of the American Indian Movement.
@Kriti Janarthanan Here in Brazil we call them "Indians" beacouse at the age of naval discoveries Colombo as was seaching a shortcut to India througout the sea, an reach the Americas. At the time, they think that here was the India, and called the natives "indians". That name is used until today. Study some history before calling people idot or stupid, or in the the end you will be.
@David Seabaugh Drop dead. The aboriginals have been around more than you have ever been, and they probably got more brain power.
What's so good about modern society except for sluts that can't keep their legs closed and worthless drunks?
Use what little brain you were born with before you speak. Those "poor" natives have been surviving for CENTURIES and they will probably exist LONG AFTER modern society collapses cause peabrains like you don't see the writing on the wall.
@David Seabaugh you're an idiot, what's so great about living to 100 years old if you can't walk, can't even go to the bathroom without help, wearing diapers as the rest of your family watch you waste away. We are not meant to live as long as we do, the majority of non-human primates live to between 20 and 35 years old with a few exceptions reaching older than 40. The only reason we live so long is because we're no longer fighting for our existence and we have advances medicines - non of which mean we have better lives or are happier people. You think some medicine, Ralph Lauren and Coca Cola will make these uncontacted natives happier and live better lives?
@Pedro Ponzo Hi Pedro. I agree that historically the indigenous people across the Americas have been called "Indians" due to a mistake in identifying them thanks to Columbus who, although knowing that he had not landed India, decided anyway to call the people that he encountered indios. However, now that we know Columbus was wrong we SHOULD NOT continue referring to these indigenous people as "Indians". The term is for people from India. India is derived from the Indus river where the Indus Valley civilization flourished and the people from the region were called Indians. What do the indigenous people in America have in common with those from India that they should be called Indians too? If Columbus went in search of China instead of India, would be be referring to the indigenous population in the Americas as Chinese instead?!!!
@Adam Cross. Yes, I absolutely do think that access to medical care would make them happier. By the way, are you 35 yet? If not, do you plan to follow your own advice and kill yourself on your 35th birthday? Also, just out of curiosity, why do people who think like you invariably go straight for the ad hominem attack? It's either extreme lack of confidence in your position, or you are a young child who has not thought out your arguments well.
@David Seabaugh Do research. Many of these people that have been taken out or pushed out of their natural habitat have died shortly after. Why do you want to help people that don't want to be helped. Are they hurting anybody? If this is their way of living then let them live it. For gods sake if you order something other than a subway club at subway I'm going to be pissed and demand you order what I order so we are the same!!!